A Dashboard To Help With Steering

16 years, 1 month ago

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The majority of PR measurement tools are inadequate, argues Nicholas Barnett. More sophisticated navigational software is required.



Imagine arriving at a foreign airport and hailing a taxi. As you enter the cab you notice that it has no dashboard and no instruments on display. Without asking for your destination the cab driver drives off. After ten minutes he stops and asks where you’d like to go. He consults his map, declares himself lost and attempts to navigate a correct course.

You arrive at your destination, but your journey took twice as long; cost twice as much and you are very agitated, not only by his fast and erratic driving (unknowingly, he drives above the speed limit) but also by the peculiar smell coming from the engine!

This may seem a harsh analogy for the public relations industry, but let’s consider some of the similarities.

Most PR practitioners still ‘drive’ PR programmes without the aid of dashboards and so could be considered to be ‘driving blind’, in that they have no way of knowing whether they are still on course (the equivalent of the in-car sat. nav. system) or if their programme is performing to the required standard (the equivalent of the speedometer). Worse still, they have no means of knowing if the programme has breached some critical threshold (the equivalent of the oil temperature gauge or fuel gauge).

Lost Without a Map

And even more public relations practitioners embark on PR programmes without first defining where they are heading or what their objectives are, i.e., they habitually set out on a course without first referring to a map. Worse still, it is only after a period of time that they might review some press cuttings to determine if they are on track on not!

Current ‘PR navigational tools’, such as media evaluation, are still necessary but, we would argue, are no longer sufficient. Our concerns with them are two-fold:

• they analyse historic information
• they measure just one dimension of a PR programme (the media).

Clearly, for senior management of large-scale enterprises this is no longer enough. To justify the increasingly large sums being spent on public relations, they are demanding that PR practitioners use navigational tools that deliver programme analysis in ‘Real Time’ and that can monitor all aspects of a multi-faceted PR programme (particularly important for fast moving and highly complex corporate communications programmes that might embrace a multitude of stakeholders).

Put another way, they need to feel confident that the PR function knows where it’s going and has the tools at its disposal to alter course at short notice, if circumstances dictate.

Why So Slow?

So why has the PR industry been so slow to adopt more sophisticated navigational tools? We see two factors at play, one historical and one cultural.

Firstly, media coverage has, to date, been a peripheral issue for those senior management focused on delivering the enterprise’s business strategy. So an investment in such tools would not be seen as a high priority. But now that an organisation’s reputation plays such an integral part in determining its overall value, senior management have recognised that communication strategy is of critical interest within the boardroom, hence the need to monitor its performance more closely.

The second, cultural aspect is rooted in what Jim McNamara, group general manager of MASS Communications Group refers to in his paper ‘PR Metrics – Research for planning and Evaluation of PR & Corporate Communication’ as the readership habits of the ‘dominant coalition’. He explains, "the dominant coalition in modern companies...is comprised of numeric–orientated executives such as accountants...The ‘language of the dominant coalition’ is principally numbers...charts and graphs; diagrams...and illustrations...with text well down the list of what has the most impact. Ironically and perhaps tellingly, PR and Corporate communication proposals and reports have been traditionally text-based".

If senior management are now encouraging PR to embrace more sophisticated navigational tools, where should we look for inspiration and advice? The short answer is not far along the corridors of our own organisations. Operations, manufacturing, R&D, HR, finance and IT are all functional departments that have long used dashboards to monitor their performance. And they are an especially critical aspect of companies that pride themselves on achieving high performance levels.

Business Intelligence Technology

A plethora of sophisticated, IT-based business intelligence tools have been developed to help these departments capture the information necessary to make informed decisions more quickly and Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) is a significant industry in its own right.

But sophisticated does not mean expensive. Our company uses a desktop-based software product (Crystal Xcelsius) from Business Objects (http://www.businessobjects.com/) that costs as little as $495.

So what are the components that go to make up a communications dashboard? First and foremost is the need to identify what are the ‘key performance indicators’ that will be used to populate the dashboard. The equivalent of the fuel gauge or speedometer, these record the most critical parameters of success.

Having identified these KPIs, the next step is to determine how easy (or otherwise) it will be to collect the underlying data. The beauty of the Crystal Xcelsius product is that it is based on MS Excel data; a programme widely used in most organisations.

And having put in place the necessary data capture systems, the next stage will be to use the dashboard on a regular basis, i.e. to ‘refresh’ the data and identify trends that may be occurring over time.

Communications dashboards, if successfully implemented can achieve a number of things.

• They continuously measure the most important factors that determine the success of a programme in Real Time. (‘Being wise after the event’ is not a business philosophy that most senior management ascribe to!)
• They provide early alerts when programmes veer off-course, thereby preventing the need to engage in more ‘aggressive’ correctional actions further down the line. (This can be likened to a sensitive thermostat that keeps a room temperature operating within a small temperature range and thus uses energy more efficiently).
• They provide a means of aligning the department with other departments around common, enterprise-wide goals
• They provide a means to engage with senior management and talk in a language they understand (time-poor senior management that come from analytical professional backgrounds welcome dashboards)
• They provide a means to publicise the work of the department more widely around the organisation. 

Communications dashboards can be employed in a variety of PR uses, ranging from corporate communications to media relations and internal communications. Our German partners, Lautenbach Sass (http://www.lautenbachsass.de) are now using them to help their clients focus on ‘value-driven PR’.

But we predict that internal communications will prove to be the real ‘early adopters’. Why? Because of its ‘proximity’ to the Human Resources department (already fully at home with metrics) and because of the paucity of measurement tools currently used. By the way, we see annual staff attitude surveys as being even less valuable than the Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs) used in media measurement!

 
Communications Dashboards offer the PR professional a more sophisticated navigational aid by which to demonstrate its true value to the enterprise. Using them, we can achieve our objectives (read, get to our destinations) more quickly; using a more cost-effective route and with less effort. And without doing any damage to the engine in the process!


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The Author

Nicholas Barnett

Nicholas Barnett is the Operations Director at The Lean Agency.

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