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The Waterline in Research & Measurement

Most of us have seen Titanic and the source of its demise.  If you haven’t seen it, perhaps you’ve seen an iceberg on the Discovery Channel, on a bottled water commercial, or on one of those marginally corny corporate motivational posters that were all the rage in the late 90s.

In any event, picture an iceberg.  Why?  Because, as a former crisis communication colleague explained, it’s a fitting visual meant, in this case, to explain the relationship between the media and stakeholders.  More specifically, the media are above the waterline and all other stakeholders are below.  This delineation is meant to symbolize the comparative size and, in some potentially controversial cases, priority of the media versus stakeholders.  Particularly in a crisis, but in an increasing number of non-crisis situations as well.

OK, now you have the iceberg visual in mind.  Now think research and measurement in communications.

Above the Waterline:  Media Research & Measurement
Media relations has, historically, been THE foundational tactical approach to PR.  PR has become so much more than that, of course, but it remains pivotal.  The industry spends a fair amount (some might say disproportionate) of time here.  So, it’s important that media relations efforts be measured.

ResearchMedia Content Analysis, a method for turning the qualitative into strategic actionable quantitative data—has been available in some cases for quite some time (CARMA, Cormex) and in some cases has seen more recent market entrants (CPRS-conceived MRP and MediaMiser).  They all effectively fill a particular niche or value proposition in the market and all can look back to establish a benchmark, then track on an ongoing basis going forward.  Thus they can be used, as any research method should, from both a pre-campaign formative and post-campaign evaluative perspective.  They all provide some form of data.  They all tackle the ‘how much’ and ‘how good’ question but the ‘with what effect’ goes largely unanswered.  Some of these providers, however, look at correlating media coverage with awareness, opinion.

To be clear, I’m talking about correlation not causality.  Proxy not proof.  Correlation demonstrates that there is some (albeit statistically valid) relationship between the two but not proving that one is exclusively driving the other.  That—causality or proof–can be done, and consumer packaged goods companies in the U.S. are doing it, but it’s an entirely different level of research altogether.  (Stay tuned for another article on that)

Below the Waterline:  Researching & Measuring Stakeholder Relationships
Still, even if we are correlating media coverage with awareness, opinion, or reputation drivers, there’s more to communications than media relations.  Particularly in an increasingly ‘direct-to-stakeholder’ world.  Traditional media isn’t and never will be unimportant, but it is in some cases becoming less central or a less exclusive tactical element of a campaign.

Stakeholder, influencer, key opinion leader relationships are everything in this business.  So if the industry is investing time and money in initiating, building and maintaining relationships with stakeholders for mutual benefit (which sounds like a pretty classic definition of PR to me), then there sure better be a way to first diagnose the situation, respond to it, then measure success.   There is.  Methods exist to quantifiably benchmark and tracking the quality of stakeholder relationships:  (customers, interest groups, investors, employees, vendors, government officials, etc.) over time.  It’s used to establish a diagnostic benchmark, build a campaign around addressing gaps, and measure again for lift.

Other research methods that could be used both in a pre-campaign formative and post-campaign evaluative sense include:

  • Perception audits
  • Communications audit research
  • Employee research:  engagement, alignment, support, motivation, trust, loyalty, satisfaction, etc.
  • In-depth external audience research: awareness, opinion, attitude, perception, trust
  • Quantifying and tracking organizational expressiveness: how effectively and organization communicates with its audiences, how emotionally appealing organizers are to those audiences
  • Corporate social responsibility research:  awareness, transparency, credibility, perception
  • And the wholly grail, reputation: what’s driving your reputation? How do you compare to others? How does media coverage correlate?

Collectively, as an industry, we’re doing a healthy job at researching and measuring above the waterline but the industry gets cold feet when it considers sticking a toe below the surface.  But pressure to do so is mounting.  Increasing pressure for the industry to demonstrate accountability and prove it’s contributing to the bottom line will only grow, and acutely so, in this troubling economy.  In a world that is commonly intuitive and arts-based, research and measurement can play a critical role in helping organizations do the right things to the right audience at the right frequency with the right desired effect and prove that we’ve done so.  We need to get below that waterline.  Can’t afford to, you say?  Can you afford not to?

Alan Chumley, Director of Communications Research, Leger Marketing, is an instructor of communications research in the PR programs at Ryerson and McMaster Universities, an associate member of the CPRS measurement committee, as well as an industry speaker, conference chair, and blogger:


I think you made some good points in your post.

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