There has been a lot of focus on measurement and evaluation of communication for several decades, but there is still quite a way to go. The PR and corporate communication sector is strong in media monitoring and media analysis, but there continues to be a focus on outputs – of which media coverage is one example – and still too little focus on outcomes and impact. Just because messages appear in traditional or social media does not mean that they had an effect on audiences.
‘The number of impressions your campaign receives is not the number of people who were impressed.’
Positive comments and shares in social media are out-takes, or steps towards short-term outcomes. But evaluation of substantial outcomes and impact can only be determined by looking beyond basic media metrics. Results such as increases in awareness and changes in attitudes and behaviour require audience research such as interviews, surveys among stakeholders and target markets, and advanced techniques such as customer journey mapping. I have talked a lot about this in my 2018 book, Evaluating Public Communication: New Models, Standards, and Best Practice.
The Organisational Listening Project has been a five-year study of how well corporations, governments, and institutions listen to their stakeholders, and citizens in the case of democratic governments. Importantly, it defines listening as more than receiving the voice of customers (VOC), the voice of employees (VOE), and the voice of stakeholders (VOS) through surveys or other methods. Listening requires paying attention such as through analysis, giving consideration to what is said, and responding in some appropriate way – whether that is to comply with feedback and requests, or explain why what is requested cannot be done.
There were several big learnings from this research. The first is that most organisations listen infrequently and poorly. This is often not intentional. Organisations profess to want to hear the voice of customers, employees, and other stakeholders. But there are several major challenges for organisations in listening – a key one being scale. People directly listen to each other one-one one or in small groups, but organisations often have to engage with thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people. You can’t do that with your ears.
So the second key learning was that organisations need systems and processes and tools as well as skills for listening – what I call an ‘architecture of listening’, not just an architecture of speaking. This includes analysis tools like machine learning text analysis software, because the voice of customers, employees, and stakeholders is expressed in words more than numbers – e.g., written complaints, submissions to consultations, and posts on social media. At an advanced level, organisations might even need voice to text (VTT) software because many large organisations receive thousands or even millions of phone calls to call centres that are digitally recorded, but not analysed without such tools. Other organisational listening tools are e-surveys, feedback forms on websites, social media analysis, and techniques such as customer journey mapping.
At the 2020 AMEC Summit, I spoke about two of my recent research studies that are quite different, but inter-related in two respects.
In the first instance, I reported my research into disinformation, deception, and manipulation that is a focus of attention in discussions of post-truth society and the subject of my latest book titled Beyond Post-Communication. My research challenges the popular claim that a ‘few bad apples’ are the problem – such as Russian trolls, Donald Trump, and a few rogue data analysis firms such as Cambridge Analytica. Examining many case studies of advertising, PR, and political communication reveals that some of the greatest deceptions and manipulations are perpetrated by professional communicators in these fields of practice. Also, interviews with leading practitioners revealed that many are only too eager to use advanced new technologies and techniques such as paid influencers, bots, data analytics, and artificial intelligence to deceive and exploit consumers and citizens. In a perverse sense, the impact of disinformation is proof of the power of communication – albeit, I concluded that disinformation, deception, and manipulation need to be addressed in the industry to retain credibility and trust.
In a positive sense, the same new technologies can be used for good, including for evaluation of communication to show its contribution to businesses, democracy, and society. In the second part of my AMEC keynote, I presented a case study of evaluation that I led for a European corporation that directly put €24 million (euros) on the bottom line. This used a number of advanced tools including Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys; customer satisfaction surveys; employee engagement surveys; customer journey mapping; and website feedback forms, which informed improvements in communication and stakeholder relationships.
Based on what I have said previously about the state of play in the measurement and evaluation space, my first tip is to look beyond media. Media are channels of communication – not destinations. Media monitoring and analysis can provide some important insights, but the sector has to commit itself to achieving and demonstrating outcomes and impact that align to organisation objectives.
A second related tip is to focus on insights and learning, not only reporting measurement for post-rationalisation and self-justification. Research should be used as a telescope or radar, not simply a rear-view mirror. Analysis of data, whether it is media or audience data, can provide insights that inform strategy at the planning stage. Importantly also is identification of what didn’t work and learning so that improvements can be made.
I worked on many interesting and important commercial research projects for clients during my career before I joined a university in 2007. Since then, I have led research projects ranging from evaluating communication during a mine fire crisis for a government inquiry and studying ways to increase breast screening among women in ethnic communities, to working inside the UK Cabinet Office on Whitehall to improve government-citizen engagement. And, most recently, being commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead a project to evaluate and improve its health communication globally is right up there in terms of impact.
These research projects have potentially saved lives, mapped out ways to improve democracy, and put millions of dollars, pounds, or euros on the bottom line in the case of commercial organisations, as I demonstrated in my keynote to the 2020 AMEC Summit.
In the end, it’s all about your impact. Activities and outputs are just steps to get there.
Currently, and for the near future, I am very busy leading research for the World Health Organization (WHO) to evaluate its global COVID-19 health communication and its various other campaigns. In a pandemic, it is mission- critical that WHO communication is effective and that the organisation maintains support and trust. So this is a big and important challenge.
Looking ahead, I have several options that are quite exciting. During 2020, my university asked me to take on a senior role in its Faculty of Science working with scientists during the pandemic. Science is very important, particularly in the current circumstances, so it has been interesting and informative working in a Faculty of Science, at the same time as juggling my School of Communication research. In 2021, UTS is offering me 12 months research leave on full pay to pursue new projects, so that will open up new opportunities locally and internationally. One of my ‘big ideas’ is establishing a collaborative research institute focussing on communication, science, and technology, bringing together leading experts in each of these fields, rather than them working separately. I think that will be spark innovation as well as bring deep evidence, rigour, and cutting edge technology to the table.
My books are a reflection of my unusual position in the communication field. To date, I have published 16 books – with eight being professional books for practitioners and eight being academic research books that report original research. So I am kind of 50/50 academic and practitioner. That’s also reflected in the AMEC Awards. Even though these are for practitioners, I have submitted three of my research projects in the AMEC awards in recent years and won three Gold awards and an overall Platinum Award. This was to make a point – rigorous university research is relevant to industry, not just theory and teaching.
Truescope draws data from media, but it does this in a different way to traditional media monitoring and media analysis firms. Instead of simply analysing media content to track a client’s messages and issues of interest based on their brief, my understanding is that Truescope builds a body of intelligence on the issues, messages, and voices that are prominent in public debate in a sector, and then explores where a client organisation sits within that information ecosystem. This is a far more value-adding approach than ex-post, client focussed analysis, because it brings a body of intelligence and insights in advance to inform their strategy. It helps operationalise what I call ‘front loading’ evaluation and research – do more up front to provide insights and intelligence, rather than at the end when it is often too late to change things.
I’m drinking more than I should and reading less than I should – my excuse being the pressures of working during COVID-19 with too many late nights on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
But for work, I am reading the 730-page Oxford Handbook of Social and Political Trust – a research monograph very relevant in today’s world written by leading social and political scientists – and for pleasure, I am re-reading The God of Small Things, a beautiful novel by Arundhati Roy.
And, as I turn the pages, and at the dinner table, I savour a Margaret River Chardonnay or a big bold Shiraz – usually several.