Looking for Evidence: New Measurement Approach Turns Old Tactics Upside Down


Measurement is the bread and butter for communications executives, as this professional population is constantly on the lookout for tangible ways to quantify their efforts and, in turn, get buy-in from the powers that be (clients, senior management, investors, etc.). But measurement inherently implies an end point of some sort; it's the "thing" that happens when all is said and done, and it's time to crunch numbers--or is it? A growing number of communications industry leaders are shaking up the concept of measurement, moving it from the back end of an initiative and making it the proverbial prequel. Think of it as evidence-based communications: the act of shaping strategies around hard facts and research that's gathered before the planning stages begin. "Evidence-based public relations is the child born from the marriage between measurement and experience," says Mark Weiner, CEO of Prime Research North America. "Drawing from other professions, we can see the importance of a 'body of knowledge,' which is the 'evidence' [part of the equation]." Weiner points to the medical profession to make this point more salient, noting that advances are made through trial and error, and the intelligence gathered in the process defines future methods and approaches. Law is another field in which precedent shapes decisions. Why should the PR discipline be any different? "For some reason, the research that supports evidence-based public relations has become more commonly used as a means of evaluation rather than as a foundation for planning and strategy development," Weiner says. "As a result, significant resources are wasted and wasted again because there isn't an adequate amount of attention being paid to the discovery and preliminary research steps." Mike Daniels, managing director of Report International, seconds this sentiment in the context of market research's relationship to measurement. "Sadly, market research often doesn't fit at all into measurement and analysis efforts as far as communications professionals are concerned," he says. "Communications management tends to undertake a very limited range of research: research specifically to create headline stories; journalist audits to identify process issues with the press room/staff; occasional reputation measurement studies among key stakeholders; and, for internal communications, employee surveys." While the idea of evidence-based communications and robust research needed to create a body of knowledge is still more theoretical than practical, it's worth considering. Here are some ways to get started. *Work within your comfort zone. Think of market research as the training wheels to the evidence-based communications machine. It's a function most organizations have/have worked with, and it's a good place to start gathering information. Plus, because market research is very industry/audience-specific, it gives executives a defined space to work within. That said, you have to know your industry and your audience to get it right the first time. "Best practices can only be identified in relation to the specific type of research you want to conduct," Daniels says. "Customer satisfaction is different from brand tracking is different from reputation measurement." *Remember that hindsight is always 20/20. The whole premise of evidence-based communications is taking information garnered from past experiences and applying it to future endeavors; that requires actually learning from those who have gone before you. "One benefit of evidence-based public relations is that lower-risk, higher-performing campaigns can be planned and deployed," Weiner says. "By tracking one's own past performance and that of the competition, one can avoid mistakes that might otherwise be repeated. *Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Evidence shouldn't be used to completely tear down a strategy and start building it again from scratch (that is, unless the strategy was completely disastrous); rather, it should be considered in the context of what worked. "One can improve efficiency by exploiting the successes of others by simply tweaking rather than reinventing what has worked in the past," Weiner says. *Think in terms of your target audiences. In today's world of stakeholder empowerment and loss of control over messaging, reaching a specific audience in a meaningful way is the basis of successful communication. That translates to the theory of evidence-based communications as well. Terry Heymeyer, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and senior counsel at Pierpont, cites cluster factor analyses as a statistical technique that can help communications executives segment audiences based on natural similarities. Having this information before you approach a campaign will help you develop strategies that, once executed, will produce measurable results. (For more information on cluster factor analyses and other research techniques, see PRN 01-21-08, "Market Research: Planning, and a Little Math, Go a Long Way.") *Embrace the future of communications. Thanks to all things digital, there is no shortage of data about any given audience. By incorporating digital communications channels into your overall approach, you will naturally gather information about the people who are interested in your organization (based on those who visit your Web site, comment on your blog, join your social network, etc.). Don't overlook this gold mine when developing messages and strategies. Ultimately, getting your feet wet in the world of evidence-based communications will give you nothing to lose and everything to gain. "There isn't a CEO who doesn't appreciate the desire for and dedication to research and continual improvement," Weiner says. "Evidence-based public relations through the research-and-application process delivers efficiencies, results and a positive return-on-investment." PRN CONTACTS: Mark Weiner, weiner@prime-research.com; Mike Daniels, mikedaniels@reportinternational.com; Terry Heymeyer, ttghemeyer@aol.com

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