The Paine of Measurement
First, please allow me to get up on my soap box for a minute to vent:
One Number Is a Silly Notion
Why do rational and reasonably intelligent PR people insist that they just have to have a single number to take to their clients or their board that will somehow magically sum up a quarter’s worth of work?
- When they go to the doctor, do they think that their blood pressure sums up the entire state of their health?
- When they buy a car, do they use miles per gallon as the single variable that determines which car they buy?
- When they decide whether or not to go out with someone, do they only consider a person’s age?
This entire train of thought was chugging through my brain when I was checking on my Map My Run numbers. I realized that my definition of a “good week” wasn’t just how fast I ran, but how many calories I burned and how many miles I got in. Which particular stat is most important depends on whether I’m feeling fat, lazy, or slow at any given moment.
And in fact this obsession with one number for PR (made worse by the fact that it is so often some form of AVE) is made even sillier by the fact that it’s not like the CFO presents one number to the board to inform them of the company’s health. In all the board meetings I’ve ever sat through there is always a discussion of P&L, income, revenue, and sales forecasts. In the smarter ones, there is even a risk/reputation number derived from ongoing surveys of the stakeholders.
So the reason for demanding the “one number” has nothing to do with what the board expects. I’m increasingly convinced that the reason for the obsession with a single metric is that it’s an easy sell to clients that were probably brought up to think that they were allergic to math and therefore the fewer numbers on a page the better. “One number solves all your problems. Easy!”
“OK, then,” I can hear you asking, “just how many numbers should we present?” Sorry, I can’t tell you. It depends too much on your own situation. But what I can give you are some general guidelines, based on the role those numbers play for the board. The numbers are supposed to help the board (or the clients) think clearly about what has been happening and make good decisions. (That’s what CEOs need to do.) Here you go:
Katie Paine’s 5 Guidelines for Which Numbers to Present to the Board
- One is too few, so is two. Three is about right. More than five is probably too many.
- Boards probably want outcomes, rather than outputs or outtakes. Or at least numbers that relate to business goals.
- Boards want to understand numbers in context, so give it to them. That probably means a trend over time, or perhaps comparison with the competition or a benchmark. For more about writing great reports, read my article “The 10 Things Every Report Needs If You Want It To Get Into The C-Suite.”
- Better yet, use your numbers to tell a story. Obstacles overcome, heroic deeds, that sort of thing. Use your numbers to give them an Ah-ha! moment.
- Boards want numbers to help them make decisions, so give them what they need. If only to simply decide that you are still doing your job. But if you know that they are going to be deciding about something (budget, new programs, staff), give them what they need to do so.