“How do I convince my internal client — who’s about 3 levels above me — not to do something I know isn’t going to work?”

How many of you feel that at least half of your job is making your boss look good? Your boss doesn’t always know exactly what they want, or how to ask for it, or just quite what it’s going to look like when you deliver it. Sometimes you’ve got to read their mind. And then pull the rabbit they didn’t know they wanted out of the hat they didn’t know was right there in front of them.

This is especially true when they are in the process of making a big mistake. You know they are making a big mistake, but they don’t know it. What can you do about it?

Lucky for you, heading them off at the pass is a trick your communications measurement superpower can pull off, no sweat. Of course, you have to actually do some measurement-type work before you save the day. Let’s look at that…

1. Hit them with your best shot: the data

One of the wonderful things about having ongoing measurement in place is that you are monitoring the situation. Or would be monitoring it if you actually looked carefully at all that data you have coming it. (Yes, we know, too much data, not enough time.)

Wait. You say you don’t have some pertinent measurement data up your sleeve? Well then, you are out on a limb. All you can do, if you are brave enough, is to say, “Uh, boss? I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” Could work, you never know.

But if you do have data that bears on the situation, and are on top of it enough to be able to analyze it and present it in a way that your boss will understand, then you can let the data do the talking. It’s as easy as that.

Here’s Katie Paine’s classic example. Back in her days at Lotus they were debating what would be the best strategy to launch the product that would become Lotus Notes. The product manager wanted to do a major event, the PR person wanted to do a press tour. Luckily, they had data that showed that the last major event (that cost $300,000) was singularly ineffective at getting the key product benefits across to the media and key influencers. The data also showed that a $15,000 press tour would be very successful at getting key messages into the top tier media.

chart of effectiveness of press tour vs event

The data made the decision obvious, and saved the product manager from making a $300,000 mistake.

Read similar true tales of measurement adventure in 6 Decisions You Should Never Make Without Data.

2. But what if my boss just doesn’t get it?

If you’ve got the right data, and you are (metaphorically) waving it about in front of your boss or board, but they just aren’t getting your message, well then you’ve got a different sort of problem. OK, yes, it may be that they are just too thick to get it. But it might, just might, be that you ought to be better at making your case.

To some of us, the data speaks eloquently. The numbers need minimal interpretation to get their message across. But there are some people, and perhaps your boss is one of them, that require a little help to get the picture. You might have to adapt your argument to your target audience, maybe make it tell a story that they can connect with. Read about these techniques and more in 7 Expert Analysis and Presentation Techniques to Gain Insights From Your Data.

3. Your boss thinks it’s a nightmare. So prove that it isn’t!

Your boss runs in and yells, “This is a major crisis, people: the sky is falling!” Here’s another opportunity to save your boss or board: show them that what they thought was a big problem is actually not a problem at all. This measurement-enabled magic trick requires double checking the data to look at what is really important. Here are two examples:

Measure the outcome, not the media.

Here is Katie Paine, telling two great stories about how what appeared at first to be a disaster turned out to actually generate donations and/or engagement:

1. The NWF’s “disaster.” A number of years ago the PR guy at the National Wildlife Federation asked me how I would measure a disaster. So I asked him to describe a typical “disaster.” He recounted how, in support of NWF’s push to protect open land for endangered species, he had worked for weeks to arrange for a water buffalo to appear on the Conan O’Brien show. It did not go as planned. The water buffalo threw Conan to the ground, generating a spectacular bruise, which of course he showed off to his audience the next night.

Conan’s technicolor bruise aside, I wasn’t convinced that this was as much of a “disaster” as the NWF thought. As it happened, their digital analytics expert was on hand, so I asked her to pull up their results for the 72 hours following the episode. It turned out that traffic to their website had spiked and generated an unexpected uptick in donations and subscriptions. What they had assumed was a disaster was actually a success.

2. PBS’s “negative” coverage. I spotted a similar occurrence recently with another client. Their one negative mention in an otherwise wildly successful month was this clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live, making fun of PBS’ The Great American Read survey. I checked PBS’s digital analytics and found that immediately following that “negative” piece they saw a 22% spike in new unique visitors. Again, what first seemed to be failure was a surprisingly good result.

It’s only a crisis if your stakeholders think it is: measure what they think, not what you think.

A crisis is a crisis if and only if it negatively impacts your key stakeholders. Katie Paine has provided evidence in court trials in which a company claimed defamation but her crisis measurement research showed that almost no one was aware of the crisis. And if they were, then they couldn’t name the company responsible.

A well-known case occurred during one of the Olympic Games, when IBM’s sponsorship included providing all the IT and networks for the event. On opening day everything but the media center was up and running. Naturally the media had a field day slamming IBM for its “failure.” In the meantime IBM did what any smart company would do: it conducted an overnight poll of its customers and target audience. The response was “We’re really impressed that IBM could get something that complex up and running that quickly.” So: no stakeholder problem, no crisis.

Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.