Bill Nichols

29 January 2014

PR Vital Signs: Maturity and The New Dashboard

Dr. Bill Nichols  - 012 – 29 January 2013

It’s one thing to measure, say, reputation:  quite another to understand and manipulate what influences that metric.  And for all the brouhaha about PR evaluation, here there is silence.  More or less.

For some answers,Vital Signs Report (2014) publishes today.  The first in a benchmark series, its insights flow from my recent collaboration with leading tech PR firm, EML Wildfire (1).  Its data is provided by some 80 clients and contacts across the firm’s network in the UK, US and Europe.

Unusually, we assessed the combined impact of in-house and agency teams: i.e. the total PR competency.  From the literature (2), we identified 10 possible factors or influences.  And we concluded by creating a three-part ‘dashboard’ for any PR organisation.

First up – ‘Business Results’ (i.e. leads, sales, profit)

In PR this is the P&L equivalent.  It tracks immediate gains and losses.  Here our top factor is ‘strategic planning’ (SP).  In fact, statistically, it’s the only significant factor that explains a substantial component of ‘Results’ (3).  Overall our sample is most positive about near-term SP.  It commends teams for such aspects as messaging, business strategy alignment, action plans and focused campaigns.

But our respondents are far more cautious further out.   To improve effectiveness, they highlight:  applying evidence consistently, sustaining a mission and pursuing long-term advantage.

And?  Other factors like creativity or techniques?  Actually not much else has any impact. Sobering given all the chat.

Second up – target ‘Reputation’

We see reputation as the ‘balance sheet’ equivalent.  The long-term tracking of net PR assets on the PR dashboard.  Here two factors are in play.

First, and unsurprisingly, ‘relationship orientation’ is the strongest influence on reputation. Attitudinally – the soft stuff – our teams are particularly well-placed.  They are, our sample reports, committed.  They seek authenticity.  They respect stakeholders and they will ‘go the extra mile’.  But they’re less effective at the practical execution of relationship-building.  Such as the analysis of broader perspectives, dynamic tracking of the influencer landscape and (again!) planning.

Second and intriguingly, limited evidence suggests that PR’s prized ability to generate ‘opportunistic’ activity may be a negative influence on reputation.  Short-term results gain: long-term reputational pain.

Third, bonus ball – ‘Maturity’

Our study also introduces a third lead measure: maturity.  It’s the equivalent of cash-flow and it’s a potentially major contribution suggested by the EML Wildfire team.  Maturity is a well-established construct in organisational studies.  Operationally it’s best characterised by that PR jewel: the ability to manage the unexpected and to cope with ambiguity.

To create a clear blueprint for managing maturity, we identified three factors at work.  They are professionalism, engagement and, especially, leadership.  Specifically maturity deepens as PR seniors acquire serious leadership skills and, above all, the confidence to play an active role at the C-Level.

Seeking enlightenment

As business gurus confirm, the act of measurement adds value if – and only if – it helps define and deliver a desirable outcome. Such as, in PR, a behavioural change.  This presupposes we understand the mechanism.  That we know what and how to influence the target.  A little more ‘X’, a little less ‘Y’ – that kind of thing.

But, as the Headmaster of Eton observed recently, “we live in an age of measurement and not of enlightenment.”   How true of PR.  Some cling to the old-time religion of the AVE. Others evangelise Barcelona and the new analytics.   In this ‘promised land’ we measure anything – and everything.

But we have little understanding of the influencing factors. Vital Signs Report (2014) offers our starting point.  Especially that new measure of maturity.  It correlates well with both results and reputation.  It may, we think, be the key moderator – a crucial focus for out study’s next round.  Join us at EML Wildfire to add your inputs to what is planned as a long-term project.

More to follow and, meantime, here’s to enlightenment!

-ends-

(1) Special thanks to directors Debby Penton, Lorraine Jenkins and Richard Parker.

(2)  Based on the Nordic three-dimensional service quality model.  So (A) hard/technical = (i) media platform, (ii) measurement and evaluation, (iii) techniques; (B) functional/integrating = (iv) resources/budget, (v) strategic planning, (vi) leadership, (vii) creativity; and (C) people/reputational =  (viii) professionalism, (ix) engagement and (x) relationship orientation.  Each factor successfully tested using Cronbach’s alpha: eight > .7 and two >.6.

(3) Using the 95% confidence level and multiple regression analysis.

 

 

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Bill Nichols

17 November 2013

Wakey wakey PR: The Convergence Train is Leaving  

010 – November 2013

Three years ago, our first Bucks Uni New Secularism conference pointed to disappearing boundaries, collapsing silos and the magical emergence of a new integrated communications.  Uni colleague and ex-Mediacom director, Vic Davies and I were – we admit – more than slightly tongue in cheek,

This week our third conference (http://astrophel.co.uk/uni/) will find us in the midst of positive – even profound – change.

