Musings and Scribblings – Notes from a Flipchart!

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Measuring public relations

Over the past couple of weeks, I have had several discussions with clients on measuring public relations. If they take my recommendations, how would they measure ROI, they ask.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that everything can be measured – certainly at least benchmarked, if not dollarised.

Many practitioners believe that it is not always possible to draw a direct connection between PR activity and business results. As a practitioner on the agency side, I have had occasion in the past to convince my clients that PR outcomes cannot always be dollarised and it is devaluing the practice if clients try to push for measurement, especially if a PR campaign is highly strategic.

However, having worked on the client side, and having had to justify my budget asks every year, I think it is high time PR consultants begin their recommendations by identifying the expected outcomes, and  how these will affect the business. If they can identify ways that their efforts can be measured, they will find it easier to convince their clients to give them the budgets they need because their clients would, as a corollary, be in a stronger position to get budget approval by justifying  ‘asks’.

PR practitioners do not do themselves any favours by saying that you cannot always measure outcomes. In lean economic times, PR budgets which cannot be justified are the first to cut and when budgets shrink, so does PR headcount. Sales teams, while rigorously measured, are also much safer than the corporate communications teams, because they are purely about revenue generation. PR teams should learn from this.

If we begin our recommendations with an assessment methodology which will tell clients if our communications efforts have been successful, we are more likely to be more stringent with our recommendations, and devise campaigns which speak to particular issues, and particular business results. And subsequently increase our contribution to the clients’ businesses, as well as our reputations as trusted advisors.

To my mind, that is one of the best indicators of PR success because no business will invest in something that does not yield business results, one way or the other.

Of navels and key messages

Having been around the block a few times with various marketing teams, I find that there are very few companies out there willing to invest properly in creating effective, differentiated messaging – with the emphasis on ‘differentiated’. Too often, as a consultant, I hear people telling me – but we talk to our customers all the time, we know what they want.

In our most intimate relationships, we know that we sometimes soft soap the truth so as not too hurt feelings. Here in Asia, where sometimes causing someone else to lose face is a huge taboo, not telling it like it is is par for the course. So why is it that so many people say they know what their customers want? And if they really did know, why aren’t they closing more sales than they are?

Navel-gazing is  the latest corporate short-cut – understandable in the current economic climate but really, rather short sighted

I would like to suggest that more of an investment in terms of market research is called for – and I don’t mean an intern surfing the internet to see what’s out there. It is always (I think) worthwhile investing in an objective, blind or even double blind study to get a sense of the lie of the land, at least to benchmark your go to market plans. I have conducted numerous studies myself to benchmark messaging and positioning – and there has not been a single instance where I did not get an ‘aha’ moment.

With good planning, this study could be good for up to 2 years. Isn’t two years of certainty (or as much you can get these days) worth investing in, rather than navel gazing and second guessing?

This single exercise could yield huge dividends – in terms of corporate strategy, product development strategy, marketing strategy and yes, differentiated messaging.

For when you communicate in a way that sets you apart from the competition, you are memorable. And isn’t that the name of the game – to be set apart so that customer remember what you stand for, and that (hopefully) is something that they want in a product/service/partner?

I train corporate spokespeople and communicators in message development, and sometimes we are grasping at straws for differentiated messaging – simply because we don’t have data to build a message platform. And when the leadership  team of a company cannot articulate why their product/service is better than the rest, we’ve got problems.

The world is changing right before our eyes – companies we once thought inviolate are slowly, painfully crumbling. We would have bet the farm on Citi a scant year ago, but today, the sun rises daily in a world where Citi is teteering on its foundations.  Now, more than ever, research is called for, because we really can’t see beyond our own noses and objective research is the best thing we have to navigate by.

Of digital conversations and internal marketing

When the internet was the best thing since sliced bread – a decade ago – marketers all round the world could not wait to deploy their online marketing campaigns to target millions of customers, both current and new.

Today, ironically, as I reflect on why I am such a believer in the use of digital communications in internal marketing, I realise it is because this medium’s single best value proposition is the basis of its promise years ago – the ability to build intimate relationships with many, at the touch of a button, at the fraction of the cost of a traditional direct mail campaign.

Conversing with select, discrete communities is a key strength of online communications

Conversing with select, discrete communities is a key strength of online communications

What makes the online medium more powerful is that groups of people can interact with each other, sharing information and shape perceptions almost as and when information hits the ether and travels across the world in a heartbeat. The challenge for digital communicators is to influence the ongoing conversation and to manage the noise.

What’s the difference between how we perceive the online medium today, compared to a decade ago?

Firstly, today we recognise that to see it as a means to build an intimate relationship with millions of people is oversold. It is a great means to pull these millions into the shade of the corporate brand umbrella but greater intimacy is still elusive.

However, using the online medium to communicate with discrete, known audience communities – to employees, particular customer sets (such as premium customers, or all customers who like the colour green, for example) and partners – is coming into its own, especially with social networking sites being leveraged by marketers.

For companies whose products and services are costly and take months to install – such as all kinds of infrastructure vendors – a site for project teams to share information and learnings is a useful platform to smooth the implementation process. A simple blogsite would do the trick here.

