Science behind the art

The journey of measurement and evaluation pushes at the limits of our ideas about the value of communications and public relations


It strikes me that I could summarise this article by paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld. There are known-knowns. There are known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns. Let me start with the known unknowns first.

The fact is there is so much we don’t know about research and measurement. As communicators, we are sitting at a table with others in the company who have definitive metrics – the cost of capital, inventory turns, earnings per share, organic growth. In our line of work, we have useful and interesting criteria, but nothing as definitive as these metrics.

Yet we know that the expectations upon us by the C-suite to show results and to demonstrate return on investment on our initiatives are greater than ever before. As data and analytical metrics help our organisations develop a better understanding of consumers and stakeholders, there is a greater expectation that similar benchmarks can and should be applied to communications. Simultaneously, as chief executives increasingly care about more than traditional profit and loss measures – viewing social responsibility, the environment, philanthropy and employee communications as critical to success – they will rely on communications to monitor sentiment and reputation around the issues.

We also know that the New Model of corporate communication – as defined by the Arthur W. Page Society and which relies on identifying and activating corporate character, and then building advocacy at scale – means that we must have a better understanding of our audiences. We cannot enable advocacy without first understanding what motivates our audiences to action, and that relies on research. At the same time, through this new model, it is incumbent on the chief communications officer to identify the gaps where we are not authentically living our corporate character and to measure progress in living up to it.

Lastly, we know that we are equipped today with the ability to be more effective in measurement, because we can measure more things. In the past, most research focused on communication outputs, but over time we’ve seen a concentrated move in the direction of measuring outcomes. We are now far more focused on attitude- and impact-based measures. Measurements of trust, reputation and brand engagement allow for a deeper assessment of the actual relationship that an enterprise has with stakeholders. Moreover, with technology, measurement can move from gathering snapshots in time (scheduled focus groups) to maintaining an uninterrupted pulse on sentiment over time. In other words, research and measurement separate the art of public relations from press agentry and publicity.

Five areas for development

When I joined GE in 1999, the only metric discussed in our communications meetings was the stock price and where we ranked on the Fortune Most Admired list, two metrics that remain important today. But by 2000, my boss Beth Comstock knew this wasn’t enough and set us on a course to conduct meaningful research into external and internal perceptions about GE, our reputation, our brand and our people. As we advanced through a tumultuous decade for our company, we probed deeper into investor sentiment, depth of brand penetration, social media return on investment, our own employees’ view of GE and, most recently, how communications metrics can influence strategy and create commercial opportunity. Here, I want to walk you through that journey and reflect on five areas that I think we should focus on to advance the science behind the art of public relations.

  1. As a profession, we need to come together to identify and agree on what determines meaningful metrics, and create a standard measurement system across all programmes and campaigns to deliver consistent, comparable data. Our credibility depends on it. In the words of the Institute for Public Relations, “we can’t afford duelling measurement systems anymore…we must develop standard definitions and metrics now or be left behind.” The work of the Institute is a great example of the search for industry standards in research and measurement. It has established a set of benchmarks for traditional media analysis as well as social, for the communications life cycle (beginning with awareness and extending to advocacy), for return on investment and for ethics in research and measurement.
    The next step is to begin exploring additional standards, beyond traditional and social media, as requested by the industry. For example, this might include standards for employee communications and investor relations.
  2. We must use the tools out there to make strategic decisions. But, importantly, before you use the tools you need to know what metric or sentiment you should be measuring – what is the meaningful insight that should impact your strategy? For instance when determining a communications strategy in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis we needed to understand whether the public blamed GE or thought that this was an event caused by an earthquake and tsunami. Using measurement, we were able to discern the public’s understanding of this natural disaster and who they blamed for it, and provide strategic counsel to senior executives whose instincts may have guided them in a different direction in the heat of a crisis.
  3. As an industry, we have to reorient our thinking to be data-centric and to be able to thoughtfully collect and analyse meaningful data. We can’t just leave this to the experts to understand and interpret.
    GE is at the start of this journey. We’ve adopted Prime Research across our companies’ varied businesses and regions for one consistent and efficient take on monitoring and measurement. Based on their Global Listening Tool, Prime provides a comprehensive snapshot that accurately measures: the volume of conversation across traditional and social; the total traditional reach based on a unique formula that accounts for likelihood to see (rather than the inflated impressions figures we’re used to); and key influencers driving social conversation based on activity and following. In addition, Prime measures traditional media sentiment to determine positive, negative and neutral tone.

