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The Brain’s Problem With PR and Marketing Measurement

PR Measurement

Image Ruralsprawl, ?Brain? March 17, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

This is for everyone who has been challenged to demonstrate a return on investment from PR or marketing.

Take heart.

If, intuitively, you find that a little dispiriting then it’s OK, not only is psychology on your side, neuroscience and biology are too.

A long time ago, I was in the final stages of trying to secure a contract from a prospect client. Everything had gone well, the chemistry, the pitch, the follow-up. Then the decision maker called up and said he wanted to meet to iron out some details in order to make the final decision and could we meet that evening in a nearby pub. No problem I said.

The reason for mentioning it took place a long time ago is that this was before mobiles were commonplace and neither of us had one.

The meeting was fine and we got on so well that the time slipped away and the client suddenly realised and said “I have to go call my wife to tell her I’ll be late, but before I do, the real question I need answering before I can appoint you is this…. How will I know if it’s working, if I’m getting value for money? Think about it and I’ll be back in two minutes.”

With that he went to find the payphone.

It’s the question you dread because it can’t be answered in any hard edged, data rich, evidence based, truly convincing way. How can you evidence future performance, when the future doesn’t send us data?

In the next two minutes I could either win it or lose it.

Everything was to play for. If I could answer the question right then I’d won the business.  If, instead, I offered some waffle or I sounded unsure about our abilities to perform I might undermine all the confidence created in this nascent relationship.

I was still trying to think of how to answer when back comes the client and says “That’s all sorted, my wife understands.”

In a moment of inspiration and without thinking it through I said “How do you know?”

“What do you mean, how do I know what?”

“How do you know that your wife isn’t really pissed off at you about being late and in reality your dinner’s in the dog?”

“I just know, why?”

“Some things you just know and it’s no different with your PR, you just know”

He paused….“OK, you’ve won the business”

The inability of the client to articulate his answer to my question is the critical point here. He was struggling for words to describe his absolute conviction that his reading of the situation was right and everything was right back home.

This was his limbic brain at work. The part of the brain which governs higher value functions like trust and empathy on which fundamental decisions are made but lacks the ability to describe them.

Let that thought sit there for a moment and then start to ponder the consequences for designing a measurement system for what businesses most strive for  – to be trusted, is processed and judged by the part of the brain that cannot adequately say why this trust exists.

Back to the limbic brain for a moment.

Neuroscience tells us that the limbic brain is that part which assesses whether we can trust something, providing us with a powerful even unstoppable emotional response (it’s why you see spectators at events all holding their heads when a player misses). But, crucially, it is a response that has no language or reasoning (which are processed by the cerebral cortex, which deals with rational decisions)

In his bestselling book, “Start With Why” author Simon Sinek powerfully describes that the most inspirational leaders and the most successful brands connect with and stimulate an emotional response  more than a rational response which can be both consistently articulated and codified and this is the heart of the measurement conundrum.

He gives Apple as the perfect example of a brand that plugs straight into our limbic brain, probably better than any other. A Dell, he writes, might have a better specification than a competing Apple product, it will certainly be a lot cheaper and (in my opinion at least) it will have better customer support. But what it won’t do is make the user feel special, feel that he or she has made a smarter decision for reasons that are about them, not the product itself.

Those reasons might be to do with wanting to feel that they are not a corporate drone, that they are creative and individualistic, or rebellious. Whatever is the primary reason it is to do with self-image that is by definition unique to the user and certainly not measurable by any known standard.  (Other than their willingness to pay a premium for an Apple product over another with comparable and rationally measurable performance specifications)

The conundrum is this.

The highest goal of marketing is the unmeasurable – the goodness of fit between what a brand promises and its relevance to an individual; a unique jumble of intangibles like trust, empathy and passion and loyalty.

If it is the case that the better you are at your job, the less measurable your efforts, what is the value of measurement other than at a fairly trivial level?

Measurement has an important role, which is to allow us to compare between options, the click rate for one piece of content or a design over another for example.

But to declare that everything is measurable or parrot that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is absolutely missing the point of why your primary objective.

That seems to me to be a complete and quite easily measurable failure of measurement.

PR and its Fetish

Warning this contains the words NAKED, VIRGIN, FETISH and WOBBLY BITS. And BOLLOCKS (twice)

This started life as a reply to a typically thoughtful piece by Stephen Waddington who wrote about PR’s problem with self-confidence as it does battle for share of budget in a new era when the lines between media channels and who pays for that content to be both produced and appear are getting ever more blurred.

He worries that in this turf war between agencies for share of the cake, PR is lacking in its ability to persuade and command attention and authority.

My response to that is yes, absolutely and I think I know why and where the solution lies.

The PR industry has to face up to a dichotomy and decide one way or the other. It craves respectability, gravitas, authority but it values, even fetishises youth over wisdom and is forever obsessed with the new, new thing rather than asking whether it is the right thing.