But disappointing to say, PR firms – at least – are missing the convergence train and failing to modernise.   Digital agency pioneer Gary Lockton, now ceo at http://www.grandadlondon.com/ says PR content creators should have hoovered up social media… But progress has stalled.  Badly.

What to do?  Here – based on three years’ development and my travels around the business – is a five-point ‘new secular’ manifesto for PR.

First, change our narrative.

My last blog – The Narrative Revenue Opportunity - identified means, motive and massive opportunity for PR teams to exploit their narrative skills.  At the PR Summit Ogilvy ceo, Christopher Graves, agreed (Holmes Report: http://t.co/ripBwsfOCV).  The old PR tradition emphasised marshalling facts and dispelling myths.  But the new narrative builds on neuroscience and plays to emotion.  It’s about creating myths (‘mythopoeia’) that sweep us along.  Yet few if any grasp this opportunity.  Why?  The PR low-esteem mind-set – our own industry narrative – cleaves to its old tradition, according to recent research (*).  It’s safer. It’s… ‘what we’ve always done’.  Physician heal thyself!

Second, love those numbers.

Like it or no, big data and analytics transform the PR business. Media strategy switches from ‘how many’ to ‘how relevant’.  Once we lobbed up as many media placements as possible – then prayed.  Now it’s about manipulation from A-F via B, C etc.  Or, in the jargon, ‘longitudinal contact strategy’. Small wonder recent PRCA Conference speakers on The Future of the PR Agency, called for consultancies to hire data analysts as part of a move to IMC. But, in too many PR firms, try talking stats and they’ll come over all squeamish.  Mention a regression and they’ll start looking for your little green friends.

Third, grasp the secular – multiple skills, multiple revenues.

Pitch a story.  Buy the space.  Manipulate a social exchange.   Fee, commission and bonus.  But all three? In the old world, ethics – our narrative identity – and complexity came crashing in.  In the new – perhaps Kotler’s (1997) fabled future ‘customering’ department – it’s all one. A process of managing interactions.  For progressive PR firms, this new is (or should be) palpitatingly, excitingly ambivalent.

Fourth, stay the course with authenticity.

Lovely word (though resonant of ‘austerity for some tastes!).  Authenticity is for the long-term.  It requires strategic commitment that (as upcoming research in which I’ve partnered will show) is the critical determinant of PR results.  But for now poor old authenticity is just a word.  Put a PR team under pressure? That knee-jerk old tradition takes them back to manipulating today’s perceptions and messages.  At all costs, kick that wretched old can down that pot-holed road.   Phew!

Fifth, embrace the world beyond traditional media.

Call it customer service, direct communication or collaboration. As you choose.  The digital transformation has personalised our world at every level (**).  It offers, according to Larry Weber (http://tiny.cc/921o6w) a ‘budding business renaissance’ (http://tiny.cc/e4zo6w).  Yet, sadly, all too often that seems to mean little more than agencies cannibalising client budgets to handle the loading of mass production tweets… (Preferred pasting up cuttings myself!).

OK Larry is right.  OK these five changes are ‘unanticipated and unavoidable structural adjustments’.  OK, and absolutely, they may cause ‘profound discomfort’.

But they are the future.  They are now.  No tongue.  No cheek!

-ends-

(*) Zertess, A. and Duhring, L. (2012), Between Convergence and Power Struggles, Public Relations Journal, Vol 6. No.5.

(**) Diehl, S. and Karmasin, M (eds, 2013), Media and Convergence Management,, Berlin: Springer Verlag.

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Bill Nichols

6 May 2013

Managing Velocity: When You Can’t Do Right for Wrong in Client Relationships

006 (May 2013)

Know the feeling?  Everything is going swimmingly with your ‘significant other’.  Then something flips.  At first you’re barely aware.   Your ‘five minutes late’ meets a surprising chill.  Next come monosyllabic replies to calls and texts.   Then a task not done properly prompts a rant.  Finally jokey remarks kindle major conflagration.

Baffled?  You’re watching relationship dynamics and the power of relationship velocity (‘RV’, direction and speed) as it accelerates.   It’s well founded in psychology and personal relationship studies. And it offers retention-focused agency managers a critical missing link.

Key new research (*) adds the RV measure to established understanding about the value of tracking client relationship levels (the ‘goodwill’ bank account).  In brief it means that inter-firm client-agency actions have no absolute value.  Speed and direction affect their impact.  Payback when clients have positive RV will far exceed the agency’s return when it is already sliding down the slippery slope.

This makes intuitive sense.  Personally flowers may be a happy bonus in good times but rarely a ‘get out of jail’ card.  In business, a sales tip off may score well in positive mode but an expensive client lunch is an unlikely salvation when the brown stuff is flying.