Second, we have realised that no matter how powerful, or cool, there still no substitute for face to face communication, or more tactile interactions with products and services. The online world will never replace bricks and mortar – well, at least not in my lifetime, simply because human beings still want to be able to see, touch, smell, hear and talk to gather experential knowledge. Part of this is because there have been instances in the past where the digital face presented to the world was not all it was purported to be – hence, online interactions are therefore tinged with some sceptism. So, traditional marketers can breathe easy.

Last (at least for this post), we have realised that to build an intimate relationship with many, a huge investment is needed – if not financially, then certainly in terms of resources to keep the conversation going. One side-effect of the pervasiveness of the internet is impatience. People can so easily click out that if new information and answers are not available almost immediately – certainly within 24 hours at the very most, a relationship opportunity is lost. And, like most relationships, it would take more to recover, than simply to build it from scratch. Thus, to keep budgets manageable, marketers and communicators have scaled back their audience targets, and campaign parameters.

Bottom line? The digital medium has emerged as the ideal platform for internal marketing. Staff audiences are discrete, profile-able based on their HR records, have implicitly given their permission by joining the company, and have a stake in the company and its business. Plus, most companies at least have email, thus they can be communicated to. If they have an intranet, then the stage is set for internal marketing campaigns to influence corporate culture, staff perceptions and behaviour.

Eye on the 8 ball

I read today of how both the CEO and chairman of Alcatel-Lucent had left the company, in the wake of increasingly poor business results. I sympathise with the people who are working with the company. A scant 18 months after a merger that threw the organisations of he two companies into turmoil, the staff of the new company are now basically leaderless. (The news report did not say who would be running the company in the interim.) I can imagine the uncertainty eating into the ranks.

Communications at this point in the company’s history would be critical. Poorly done, it would only mean staff might experience a crisis in confidence in their top executives, and more than that, begin to exhibit unproductive behaviour, such as standing around water coolers (or what passes for these in the Alcatel-Lucent offices) discussing job security.

This is where what I call strategic confidence comes in and it has two parts – first, when executives take communicators into their confidence, confiding in them strategic business issues and second, when their see this confidence paying off in terms a communications program that makes a positive and lasting contribution to corporate branding.

Communications really only begins to pay off when corporate leaders take their communicators into their confidence. Until this happens, corporate communications is very often more of a tactical function. And while communications does not influence the actual business decisions,  the communication of those decisions becomes more effective when PR professionals are kept in the loop as early as possible.

This gives them a strategic perspective of the business at the helicopter level, and all its associated issues. The savvy communicator can then identify potential communications pitfalls, prepare executives for any negative (or even positive) fall-out, and even leverage these in the ongoing effort to protect and build the corporate brand – in front of both internal and external audiences.

Only when this type of ‘strategic confidence’ exists at the highest ranks of the company can communications live up to its promise with strong, multi-layered programs to support the business and corporate direction. This type of PR practice usually comes from experience, from a strong business focus, and the ability to ‘link minds’ with executives. One kind of confidence leads to another, with the result being great communications, as opposed to merely adequate.

Back to Alcatel-Lucent. Their communications team in their Paris headquarters would certainly have seen this latest announcement looming, and at the very least, would have been briefed prior to the press announcement. They  would have put in place a tactical campaign to control the fallout. But if they had been involved strategically, well before this announcement, or if their communications leader were savvy enough to see the writing on the wall, a program would already have been in place to evolve and hold staff attention away from the executive floor and water cooler gossip – and on ‘business as usual’

Image Issues?

Top dog or Underdog?

ARE you worried about how other people see you, or your company? Maybe you have received feedback from customers which is not exactly complimentary and which affects people’s willingness to do business with you, or buy your products?

Or perhaps you just have a niggling feeling that all is not as it could be.

In complex re-positioning campaigns, PURE Communications will run an audit among key audience sets to determine how clients are perceived. There are various methodologies to be deployed, depending on the nature of the information required, size of the audience set, and the client’s budget. There is no one-size-fits-all, and the questionnaire is developed to encourage brutal honesty, with a check and balance mechanism to test and verify information within the context of the audit.

The audit could be of particular executives, company’s products, businesses, or its competive positioning. Ideally, it is always part of a strategic perspective on how the client’s reputation management program will be rolled out.

Among other objectives, an audit is used to benchmark the communications campaign. At regular intervals, smaller audits are conducted to assess whether or not the campaign is on-strategy, so that adjustments can be made. Some clients prefer to do a major audit every year as part of campaign planning year-on-year. For companies with a complicated business, this approach means that investment into communications can be made based on facts and data on the several parts of the business. Guesswork never serves anyone well and in fact, every audit yields information which comes as a surprise to businesses.

Efforts are made to give the client a double bite of the cherry by identifying information that could be unearthed by the audit that might be interesting to some of its key audiences. This information can then be given ‘legs’ and used as fodder for a communications campaign.

Top dog or bulldog? An audit could very well confirm your worst suspicions, or even reveal that you really are just a big fish!

An Attitude of Apreciation and Joy

Pure Communications is a business that places authentic, appreciative communication at the heart of everything that it says and does. We feel that good communication has transformative power, which can lift relationships to the next level, increase team and business effectiveness and imbue individual lives with an ineffable joy. We find our own joy in working with clients in a meaningful way, facilitating honest, open conversations with the people who matter to them - and thereby, making a real difference in they way they operate and succeed.