This obsession is fuelled by a number of fairly entrenched factors such as:

1) A pyramid agency model that needs lots of young, cheapish people doing as much billable work as possible, hopefully at rates beyond their skill level if the client will stand it

2) A career progression norm that says you’ve got to get as high as possible as fast possible

3) A trade media, awards system (and arguably a buyer mentality) that champions novelty over effectiveness – been on Second Life or Jelly lately? How’s that AR based campaign working out?

4) No industry gold standard CPD system

I am happy disclose that I am 50 so be under no illusion that there is some naked self interest at work here.

The narrative that younger people have better, more relevant, more ‘cut through’ ideas and so should be listened to first, fails on three counts:

The “more experienced” amongst us will know that, you really, really don’t forget how you felt in your teens or twenties. You actually think more about that period in your life more than you did at the time. The number and nature of media outlets available then versus now makes precisely sod all difference to how you feel about love, ambition, belonging and all the other big abstract ideas that brands want to channel in order to “engage” (sell us stuff).

Second, whereas I remember how it feels to get the key to your first flat, your first car, take your first holiday with your girlfriend – the kind of life stage vignette so beloved of marketers – someone in their 20s can’t possibly know how it feels to face the big milestones of later life – the sudden freedom of post parenthood, post mortgage, or on the downside, your parents needing care or the reality of your body not being quite the dumping ground for all manner of fun toxins it once was.

This is a foreign country to these people, they are not natives. I on the other hand, have two passports, their land and mine.

Thirdly, my generation has all the cash, we buy cars, holidays, big tellys, clothes to hide our wobbly bits, all sorts of shit to help us sustain youth. We earn more and are not so saddled by debt or rent. Marketers should be all over us but we are spoken to by people fumbling with an unfamiliar language.

Here’s an example.

Yesterday Virgin Money launched the Never Mind the Bollocks credit card.

I have a feeling that some brand manager looked at the data and worked out that the core demographic came of age in the punk era and that this would “engage” with them.

It’s dad-dancing in reverse.

It’s patronising bollocks and anyone who experienced the creativity, excitement and originality of punk – in other words, the core target for this product, is laughing at it.

Great job.

So here’s the thing, if you want better outcomes in your PR or communications programmes work with people who know how to respond with the authentic voice of experience.

With authenticity comes authority and the confidence to challenge in order to get to the right answer and to Stephen’s point, the right share of budget in the turf war.

Mix it with the optimism, energy and willingness to risk that is youth’s priceless value, but assuming that those qualities alone will guarantee success is not borne out by….experience.

There you have it Stephen, the answer to the question you posed. How can PR be more self confident? Be more experienced. You can either wait for it to happen to you or you can buy it now.

Second Life anyone…?

Crisis and Reputation Management – A New Book

Bolt From the Blue – navigating the new world of corporate crises  by Mike Pullen and John Brodie Donald

I heard John Donald give a talk about the themes of his book Bolt From the Blue on Friday and I was impressed by his thoughtful presentation and the book does not disappoint.

It suggests that there are five principles for handling a corporate crisis:

  1. Do not deny anything before you are in full possession of the facts
  2. Your response time must be faster than the speed of the story
  3. When a crisis happens, bring in external consultants
  4. To prevent recurrence, change the culture as well as the policies
  5. You can’t clear your own name; only other people can do this for you

I particularly like number three….

The early part of the book explains these themes in a practical handbook sort of way  and I was particularly struck by the points made about Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns” speech which is often and wrongly derided.

It’s not that Rumsfeld was talking gibberish (although as John observes, basing a strategy on “unknown unknowns” is a justification for doing anything) the authors argue that it wasn’t “known knowns” or “known unknowns” or even “unknown unknowns” that brought Rumsfeld down, it was the fourth category that he didn’t mention “unknown knowns”.

These are the events that arguably you should have foreseen – they were knowable but you failed to spot them. For Rumsfeld it was the behaviour of US troops at Abu Ghraib “on his watch” that were fatal to his reputation.

This thought informs much of the book, how to balance control of and responsiveness to events.

In corporate life the idea that executives are omniscient and omnipotent, whilst obvious nonsense, is persistent and there is an interesting debate to be had about whether the attitude to risk required of a CEO also makes it inevitable that CEOs must believe they can defy events. The seeds of their destruction etc..

The book, having laid out the five principles begins an exploration of case studies which illustrate how organisations have faced crises and what kind of crises can emerge.

Here the book is perhaps less sure in tone and the section on health and safety culture is more a bit of a Telegraph reader’s grumble than a discussion of how changing attitudes to corporate responsibility in global supply chains for example can and do affect susceptibility to crisis, as say Primark have discovered.