    Perhaps most importantly, Prime help us identify trends over time – peaks and troughs for all of the above so we can compare apples to apples and get a sense of context for all the listening data coming in. We have grown more comfortable with data by knowing what to expect and having a frame of reference for the numbers we receive. With consistent metrics, we are able to accurately gauge the success of an announcement or the severity of an issue by looking at the numbers with the lens of historical context and a point of comparison.

  4. We must partner with marketing for commercial impact. To be blunt, marketing has the money. They also have a history of making decisions based on customer data, and turning that into actionable insight. Marketers have a distinct advantage in that they historically have focused on consumer data. At the same time, they also need help. If you look at companies built on marketing – the Amazons of the world – they have trouble demonstrating meaningful metrics. They are not measuring their value in profit – they can’t. How do you truly measure the engagement level of customers?
    For my marketing colleagues at GE, social media return on investment is measured by engagement. Each marketing campaign is deemed successful or not by comparing the dollars invested to the engagement driven. Measurement is usually delivered in metrics like cost per click or cost per engagement – meaning how many promotional dollars did we spend to get one click-through to our content, one retweet or reply, one favourite or like. But paid promotion shouldn’t be limited to the marketing department. More than any other public relations function, digital communications operates at a nexus with advertising and marketing. We must embrace this ambiguity and harness the power of paid media when it makes sense for the business and for reputation. Native advertising – or advertorial content where we tell stories on a paid platform – is a perfect example of the type of content that requires cooperation between advertisers and communicators. We must harness paid platforms for stories that serve our business interests.

    Another example of partnership is when we were preparing to launch the Industrial Internet. It was important for our marketing and communications teams to work together to ensure that the language we were using mirrored what the public already believed about GE, particularly in the markets were it was most critical for us to succeed. As we were heading into launch, survey data showed that we had little credibility as a software company in Silicon Valley. We used this data to develop a “market-making” public relations plan focused on customer storytelling and open innovation challenges. Based on this data, we made the business case for why leading in software would be good for GE but we also sought out partnerships and thought leaders to help us learn the space and we created messages about our need to learn and adapt. The result is that in 2012, 43 per cent of business decision makers believed GE “lacks the expertise” for big data. Today, 60 per cent of business decision makers in the valley believe GE is the most innovative technology company. Communications-led measurement helped create the strategy – the business plan – that got us there.

  5. We must use metrics purposefully to build an authentic enterprise that engages in a personal way. When I say authentic enterprise, what I mean is an organisation that is grounded in a sure sense of what defines and differentiates it, and then consistently behaves and acts in a way that reflects that definition.

So our job is two-fold. To build the authentic enterprise, we need to use research and measurement to listen to the stakeholders – within and outside of our company – to get at that definition of what differentiates us.

When I first came to GE we brought in a cultural anthropologist to help us understand employees and what motivates them. That moment in our history began to unearth an insight which has helped us to better communicate and behave in a way that is authentic to our origins and the beliefs of our employees. In sum, what employees saw as our key differentiator was not the stock price, but that we work – they work – to solve the tough challenges like the need for cleaner energy or mapping the brain to better treat injuries.

Over time, we have continued to mine these insights from employees, moving to include more qualitative assessments. So not just an employee survey, but reading comments they post and gauging what they read on the intranet, to ensure that we are consistently presenting ourselves in a way that is authentic to who we are, and what we believe – the manifestation of which you see today in GE Works, which we believe to be the authentic expression of who we are.


In this article, I have shared a bit about our 15-year journey with research and measurement. We do not know the full extent of how research and measurement can further change and improve our ability to offer strategic counsel to our colleagues. We know that we must continue to push the limits of what research can do for us. We must push to strengthen our capabilities to use it, becoming more adept at using big data.

We must form partnerships outside of communications around insights we glean. And most important, we must join together to adopt an industry standard. Failing to do so jeopardises the very quality we seek through research – which is to bring greater credibility to the strategies we offer.

I will always believe that great communications is inherently an art, not a science. In a media landscape that is rapidly evolving, a world of uncontrollable variables, and public opinion that is constantly being reshaped, it cannot be a science. But that is not to say that we can’t bring science into it to improve our strategies, deepen engagement and expand our reach. As we strive to bring greater value as communicators to the organisations we serve, this is our calling.

Gary Sheffer

Gary Sheffer oversees external and internal communications and provides strategic communications advice to GE executives on a full range of corporate reputation issues. In his public affairs role, Sheffer works with external groups and individuals to foster understanding of GE policies and businesses. He joined GE in 1999 after 17 years in journalism and government communications. Sheffer also serves on the boards of several associations, including the Institute for Public Relations and the Arthur W. Page Society.