Archive for April 2007

The recent report – Media Myths and Realities – from the Ketchum public relations consultancy about media trends in the US made for interesting reading, as it sought to allay what it sees are myths. The most interesting of them was the continued importance of local media, which in the US means the major metropolitan dailies and television (and not the dire local freesheets that we suffer from in many other countries).

For me, the most surprising piece of data was that at least half (52.3%) of 18 to 24 year olds read newspapers, especially those reporting on their home patch. The percentage of the population to “take a paper” steadily rises to 83.4% of grey panthers (65 and older), but there must be a major behavioural different in media consumption from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

As a PR educator, I find it difficult to get our ‘communicators of tomorrow’ to get away from the headlines offered online and pick up a newspaper. And my daily commuting on trains and buses in England shows little evidence of young people reading newspapers. Most are permanently plugged into MP3 players.

Other headlines from the research were the importance of family and friends in making decisions. Around 43.7% of Americans rely on word-of-mouth recommendation when making product or service decisions, but only 13.8% take note of celebrity endorsement. Ketchum sees a strong future for “amplified word of mouth” as a marketing communication method.

Part of Ketchum’s aim in conducting the survey was to allay what it sees as a “myth” that media communication was all online now but there are some impressive results in the adoption of social media across all age groups and, specially, amongst influencers. A multi-media online-offline mix is the way forward.


Recently, Weber Shandwick Worldwide (WSW) announced its latest research on reputation loss with the claim that “CEOs receive nearly 60% of the blame when company reputation is damaged”. That seemed to be a useful enough “wow” factor to headline the report and support the marketing of WSW’s reputation management consultancy services. And to make it stronger, there seemed to be almost exactly the same blame quotient whether the respondents were in North America, Europe or Asia which appears to be a strong intercultural trend.

But when you read further, questions about the validity of the research arise. The sample was 950 “global business executives” in 11 countries, which seems solid enough, but it’s not bizexecs who determine an organisation’s reputation, it’s all those “stakeholders” with whom an organisation has relationships. To quote from Charles Fombrun, who is well known to WSW, “better regarded companies build their reputations by developing practices which integrate social and economic considerations into their competitive strategies … They initiate policies that reflect their core values; that consider the joint welfare of investors, customers and employees; that invoke concern for local communities …” (Fombrun 1996, p.8). This approach to reputation management says that the organisation’s reputation is dependent on its behaviour as a corporate citizen, part of the societies in which it operates, and not above or apart from them.

So if WSW had polled 950 ordinary folks in 11 countries, it may have come closer to a realistic figure of blame on CEOs. It’s also worth noting that research by Prof Philip Kitchen of Hull Business School and Andrew Laurence of Hill & Knowlton found in 2003 that the percentage of an organisation’s reputation ascribed to the CEO in different countries was much more varable. In Belgium, it was only 26% but in Italy, it was 83%. Leaving Italy out of the data, the average for five other European countries was 36.2%. In North America, Canadians gave 66% credit to the CEO and the US, 54%. There’s no doubt that in a celebrity conscious world, CEOs are front and central on reputation issues because they are leaders but it is the range of stakeholders who give the organisation its reputation as a result of their engagement with it, not the CEO.

In the WSW research, the response that “online attacks or rumours” was only a 25% factor that can ‘significantly damage reputation’ demonstrates either complacency among the bizexecs or misunderstanding of the role that online media and social media can play. WSW comments in a very controlled manner that “companies continue to overlook how damaging threats from online activists and pressure groups can be if they are not prepared to respond quickly and decisively”. The 75% who don’t engage with the online world had better wake up soon!

I’m about to conduct a Delphi study into the priorities for public relations research over the next 10 year and have identified 24 topics that could be studied. The list, which is not in a priority ranking, has been drawn from previous studies, conference and academic papers, and by monitoring offline and online articles and discussion.

I’d like your views on what the priorities should be (nominate up to ten topics) and any gaps in this analysis.

