Years ago, I was greatly honored to receive an Athena Award. On the statue itself was a quote from Plato that seared itself into my brain:
“What is honored in a culture will be cultivated there.”
In other words, what we reward, whether in the form of statuettes, raises or promotions—is what we want to grow more of. Simply admiring an attribute is not enough, we have to reward good behavior that fosters that attribute.
If you’ve ever participated in judging an award ceremony, you’ll be familiar with this process. I remember judging an award for an association that fights heart disease. We were judging newspaper coverage and told to award our points based on the accuracy of the information in a story, whether it contained specific heart-healthy messages, and its persuasiveness at getting people to act healthier. The reward was a hefty prize, with the idea that it would cultivate more people to write such stories. It worked: Year after year the stories got more frequent and more compelling.
Given the events that have taken place in the last couple of years, society seems to be demanding that we cultivate authenticity, integrity and diversity. If recent Grammys and other award shows are any indication, we are also finally starting to honor diversity in the arts.
In business, what is being honored, at least with higher compensation, stock prices, and support, seems to be starting to fall in line with other cultural changes.
- Investors and advisors are increasingly using ESG scores to decide which stocks to buy or recommend.
- More and more enlightened CEOs are increasingly focused on their “Triple Bottom Line”, i.e., looking not just at profitability and financial performance, but also their performance relative to their people and the planet.
- Watching recent hearings on Capitol Hill ,it is also clear that our political leadership will no longer tolerate (never mind honor) profit or growth as single infallible measure of success.
- Organizations are coming to grips with the fact that the young talent they want to hire won’t work for them if they aren’t seen as diverse and inclusive. Worse, it is clear that the cost of a toxic workplace culture is very steep.
As we begin to see a future beyond COVID, all kinds of businesses are “re-imagining” their work forces, their office spaces, and their ways of doing business. All of which will change what they measure, reward and honor. PR needs to do the same.
The more I thought about this phenomenon, the more I realized the truth of employee communications guru Mary Miller’s catch phrase: “Every business problem in existence can be traced to a communication breakdown.” And in fact, while communications can’t solve everything, it certainly plays an enormous role in the changes that have recently engulfed our business lives.
Internal communicators were on the front lines of getting the word out to countless employees as to whether they needed to stay home, come to work, work from home or never come to work again. And, they also had to ensure that those who were working knew how to do so safely.
Corporate communicators may not have their names attached to grand statements in support of voting rights—or democracy or Black Lives Matter or Mother Nature—but we know who wrote the words and got them out there.
And then, of course, there are all the communications professionals on the front lines during the COVID-19 crisis, brand managers for Lysol, Clorox and whoever else was unfortunate enough to unexpectedly trend on Twitter. (If you haven’t seen Rachel Maddow’s epic bit on the PR team at Lysol, it’s well worth watching; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV host’s eyes get that wide.)
No matter what the issue or cause, communications is at the heart of a strategy’s success or failure—which is why it’s time to also re-imagine and rethink what we as a profession honor, cultivate, and reward. And, of course, measure.
It’s not just me that thinks that better metrics have to be at the core of these changes. Bill Gates appears to agree:
“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improve the human condition.”
So, if we want to improve both the human condition as well as our organizational conditions, we need to change what we measure. No amount of column inches, impressions—or, God forbid, AVEs—is going to help you maintain your culture, your credibility or your trust.
If you are measured by placements or AVEs, then you don’t care about the perceptions that you are creating or the potential animus you may be generating with potential customers. Just ask Toyota – I don’t know how they measure their PR success these days, but if it is by counting AVEs and impressions, their summer is off to a great start. (Perhaps it was the threat of tanking Prius sales that got them to change their mind, but in the meantime, look at those impressions!)
Sadly, that’s been the attitude of far too many consumer brands for far too long. All PR needs to do is make more noise and get more attention. On the other hand, brands like Southwest Airlines that judge and reward success on perceptions or preference make every decision based on what will improve perceptions and generate preference.
So, what should we measure? Consider these metrics:
- Percentage of your stakeholders that find you trustworthy. Let’s start with trust—we’ve known how to measure it for a decade or more—and never has trust been more important to an organization. Whether it is getting people to trust you enough to heed your safety warnings, get vaccinated, come into your store or restaurant, or forgive you for your mistakes, you need to know if you have sufficient amounts of trust so that people will pay attention to what you say.
- Percentage who find what you say credible. Credibility is trust’s younger sister. People may not know you enough to trust you but could still find you credible. Just ask a hundred startup life science companies that have no track record but have enough credibility to raise millions in venture capital.
- Percentage who perceive your actions to be authentic. For a consumer-facing brand today, authenticity is key to acceptance. A generation raised on paid influencers have little patience for big brands that come across as green- or woke-washing.
Re-imagine compensation and the sales funnel
Many, if not most communicators I encounter believe that they are compensated and rewarded based on an outdated marketing model of the sales funnel. (PR generates impressions; impressions generate leads; leads generate sales.)
Logically, if communicators are rewarded for generating placements, or random inquiries and irrelevant social engagements, they’ll invest their time sending out press releases to anyone whose email they have. And, if communicators are rewarded for people opening their emails, they’re going to send more emails rather than getting employees or potential customers to actually understand what is in the email and being willing to act on the contents of these emails.
They’ll count as a victory a placement in a media outlet that has nothing to do with their organizational strategy. Do they care whether the “placement” is seen by the target audience, or whether that target audience is persuaded to consider doing business with the organization? Of course not. They get paid either way.
The problem is that today’s customer journey today is much more convoluted. Today’s path to purchase involves trust, credibility, online reviews, word of mouth–all things that depend on good communications. So, let’s start compensating PR professionals for what they do best—build trust, credibility and improve relationships with key stakeholders, all of which we know how to measure.
Re-imagine what we honor
And, speaking of honoring, how backward is it that our profession (are you listening PRSA and IABC?) still doles out prizes for programs that generate impressions, hits, and AVES? If that’s what wins awards, then that’s what our profession will cultivate.
Just imagine if they gave out prizes for achieving actual change in behaviors or beliefs? We might then be rewarded for the role that we can and should and must play—if we ever are to become what we truly wish to be honored for. Without effectively measured corporate communications, it can’t happen.