In July, the Institute published a case study by Sean Williams examining how a financial services company used media measurement and content analysis to gauge the impact of financial turmoil on its brand and reputation. (See: Sean’s intent was to provide a factual description of news media impact on reputation, and to provide senior executives with guidance for communication strategy and tactics. Now, more than six weeks after publication, we asked Sean to reflect on his paper and to summarize key findings.

Media still matters. The research shows vividly that the news media has measurable impact on many aspects of business communication, including direct mail response, reputation management and brand attitudes and disposition. During the period covered by the research, social media was deemed irrelevant to the subject company – this finding, today, would likely be unthinkable, given that social media expands in use and influence every week. The number of people reached by media every day, however, still dwarfs active social media. The key is to have strategic objectives for both media: traditional and social. In fact, the need to set concrete objectives is arguably the most important lesson I learned from this research.

Speak business, not PR. Most senior executives do not discuss public relations in the same terms as those of us in the practice. We too easily slip in jargon – “reach,” “opportunities to see,” or even “impressions” borrowed from our marketing brethren. But these terms do not speak to the effectiveness of our media program, they merely describe our audience. It doesn’t help, either, that different measurement suppliers use different terms for these metrics, making it hard to compare results.

No system is “ready to roll” the moment we begin using it. The news clippings need to be coded, either by automation or people, and that process is heavy with bias and requires our intervention. Narrowing our focus of media outlets is very helpful – segregating media sources by geography or influence makes it much easier to understand the potential impact of our efforts. This goes double for social media, where the sheer scale of outlets can be overwhelming. We need to be prepared to invest our time and skill in making the system right – and that means having a clear understanding of both our communication and business objectives.

No system is foolproof – neither you nor it can account for every possible factor. Organizations will have people ready to encourage and support efforts to be more data-driven, even as others find fault and question your findings. Correlation is not causation, and often wider research into brand awareness, attitude and disposition will be needed to present a full picture of the impact of your communication strategy. Remember that we’re trying to make progress, not jump directly from “monitoring” to “financial return on investment.” As long as we’re clear about expectations, we’ll be fine.

Social Media is no panacea. We know that the creation of social networks – and the action of dialogue within these communities – has a solid theoretical basis in public relations. However, we just don’t have a large enough body of objective research on the action of social media on business objectives. As practitioners, we need to monitor the social media multiverse for what’s being said about us. And we need to think through, strategically, what we’ll do with that information once we have it!

Today’s masters of measurement are working through the maturation of best practices into standards, and must take care not to stifle innovation, but to give guidance to practitioners on whether or how the processes work when social media is the agent of creation, support, enlargement and participation in our society.

Sean Williams
Member, Commission on Public Relations Measurement & Evaluation
CEO, Communication AMMO, Inc.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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