This was an easy column to write. There was so much competition for the “worst thing to happen to measurement” this year that it was hard to know where to begin. We provide a few fixes for you Mavens out there to work on.
1. Russian hacking, fake news and the growth of cynicism
Regardless of whether you blame the Russians, “fake news,” Facebook, Twitter, POTUS, aliens, or perhaps a Tweeting-alien-POTUS, there is no doubt that the credibility of formerly revered institutions has declined.
The problem as it relates to measurement is that the PR profession has been built around the concept of persuading influential people to support their organizations, brands, products, or whatever. But what happens when those people aren’t influencing anyone anymore? Or at best are only influencing a much smaller tribe of people whose political persuasion aligns with theirs?
It doesn’t help that the most powerful and visible influencer in America approaches any person or entity that doesn’t see the world his way by lashing out at them as “fake!” or “failing!” That includes not just the media, but also the FBI, the Justice Department, academics in general, and whoever else will pop up on his s–t list next week.
The media and advertisers have some responsibility, as well. The Society for New Communications Research of The Conference Board (SNCR) has just published research that concludes that big brand marketers are reluctant but significant players in the world of fake news. Nearly half of marketers don’t know where their ads are running. Which means that much of their marketing spend stokes the sensational-content-equals-revenue machine.
Living as I do in a world of data, healthy skepticism is my nature. It’s a key to success in our profession. But so many people today embrace doubt or ignorance, even when the data or once-trusted institutions argue otherwise. The rejection of empirical knowledge hurts not only the world of measurement but social institutions and the functioning of democracy as a whole.
How to fix it: Learn from the Russians. Meet people where they are and persuade them using things that you already have in common. Use emotion, not just facts and data. That goes for science, journalism, climate change or whatever. Trust is rebuilt slowly, one action at a time. And watch Samantha Bee’s video, over on the right.
2. HR departments
You know your profession is in trouble when you Google “HR and Saturday Night Live” and get 10.5 million results. If you haven’t seen it yet it, watch Clair from HR epitomize the problems with HR in 2017. Spoiler: “Your penis never needs to be out of your pants at work.”
Now that HR has been at the center (if not the cause of) so many sexual harassment claims, the profession has its own PR problem. Aggrieved employees are questioning whether “going to HR” will result in anything but more problems. Instead they seem to be going to outside agencies, specifically the EEOC, which has seen its website traffic spike by 800% in recent months.
Worse still, HR’s approach to dealing with such issues seems antiquated, based on policies and procedures written prior to social media. Many organizations insert a “social media policy” into their employee manuals to cover their butts in the event of a brouhaha. But they don’t seem to really grasp the role that social media conversations now play in our society.
I’m guessing that many corporate comms professionals are not surprised at the depth of the doo-doo that HR now finds itself in. The core of the issue is that HR’s job is often to protect the company — rather than the employees — and its core constituency is the C-suite. Meanwhile communications knows that in order to enhance and protect the brand, its constituency must be all the relevant stakeholders, the majority of which are not employed by the company.
The relationship between HR departments and corporate comms has long been fraught with tension. It’s not just a struggle over who communicates what to whom and when. Internal communications is frequently challenged to find good metrics because the data it needs is locked down by HR. In a crisis, typically, HR and legal team up to silence the advice of PR professionals.
Most corporate comms pros understand that the only way the company survives is if the marketplace and society in which it functions gives its permission. If the organization is seen as one which deprives 50% of the population of a safe work environment, then that permission will be withdrawn — whether through legal means or boycotts.
How to fix it: The solution lies in an entire realignment of priorities, which probably includes a lot of changes to the org charts. My vote is that corp comms ends up on top.
3. Bell Pottinger
If you aren’t familiar with the Bell Pottinger scandal, the CliffsNotes version is that one of the world’s largest and most powerful PR firms was driven out of business by a series of terrible choices, and even worse crisis management.
How to fix it: The lesson is that “you become what you measure.” If your only measure of success is profit, then you won’t survive in a world where reputation is everything.
4. Impression inflation
The ridiculous impression numbers provided by most social listening and media monitoring firms are the laughing stock of the industry. There isn’t an audience anywhere that I’ve talked to in the last year that hasn’t brought up the issue. It’s generally framed as “Is there a standard definition of impressions?” The answer is “Yes.” (You can find them here for social media and also here.) What those definitions will tell you is that our industry’s commonly used numbers are not audited or validated in any way, so using them is essentially lying to your boss.
How to fix it: Don’t lie to your boss. There are plenty of ways to replace impressions with more accurate and useful metrics. Read “How to Break Up with Impressions: Tools & Techniques to Create Metrics that Really Matter.” And if you still have to use impressions, assume — as the VP of Facebook informed PRSA in 2015 — that only 3% of all Facebook posts are actually seen by the people you’re trying to reach.
Facebook has admitted to at least 10 mistakes in how it calculates results. For starters, Facebook claims it reaches 25% more 18- to 34-year-olds in the U.S. than actually live in this country. It also overstated seven-day organic reach counts by 33%, and 28-day reach counts by 55%. Never mind overstated video average watch time by 60 to 80%. (Here is an itemized list.) This should make everyone question metrics from social listening platforms that report engagement and reach numbers provided by Facebook. (We reserved a special place in measurement hell for Facebook and Twitter; they are our new Measurement Menaces of the Year.)
How to fix it: Take your reported Facebook results for 2016 and 2017 and reduce the numbers by half. You might approximate the truth.
Facebook isn’t alone in reporting inflated numbers. The University of Southern California found that up to 48 million Twitter accounts are bots, not real people. And until bots can open a checking account, somehow I don’t think they’ll be buying many of your products or services.
How to fix it: Toss out those Twitter numbers. If you have to report on Twitter, set up goal conversions in Google Analytics (watch my video to see how easy it is) and see how many actually came from Twitter. ∞