– Strategic planning of public relations programmes
– Quality of public relations services
– Research into standards of performance among PR professionals; the licensing of practitioners
– Integration of PR with other communication functions; the scope of PR practice; discipline   boundaries
– The measurement and evaluation of public relations, both offline and online
– Client understanding of public relations strategy and tactics
– Professional skills in PR; Analysis of the industry’s need for education; Theories of practice
– Management of relationships; stakeholder approaches; negotiation and conflict resolution
– The definition of public relations
– The impact of technology on public relations practice and theory
– The culture of public relations
– International issues in public relations; Cross-cultural public relations
– The image of public relations; public relations’ position as a fundamental management function
– The expectations of users of public relations; The client: consultancy/adviser interface
– Public relations’ role in organisational change; Internal communications
– The place of “word-of-mouth” and buzz marketing in public relations practice
– Ethics in public relations
– Relations with the media
– The history of public relations
– Gender issues in public relations practice
– The role of PR in community/social responsibility programmes
– Management of corporate reputation; measurement of reputation
– Crisis management and communication; issues management
– Political communication and advocacy (lobbying)

Please consider this list and post your responses, as I’m keen to run this discussion in parallel with the more formal research process, I’ll keep you updated with summaries from two research discussions and we can see where they converge or separate.

In his latest white paper* the British media services operator Daryl Willcox offers a scenario 10 years hence in which search marketing has replaced public relations as the major “below-the-line” communication method. As well, he suggests PR spending will be at an all-time low, while companies are spending 50% of marketing budgets on online activity; there will only be three national dailies and tabloid newspapers will have become weekly glossy magazines. But, horror of horrors, the UK’s two leading public relations courses at Bournemouth University and Leeds Metropolitan University will be “considering closing … because of a shortage of applicants”. Willcox admits quickly that this worst case scenario probably won’t happen because public relations will “ultimately adapt to a world where traditional media becomes subordinate to online media” but the speed of adaptation will “dictate whether or not PR becomes a leading element in marketing strategy or a sideline”. He then makes a case for search marketing replacing PR for online media relations through search engine optimisation of press releases and says that this provides the ideal “Return on Investment” metric via click-throughs to client or organisational websites. The online environment is challenging current public relations practice through its speed of change, the increasing influence of social media, and the bypassing of media filters. There is, however, increasing research into theory and best practice which is finding that media audiences are multi-tasking on their consumption of media – they read both print and online version of their daily newspaper, they graze on online news, blogs and discussions and some, but still relatively few, consume via podcasts and internet news on mobile phones. There is also evidence from a recent Ketchum/USC Annenberg study that local media is still very important is most major US cities, despite the availability of global news services 24/7; that word-of-mouth plays a key role in reputation formation and buying decisions; and people still look to “influencers” in their community and interest groups for guidance. In other words, personal relationships are still very important even if some are constructed on the internet. 

And this is where Willcox’s analysis comes unstuck. He sees public relations in a very narrow view – as a marketing support message delivery device in which technician skills of clear writing and message optimisation are paramount. Despite saying that public relations should be “getting the recognition it deserves as a strategic function within organisations”, he assigns it an entirely tactical role. Although media relations is probably the most common tactic in message delivery, public relations has a much wider remit as the recent emphases on management of relationships and reputation management have shown. Public relations is being operated in excellent organisations as a core discipline that supports the whole of the organisation through all of its relationships, not just those with the media. How search marketing will make an impact on stakeholders and publics isn’t discussed by Willcox and it is a notable gap in his analysis. As for the impact of search marketing on public relations and other communication studies, I can report that it is only one of the influences on future course content. In recent times, we have seen IMC rise and fall rapidly despite being told that public relations would be subsumed within it. But that doesn’t leave educators complacent and most courses are already adapting to the online environment including units being taught with new online tools. If public relations courses fail to garner enough students, it will be the result of too many low-quality courses being offered, rather than the students rushing off to be search marketers. The glut of courses is a bigger danger to the public relations industry than the Willcox scenario of bulk media relations being undertaken by search marketers. 


Following on from my post on SimplyCity, it is notable that the latest edition of The Economist reports on buzz marketing which is the close cousin of WOM sites like SimplyCity. In the article “Building buzz” (p.76 of the UK edition), it points to the problems of control and ethics that are implicit in buzz marketing. “The difficulty for marketers is creating the right kind of buzz and learning to control it. Negative views spread just as quickly as positive ones, so if a product has flaws people will soon find out”.

The example of Microsoft sending laptops loaded with Vista to key bloggers was an example of misjudgement that boomeranged on the software company. They (and the blogging community) responded negatively to what could have been seen as a bribe or at least an unduly large gift. But there was no doubt as to which company had sent the laptop and software to the bloggers, whereas buzz marketing in some forms uses so-called “volunteers”, recruited with offers of free product or a loyalty rewards programme, to promote a product or service to friends and relatives.