Where We Were

First what we already know.  As I’ve written extensively elsewhere e.g. (http://astrophel.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Making_Most_Loyalty_PSMG_January_2010.pdf), each client relationship is best understood in terms of it its own ‘goodwill’ bank account.  Keep that account positively in the black and you can foster many desirable outcomes. These range from exclusive preference/retention to public word-of-mouth promotion.   It will also allow you to survive a major failure without suffering account loss.

But once let it slip into the red? Then even the simplest error or issue can cause major problems.  Ultimately a parting of the ways.

This ‘bank’ model integrates two major streams of research.  The first confirms the critical role of commitment and trust in securing long-term business outcomes (account renewals, profitability, additional projects).   The second demonstrates that just like personal relationships, our inter-firm liaisons have a developmental cycle over time (honeymoon, growth, conflict etc.).

All fine and helpful.  But, for all that, the ‘goodwill’ bank account is a static concept.  The absolute level or stage of a relationship only helps so far.  We can check when we wish but we won’t necessarily see movement.

Tellingly firms that have worked with the goodwill bank-account tend to find most useful the early-warning indicators that I call ‘empowerment’.  These track, for example, a tendency to growing client micro-management vs. increasing freedom to get the job done.  They may catch the ‘turn of the tide’.

What’s To Do?  

So what’s going on?   According to the research, the power of trust weakens over time.  It may continue to increase but like an over-used drug without the same positive effects. It’s necessary but not sufficient to deliver continued relationship growth.

In personal terms, this is the ‘comfort zone’:  we take the ‘significant other’ for granted.  In account terms likewise. We tick the boxes, do the job (yes probably a good job) and issue the invoices!   In both cases we cease to work at and learn about the relationship.

So what to do?  Every top client-handler I know rightly highlights the importance of frequent client dialogue.  But it is depth and progress – as much as frequency – that really count.  They offset the weakening impact of trust.  To use the techno-speak, we need to recognise that our ‘bilateral communications capability’ actually creates a form of individual account IP.   Accumulated knowledge and established ways of exchanging information serve to create flexibility and adaptability.  They allow us to refresh.  To see growth and new opportunities on both sides. In short to sustain positive relationship velocity.

Sound frustrating? Too much like hard work?  The challenge for agency ceos is to make hard-worked retention just as sexy as winning the next new business pitch. Otherwise ‘sudden chills’ will continue to translate into ‘major conflagrations’.   When you can’t seem to do right for wrong!

-ends-

(*) Palmatier, R., et al (2013), Journal of Marketing 77 (1) 13:30.

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Bill Nichols

4 February 2013

Smokewashed: All the Fun and Troubling Consequences of Leveson for the PR World

002-December 2012

So what was Leveson all about? Reflection suggests we witnessed an adroit and troubling playbook update, a ‘smokewash’.   While a bonfire of wicked hacks creates a massive smokescreen, politicians, owners and, most egregiously, the police are successfully whitewashed.  Ergo: smokewash.

Next, lest we notice and that smokewash subsides, cue a far from inconsequential debate over ‘statutory underpinning’.  Cameron and friends seek to protect the ‘status quo’ while Milliband jumps on a very public pro-legislation bandwagon – joined (shockingly, sadly) by Clegg.   Will the last so called ‘liberal’ with a shred of 1688-vintage whig intellectual integrity please turn out the red, blue and white SDP lights as he leaves please!

Smokewash Phase Two, of course, threatens liberty.  Casually, almost carelessly.  It also neatly steers us, to the advantage of all interested parties, into heavy legal smog.  And, in accustomed ‘Bleak House’ mode, boredom will probably overcome us all long in advance of any conclusion.

Yet before we succumb and yawn, this scenario presents major, and truly troubling, ‘rule of law’ issues.

First, if applied exclusively and disproportionately to one media group, the rule is not upheld.  Guilty: yes clearly.  Under huge pressure to deliver appropriately sensational copy to keep their jobs: mostly.  But fall guys: definitely.   This is, to use the legal term, inequitable.

Second, the rule is not applied if the legal redress of future victims is not advanced practically in any way.  Allow the Daily RedTop, totally without substance or justification, to shred your life in a morning and you need a fast-track route to exoneration.  One measured in days/weeks not months/years and hundreds not hundreds of thousands of pounds of fees.  Some new post-PCC forum of the ‘great and the not so good’ will not suffice.  Likewise totally inequitable.

Third, and not least, the very concept of the ‘rule’ appears broken.  If smokewashing or the social media ‘feeding frenzy’ which consumed BBC Director-General George Entwhistle and engulfed Lord McAlpine are examples of the new normal, then crude power alone rules.  All is relative.

And PR folks, beware.  In numbers (5:1) and range of publishing, you have all but superseded traditional media.  As ‘sources close to’ or ‘persons familiar with’ you are regularly on the scene.  Next time the establishment or the social media mob is looking for a fall guy, it could be – likely will be – you.   Time to get the house in order.

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