It’s not what we do, it’s whether it works

1 Jun

Measure what matters Book review: Measure What Matters: Online Tools for Understanding Customers, Social Media, Engagement and Key Relationships by Katie Delahaye Paine. Wiley.

Let's start with one of the author's anecdotes from her own practice experience.

"I spent millions of dollars each year writing, designing, and producing pieces of paper that were supposed to make my sales force more effective," she writes. "Whether it ever worked was never questioned, it was what we did."

She's right. The emphasis in public relations practice has traditionally been on what we do, not on whether it works.

This is true of public relations practice. What doesn't or shouldn't change are the principles behind the practice. Now for another quotation from the author:

"The future of public relations lies in the development of relationships, and the future of measurement lies in the accurate analysis of those relationships. Counting impressions will become increasingly irrelevant while measuring relationships and reputation will become ever more important" (p 219).

This quotation is from the conclusion to the same author's 2007 book, Measuring Public Relationships. She cites it again in this new text to point out that what was true then remains true now. Four years ago is not a long time, of course, unless you live in Twitter time.

This book succeeds in reconciling two distinct challenges. On the one hand, it has to demonstrate mastery of the new tools available to the practitioner (web analytics, online surveys etc) and present this in an accessible format. On the other, it has to provide a narrative describing the fundamental principles behind public relations and communications.

It is most successful in the former: the chapters tackle key constituencies (customers, employees, communities etc) and the text provides lists, bullet points and step by step guides.

The latter is provided by frequent reference to the work of James Grunig and his Excellence study collaborators (Larissa Grunig and James Grunig wrote the foreword to this book). So the book is grounded in a substantial body of academic thinking. Given that most practitioners (certainly those focused on the 'what' rather than the 'whether') will have read no public relations academic texts, this is certainly helpful. Yet the reliance on one source, however widely cited, makes it less impressive as an academic contribution.

Yet the book does have a strong narrative, holding together the bullet points and checklists. We're told that 'the notion that a PR person is someone who has to deal only with the press is just .. antiquated. A good PR person is focused on his or her relationships – be they local media, national bloggers, employees, or community organizers' (p xviii).

We're reminded that 'the value of advertising is declining, and the value of friendships, contacts, and engagement is on the rise… The rise of social media makes the cultivation of relationships more important than ever' (p 73).

This narrative suggests that public relations is becoming a more valuable tool in the social media age. But things have to change: 'we must change from pitching to listening, and from measuring eyeballs to measuring engagement' (p 74).

As public relations is becoming more important, it's becoming more challenging.

'In the good old days, influencers were recognized leaders in business, media, Wall Street, or academia. Today, an influencer can be anyone who knows something about your product, your market, or your business. It can be someone with 10,000 followers on Twitter or 500 friends on Facebook… It used to be that a good communications program functioned like a food chain. You would educate key spokespeople and influencers on your message, and, assuming it was a credible message, it flowed down through the chain of media and ultimately reached your publics through a variety of credible sources. This top-down process of message control seemed reasonable, but was probably only a convenient illusion. Social media has proved it wrong and officially signed its death certificate' (p 123).

This book, I would say, is useful for the classroom and has its place in the university library. But it's essential for practitioners, and should have a place in every office where public relations is practised.

Let me end with another of the author's quotations, dating from some 40 years ago. "If we can put a man in orbit, why can't we determine the effectiveness of our communications?"

This question was posed by the author's father, Ralph Delahaye Paine, then editor of Fortune magazine. His answer to the question was people: 'unpredictable, cantankerous, capricious, motivated by innumerable conflicting interests and conflicting desires' (p 154).

Just because it's hard to measure the outcomes of communication campaigns doesn't mean it can't, or shouldn't, be done. Katie Delahaye's essential book shows us it's not rocket science.


3 Responses to “It’s not what we do, it’s whether it works”

  1. Philip 03/06/2011 at 11:57 am #

    Thanks for a typically shrewd and helpful review, Richard. This was already on my summer reading list and has now moved up a few notches.

  2. Tiffany Gallicano 03/06/2011 at 7:23 pm #

    Thanks for your review of this book, Richard. I greatly enjoyed her first book. As an academic, it was so helpful for me to be able to draw upon a wide range of fresh examples from her experiences, and I’m looking forward to reading this next book.

  3. Paul Seaman 12/06/2011 at 10:14 pm #

    There is something ironic about social business – by social I mean Web 2.0 or E2.0 technologies – in that the more it encourages engagement and conversation (socialisation) along value chains, the less communication matters as a formal discipline. Moreover, if all PRs are doing is measuring what the others are doing – then we are not doing anything proactive. Thinking along these lines has led the likes of Jeff Jarvis to say PR is dead or soon will be…

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