In this case there may be no disclosure of interest by the “volunteer” who is speaking about product. That is a practised deception and so is, in my view, unethical. It’s bad enough to be ambushed by people selling pyramid schemes like Amway or inviting you to product evenings, but at least you know what their interest is within a few moments. For someone to be either promoting a product (whisper marketing) or getting feedback for product development (buzz marketing) without telling you of their interest is dangerous for the reputation of organisation using this strategy and potentially deceptive.  We all have heard recommendations from friends about products, but you expect them to be based on their genuine experience and not a set of messages that have been sent to them in exchange for reward.

Already, many PR professional bodies have set out policies on ethical communication and I hope that these will be operationalised in public relations and the other below-the-line disciplines. If not, who can we trust?

In commenting on my blog, Time for awards to ban AVEs, Simon Wakeman asked, “The big question I grapple with is what are the measures that we can replace AVE with? Given the fixation with measurability and accountability how can PR prove its worth alongside other more easily accountable disciplines?” So this blog answers that question and points to sources for alternatives. What do AVEs prove as a measure of PR effectiveness? Nothing in relation to achievement of objectives as a false correlation of value is used. The PR programmes and campaigns I worked on for 25 years had measurable objectives in terms of getting support, helping reach sales targets, building awareness of an issue or cause, but none had “getting £XX,000 in advertising equivalent spend of coverage”. Any media coverage was generated to support the campaign objectives and wasn’t an end in itself. PR professional and trade groups have strong views on AVEs, too, 

CIPR: Many problems stem directly from an over-simplified view that ‘PR is basically free advertising’.  This leads to ‘measures’ such as AVEs (advertising equivalents), which continue to be used despite being completely discredited. PRCA: They (AVEs) are weak and imply public relations is a substitute for advertising, when the two disciplines have different roles. AVEs take no account of positive or negative coverage, or the value (or damage) of editorial endorsement (or criticism). High quality editorial endorsement cannot be bought, so to put a value on it by using equivalent advertising space costs is misleading. 

British evaluation expert Dermot McKeone says “the whole concept of AVEs is based on false assumptions and any conclusions based on them are misleading and dangerous.” 
US PR educators Wilcox, Ault & Agee say this methodology “is a bit like comparing apples and oranges”; because advertising copy is controlled by the space purchaser while news mentions are determined by media gatekeepers and can be negative, neutral or favourable. It is also inherently absurd to claim a value for something which was never going to be purchased in the first place.
  What can replace them? There is a wide range of measurement methods which can and should be used, because public relations deals with complex issues and relationships, so a single metric can’t give clear answers. Any PR text has chapters on evaluating PR programmes. Modesty aside, there is “Evaluating Public Relations – a best practice guide to public relations planning, research and evaluation”, written by myself and Paul Noble and published by Kogan Page. It has a wide discussion of research methods and evaluation methods. As well, the CIPR has its range of PR Evaluation Toolkit publications, the (US-based) Institute for Public Relations has an excellent set of publications on its website, and there are many blogs developed to the subject of public relations measurement and evaluation. Further reading: The CIPR also made a major report and statement on PR evaluation in 2005 which says that all the evaluation methodology is in place and it’s time for practitioners to use it. It does argue that there is a place for a Return on Investment (ROI) measure but only in relations to campaigns where the objective has a specifically financial objective, for instance to reach a sales or fund-raising target. I have problems with the use of financial language to express PR outcomes but you can read this paper at . 

Finally, as David Phillips comments in reply to my blog on AVEs, the value of advertising space in print and broadcast is falling as spend shifts to click-through online advertising. How long will the dinosaurs in PR cling on the AVEs when the value supposedly being generated is dropping?

The concept of a marketing-led community has moved on a stage in the UK with the launch of SimplyCity by the London PR consultancy Kaizo, led by Crispin Manners. You can find it at Developed for the non-cosmetics cosmetics brand, Simple, it aims to recruit participants – called “advisers” – who will comment on advertising and new packaging, get special offers, read a chatty blog (and respond to it) and read Top Tips on lifestyle matters. The intent is to build a relationship between the brand and its customers and aid the “word-of-mouth” process of support for the products. Kaizo says it is a world first in WOM generation.Crispin says “The beauty of our approach is that it applies just as well with B2B audiences as it does for consumers. It is all about involvement, empowerment and active listening.”

The challenge for Kaizo and its client is to create the ease of comment and debate that characterises social media. The Simplycity approach looks very lean in features at present and there may be developments to come which bring the client-side people to life. The use of RSS and video feeds would give some humanity to it.

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Tom Watson

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