Likewise the section on social media is rather short and to my mind doesn’t really examine whether it is as much as benefit as a threat if organisations are prepared to act quickly and be transparent. The emergence at the back end of 2013 of reputation as the top strategic risk (largely related to the growth of social media) was perhaps unfortunate timing for the authors as it might have been the platform for deeper discussion of something that is clearly more than just worrying to a great many CEOs.

Special praise is required for the range of examples which include some which were new to me and for the others, the authors’ intelligent and witty style with its thread of references from the Classics gives new perspectives on some of the ‘classic’ crisis case studies. Special bonus points for not going over the well trodden ground of Tylenol…..

The five principles are as useful and as sound a set as any I have read and the depth and intelligence of the examination of corporate crises over the years is a distinct cut above the norm.

Recommended reading.

Peston Versus the PRCA – missing the point

The BBC’s Robert Peston fired some broadsides at the PR industry last week in the Charles Wheeler lecture which have somewhat overshadowed his more important message about the value of real journalism in age of commercially driven content marketing.

This has prompted a fairly hot blooded response from Francis Ingham, CEO of the PRCA (whom I know and like and will always have my admiration for pursuing an ultimately successful battle against the NLA, when others capitulated).

As always there is some truth in what both say but where both parties come unstuck is on the question of the extent to which journalism needs PR and who has the whip hand in this relationship.

What is most depressing though is that the two contributions to the ‘debate’ are so antagonistic and in denial of the truth. PR is not the enemy of journalism and nor does journalism rely on PR.

One of the things that I believe undermined the validity of the NLA’s position in its attempt to secure more fees from the PR industry was the implicit denial in their argument that the PR industry was the only beneficiary of their efforts (and should therefore recompense the publishers) when it is obvious that newspaper publishers derive huge financial benefit from the supply of content to them, against which they sell advertising.

The evidence here is abundant and it is surprising that Mr Peston when preparing his lecture did not become aware of initiatives like www.churnalism.com which shows which articles are cut and pasted from PR material, or the popular hashtag #journorequest where reporters seek input from PRs. (There is a special place in Hell by the way for stupid PR people who spam this with offers of products). There are even commercial ventures like Response Source where PR companies can pay to be fed a series of requests from reporters for information and stories.

The response by Francis Ingham to what is in many ways an emotionally driven but fairly inaccurate picture of the PR industry is regrettable. If anything the language of conflict begun by Robert Peston has been ratcheted up. Worse, it is a missed opportunity to offer dialogue on the ways that well prepared, well targeted content adds value to the newsroom . In other words, it was a PR open goal that has gone begging.

Instead we have an equally if not more emotionally driven attack on Peston’s words (and to a degree the man himself) which seems to assert PR’s moral superiority over journalism. I’m not sure who would be interested in the outcome of that debate.

Both journalism and PR need to realise that far from being enemies they have common goals – both want accurate material distributed to the largest audience with the minimum of effort. Both also need the value of earned media to be at the highest possible premium over paid media. The real enemy is the commoditisation of content. That really is a race to the bottom.

That is a solid foundation for a conversation that would benefit both parties and how life can be made better for everyone, but right now that seems further away than it was a week ago.

North West Photography Courses Opens for Business

North West Photography Courses

The rural setting for the courses

North West Photography Courses offers beginners to advanced workshops and is a new venture I am involved in, assisting in the marketing, PR, web development and social media for the company.

It is based in Birtle where I live, a place not that well known but which really is where the furthest outskirts of Greater Manchester meet the Lancashire hills. It is highly accessible for Mancherster, Cheshire and Lancashire.

We want the photography courses that we offer to reflect the location, so as well positioning the company as offering friendly, expert tuition, we want to celebrate our location where the natural landscape mixes with the man made.

We offer Beginners Photography Courses Intermediate Photography Courses and Advanced Photography Courses

To this end we offer photography courses which embrace the remains of some of the oldest mills in the world, high in the Cheesden Valley and the industrial power of the famous East Lancashire Steam Railway which is a gift for any photographer.

The new company is the idea of a friend of mine, Tony Holt, who became a professional photographer after a career in the Police and Civil Service. “There is an amazing range of inspiring subjects on our doorstep and we are unique in combining natural and industrial landscapes in our courses” he says.

Joining Tony in teaching the courses is Bury photographer Barry Kellie who specialises in bird photography and whose work has been featured in publications worldwide.

“Our motto: ‘nothing is stopping you taking great photographs’ applies as much to someone starting out as to the most skilled photographer and we want to make it enjoyable and relaxed whilst discovering new skills and techniques”.

We are using a wide range of marketing channels and we are pleased with our site which has been designed on a Genesis WordPress responsive theme by Adam Walker.

We are running a trial ad campaign across Facebook, promoted Tweets and PPC. It’s very early days yet but I will report back on channel success. Off-line channels include print and liaison with tourist centres locally.

Finally I would be missing a trick if I didn’t invite you take advantage of special introductory offers on our discounted photography courses so please click away.