Booz Allen's Foster: When it comes to measurement, listen and learn

The C-suite's expectations of PR pros, more effective ways for PR to leverage Big Data, and the continuing under-appreciation of listening on social channels were among topics tackled as Chris Foster, VP at Booz Allen Hamilton, spoke with PRWeek managing editor Gideon Fidelzeid prior to the BurrellesLuce-hosted roundtable.

Gideon Fidelzeid: During your keynote at this year’s AMEC International Summit on Measurement, you unveiled a paper entitled Return on Engagement. As it relates to measurement, can you define what meaningful engagement is and how you can truly gauge its impact?

Chris Foster: We’re at an interesting evolution in communications. Those of us who have practiced it over the years remember how excited we were about this notion of two-way engagement. We push information out, then get it back.

It’s like a spider web now. We push information out, it goes left, right, up the hall, down the street. It’s less about trying to convey content and much more around trying to create a platform where stakeholders and consumers can actually interact with that content. It’s in our ability to interact with content that we get to a very magical place around engagement.

At Booz Allen, we’ve noticed throughout the industry an absence of standardization around how we talk about engagement and measurement. For a long time, we were comparing apples to oranges. We were saying awareness was one thing. However, the challenges and what is successful in one industry may not be in another. So efforts to drive some level of standardization really require effort.

We did some global research to figure out if there were factors we can all agree upon. We found three: time, impact, and investment. When you think about communications campaigns, they do have a beginning and an end for the most part. There’s always some timeframe. There’s always an impact of some sort. There’s always an investment. And it’s not necessarily a financial one, though it certainly could be. It’s time, manpower, so many other resources. We try to quantify all that.

In discussing all this, we must remember none of the things we do operate in a vacuum. No one is just sitting patiently and waiting for someone to drive this. We look across the ecosystem of things that are happening. We look at a portfolio. And it’s not just comms. It’s marketing, social, and digital, too. We look at all those things and then we can get an ROE [Return on Engagement] score. At that point, we can measure with some level of consistency what return the engagement efforts have been for that company.

Fidelzeid: The integration of marketing disciplines has become very prevalent. In that reality, how can measurement help PR rise above?

Foster: I believe very strongly in the power of communications. For a lot of clients Booz Allen advises, communications is really the hammer in the toolbox as it relates to some of the big, thorny, messy business problems we need to help them solve. In fact, I wish more people in the PR profession really believed that. It’s actually a bit frustrating. I truly believe it rests upon communications professionals to make the connection between the impact of what they do and the key business drivers that enterprises are trying to move toward.

As an industry, we need to believe we have earned a seat at the table – an important seat – and be able to talk boldly about the impact of the work we do.

Fidelzeid: Is Big Data being leveraged in the most optimal way by the PR industry?

Foster: We talk about it a lot, but I don’t think we understand what it is. Here’s what I see happening in the communications profession: We see an opportunity, but it’s one we’re slowly losing a handle on it because we are using data wrong.

We’re using it to answer questions. That is understandable, but we need to use data to figure out what questions we should be asking. That’s the power of data. And just broadly, we should be doing more listening and less searching. That’s where we have a real opportunity.

Another key part of the data discussion is integration. I was recently with a client in Houston and you can probably guess the industry from that. It was someone in the communications space who had six reports in front of her – one on digital listening, one on sentiment, one on employee data, etc. I said, "What if I could make all that information talk to one another?"

Just as people need to talk to one another and share ideas, data can do that, too. And in both cases, you get so much more insight about your business. You are building the relationship between what’s happening with your company’s employees, the supply chain, a global asset you may have in the North Atlantic. That’s the power of data. That’s the power of data integration. And it’s not necessarily an issue for a PR agency to solve, certainly not alone. People don’t see data as an opportunity to partner, but they should.

Fidelzeid: Booz Allen Hamilton has a legacy in management consulting, so you know what top-level executives at companies are thinking. Please share some of the insights and frustrations the C-suite has with the PR industry, particularly as it relates to measurement?

Foster: We recently did research about this very topic. PR pros make CEOs work really hard to figure out what we do. That’s a problem. We try to prove our value with dashboards and the like and it just gets too complex. CEOs just want to know what PR is doing and whether it’s working. And, of course, the impact on the business. They also want more insights and perspective.

Let’s say we’re working on an effort where the real goal is raising awareness. That’s fine. The CEO wants to know what that awareness did for the business. We say how great it is that 90% of people now know who your company is, way more than before, but the CEO will ask, "And that means what?" Too often, we still aren’t answering that question.

Experienced communicators can draw smart conclusions. They should have the courage and conviction to say, "Based on my experience, based on what I’m seeing, this is what I think will happen. Here’s the impact on your business. Let’s figure it out." We get stuck wanting to have a 100% answer for our CEOs and feel if we don't, it’s a problem. That’s not the case. CEOs want us to have an informed point of view that is evidence-based and decisions can be made from there.

Fidelzeid: How would you advise PR pros to choose KPIs that map to real business objectives that a board can understand?

Foster: The work we do as communications pros must link to enterprise-wide corporate strategy. There is no annual report I have seen where "awareness" is an enterprise-wide strategy. Can PR pros impact all those things? We can, but even if we can’t, we can align to many of them and then stretch ourselves to see the link we can make to financial performance, which is what the C-suite is focused on.

I am by no means dismissing the importance of awareness. It has a huge place in any consumer-facing entity. And in the nonprofit world, for example, there is a definite relationship between awareness and creating a culture of giving among certain communities.

What I’m also seeing is that reputation is becoming more of a KPI for boards than in the past. That’s a profound opportunity for our industry. We need to spend the right amount of time to get really clear on reputation, how to measure it, and drive it broadly.

Fidelzeid: What are some of the common misperceptions or mistakes communicators make when measuring social media?

Foster: We measure what happened yesterday too much. "This many people visited the site" or "I got 300,000 tweets, which is great." But the real power of social media is that it is the most dynamic data set we have. It changes every five seconds.

In order to get more value and insight from that, you need to put it into the context of your business today and what you’ll do tomorrow. It’s not talking about what happened yesterday, but about what happened in the digital sphere yesterday and what that meant to my business and how it might impact what happens to my business tomorrow.

We’re not making those right connections, but there is a great opportunity to do precisely that and really think about digital and social as this extraordinary lake of data to which we have access. And I’ll say it again: listening. We don’t listen in social media. We must spend more time listening to the conversations and trying to get feedback we can use. If you listen, you glean so many more insights, which will shape your thinking and campaigns.

Fidelzeid: What worries you most about the future of comms measurement? What excites you the most about it?

Foster: Why do we ask our clients if they have money for measurement? If I were starting a PR campaign, it would never occur to me to say, "Oh, and by the way, do you have 10% of this budget so I can do measurement of it?" Are you kidding me? All communications begins, ends, and is driven by measurement throughout.

We must stop overcomplicating this. Measurement is part of what we do as communicators. It’s essential to enabling us to have the insights expected of us. Stop asking for it. Make it part of whatever budget you have. If measurement isn’t part of your campaign budget, you won’t be able to drive toward the KPIs and strategies CEOs demand of us.

What excites me is that we’re in the most dynamic time in history. Society, politics, globalization, the economy – dynamic factors in all of those sectors and others, and they all play a key role in how we practice PR. And the ability to create connections and draw conclusions, we have more information available to us today to do that than ever before.

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