Of all the marketing disciplines, public relations has been able, until recently, to escape the fierce number-crunching that has been applied to advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing. Practitioners and users have long felt that PR methods and effects are too intangible to be measured.
However, this is changing and PR practitioners are facing demands for better results and measurability. A new market has sprung up, with a growing number of companies offering media analysis and evaluation.
It is a relatively new market, although a couple of companies have been offering serious media analysis for a while, and is a long way from the counting of press cuttings or measuring of column inches that has normally constituted PR evaluation. It is also far from the advertising value equivalent (AVE) that many people still use to measure PR activity.
In-depth analysis of media content seeks to identify who is saying what about your product or corporation, and what is being said about your competition.
Marketing consultant David Hide became interested in media content analysis two years ago, when he was the corporate communications manager for the Alliance & Leicester Group, where he was assigned to set up a media evaluation system. He studied the market, and decided it was growing fast enough for someone to become involved as an independent consultant. He divides it into three areas.
“There are now about 20 media evaluation companies on the market. There are the well-established, such as Carma and Impacon, who have been in business for years and who offer sophisticated services to the major corporates and multi nationals.
“Then there are those in the middle of the range, such as Media Measurement, Mantra and Infopress, who identified a gap in a growing market a few years ago. They are attracting medium-sized companies, and those in business sectors that have a high media profile, are intensely competitive and are often in an overcrowded market – banks and building societies for example.
“And then there are the small outfits, like The Cutting Edge, that offer simple software to clients like PR consultancies, which enables them to input and retrieve the data themselves,” says Hind.
Carma is universally acknowledged to be the leader in the evaluation business, and operates on an international basis. The company measures and evaluates media coverage and from this provides what it calls “management intelligence”. Its analysis includes electronic and print media.
Managing director for Europe Sandra Macleod, who recently addressed the Pan African Congress in Nairobi about how to use and analyse the media, says: “Instead of developing an instinctive feel for public opinion portrayed in the media by reading press cuttings, Carma analyses statistical data, evaluates the results and provides reports on all relevant aspects. The criteria we adopt vary according to each client’s concerns. Carma identifies emerging issues or product trends and tracks competitors’ strategies, legislative initiatives or grassroots activities.”
Adds Macleod: “The media represents the weather-vane of public perceptions about an organisation’s reputation, products and services, and those of its competitors. But it also affects and reflects public perceptions and behaviour.
“Arguably, the current furore over privatised utilities has more to do with the Labour Party agenda than it does with media hype. Linking directors’ pay to customer service is illogical, and yet has been convincingly packaged. Was Brent Spar more to do with the media, Greenpeace or politicians?”
In this context, both Macleod and managing director of Media Measurement David Phillips see these evaluation tools as also being useful in a crisis management situation.
Phillips says: “When a client is facing a major disaster, to know who is driving the issues in the press, which press is supporting those issues, and who is repeating what messages, gives the client the upper hand.”
Phillips cites the Shell/Brent Spar issue as an example. Shell hired a company to provide it with in-depth analysis about what was being said to whom, and how it was being covered in the press. “This meant Shell was no longer fighting fire. It could launch a strategic counter-attack once it understood who its opposition was and what its agenda was.”
Phillips says his company is typically involved in long-term media tracking for its clients.
“A number of things have happened to the media in the past few years to make this sort of detailed analysis essential. The increase in freelance journalists, the fragmentation of the media, and the fact that a lot of information is now also gathered from the electronic media, means that you can no longer rely on your instincts to know who is going to respond to your message, and how they will do so.
“I wouldn’t launch a campaign, or put a press relations programme together, without several content analyses to tell me where I should be going,” says Phillips.
To give an example of how this analysis works, Media Measurement analysed the coverage of the banking sector in this publication during 1994/5. It found that in the 53 articles, 165 column centimetres were adverse. The most favourable coverage was given to NatWest Bank, and the least mentioned bank was Lloyds. The 13 articles with critical comment were written by five of the nine journalists that had written about the sector.
With this kind of information, it becomes much easier to be strategic when it comes to developing a media campaign.
Media Measurement was hired by Barnardo’s to conduct media content analyses throughout 1995 – the 150th anniversary of Thomas Barnardo’s birth.
Senior media officer at Barnardo’s Neil Churchill says: “For us, the history of Barnardo’s has been a double-edged sword. Some people think we run homes for orphans, whereas the last one closed in the early Eighties. We are now tackling modern childcare issues.
“We faced the risk that if the press concentrated soley on our past and didn’t look at the modern aspects of Barnardo’s work, it could take us backwards.”
Media Measurement tracked all reference to Barnardo’s work currently in the press: how Thomas Barnardo himself was presented; how often orphanages were mentioned; and issues of modern child care. Fortunately for Barnardo’s, the tracking proved that its initial strategy was working and no major changes were made to the campaign as a result.
Churchill says the tracking also revealed that when Barnardo’s is not actually campaigning about something, its coverage in the press is limited to issues like disability and adoption. When it is campaigning, it is mentioned in terms of poverty, which constitutes the bulk of its work, Aids and homelessness.
Impacon is another company considered to be at the top end of the market, and it has a number of governments among its clients.
Managing director Paul Georgiou says: “We have always aimed to provide our clients not only with a retrospective analysis of past coverage, but with analyses of the media in a form that provides a basis for forward planning of communication strategies. We have also always set out to tell the client what the media are doing to them, as well as what the client is doing to the media.”
Impacon recently conducted a two year analysis for British Telecom. The company analysed 150,000 press items and BMRB conducted 200,000 interviews with the public. The result demonstrated that more than 70 per cent of changes in the public’s perception of BT could be predicted solely on the basis of Impacon’s measurements of the effect of media coverage.
This sophisticated analysis is a far cry from advertising value equation (AVE), which many PR practitioners, and their clients, are still conducting.
Managing director of Infopress Communications Dermot McKeone, whose company sells a media evaluation service called Impact, believes the concept of AVE is “intellectually flawed”.
McKeone says AVEs cannot evaluate negative information, nor can they measure the relative message strength. “Some kind of message analysis is of vital importance,”
Seagram has used Impacon to evaluate the effectiveness of the media coverage of its Tropicana brand.
Media and information officer at Seagram Corporate Communications Sophie Daranyi believes the one drawback is that the trial lasted for only three months and in her view it needs at least six months to be of any major value.
“However, we did find it useful. It assured us that the current PR programme was effectively communicating the brand’s core messages. It also enabled us to see what other fruit juices were doing in the market, and what messages we were coming up against.”
At the smaller end of the scale is The Cutting Edge, which provides a software programme that combines equivalent advertising values from a directory of 7,000 titles with an assessment of content.
Managing director Carl Henshall says: “Contrary to many reports, measuring advertising equivalent values does not mean that we take no account of the tone of the coverage. Our software requires you to assess the helpfulness of each cutting/broadcast transcript to each of your communications objectives. It then relates this to the advertising value of the space generated.”
The Cutting Edge media evaluation software is used primarily by PR agencies and also by in-house PR departments, as well as government agencies and county councils.
Judith Bell, account director at PR consultancy The Noise Works, says most of her clients are in the information technology industry and they expect media evaluation.
“At its most basic level we provide AVEs for those clients who want it. But at the other end, we won a fairly big piece of business off the back of The Cutting Edge software. An existing client was looking for a PR agency to handle some pan European business.
“We customised the software to deal with the six different European countries, which means we were able to compile a pan-European media evaluation package. It turned out to be the European marketing director’s dream,” says Bell.