I have been in the reputation research business for close to 30 years, aiming to empower those who want a voice and who want to listen.
This is perhaps because I grew up as the youngest of four sisters – and began my life with having to fight to get my voice heard and have people listen.
(Image above: Sandra Macleod accepting the Page Distinguished Service Award on 25 September 2018/ Photo: Page Society)
In London in the mid-80s, as a 25 year-old head of communications of PA Management Consultants, I tried hard to have the partners hear my voice – to stop, to think and to be mindful about our communications. For them, at the time, the only thing that mattered was being in the Financial Times, every day if possible. Only when I convinced them that I should do some benchmark research among our clients, prospects and influencers, that I was truly able to get my voice heard. On completing the study, the first chart I put up was a quote from one of our major clients stating why they were about to leave us for another firm, because they didn’t think we offered what they wanted. We did, but we just didn’t talk about it. Our unconsidered messaging was hurting the business. Communications was suddenly material. The firm took note and started to change and improve for the better, and I’ve been in love with the power of research ever since.
Seeing media analysis in the US, I aimed to bring that discipline and insight to the UK. No bank would back me, as it was untested in Europe. Furthermore, everyone said public relations was not measurable. So my husband and I used our house for security, I went without a salary for three years, I grew the business, had two children and begged my husband to keep his day job. Media content analysis in those days was about couriers delivering boxes upon boxes of press cuttings, radio tapes and television recordings to be dissected, analysed and reported upon monthly with trained and qualified analysts. I could only dream of tidy, paperless offices and shelves, as in all our centres, we brimmed over with crates of coverage from our growing roster of clients. Those were the days of the ‘thud factor’ of success.
"Seeing media analysis in the US, I aimed to bring that discipline and insight to the UK."
The communications research approach itself was not recognised by any official body, so I started the Association for Media Evaluation Companies – AMEC – and turned to the academically recognised principles of content analysis as our foundation of legitimacy. There were perhaps four or five other budding agencies doing this work, and with that, the communications research and evaluation industry was born in Europe.
My north star
But as we all know communications is so much more than just about quantity or volume. As Winston Churchill, who corresponded with my father during the war, once observed: “On serious issues, I listen seriously. According to, least important, WHAT is being said; more importantly, HOW it is being said; most importantly, WHO is saying it.”
In our noisy, digital times, I believe that active listening is more important now than ever before, to understand where and how winds may be shifting and moving – and why. I have a default belief in the unique voice we bring to our organisations, with the power of evidence, to help them navigate through these gusts, squalls and challenges, safely – and for the better.
From those dusty days of media clips and no one believing public relations can be measured, most now appreciate and understand the connection between output measures of communication to impact measures on stakeholder perceptions and above all, linking to these to material outcomes on behaviour – such as loyalty, choice, advocacy and trust. We can now put a hard financial value on that intangible asset that is reputation, clearly mapping it as a contributor to lasting business value. While at least 30 per cent of corporate value is underpinned by reputation, still too many focus on – or stop at – measuring outputs.
We need to challenge ourselves on thinking about delivering outcomes and minding the gaps between where we are and where we want to be, and stakeholder expectations in between. When measuring reputation, one has to be clear that it is reputation for WHAT, among WHOM, to WHAT purpose. Given what is at stake, data analytics should not just be about clickthroughs. Reputation is a prism and needs to be considered across the spectrum of those who matter, and from that, how it drives choices, behaviour and value.
In terms of value creation, there is an interdependency between an organisation and its employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, financial institutions and other stakeholders. When aligned around purpose and values, the beneficiaries are the economy, the environment and society.
These are not small, insignificant issues. In my experience, while I’d agree that not everything can be measured, I also know that what’s not measured tends to be neglected, so being clear about reputation and the impact of strategic communications is key to transformation and success. This is my north star and the voice I am continuously striving for – to support change and improvement ahead.
A time to act
Seen through the arc of 30 years in this industry, we have clearly come a long way. Things have moved on so rapidly and fundamentally and will continue to do so with AI, cognitive computing, the internet of things and all things digital – and hopefully with human minds focused on purpose.
There is no turning back. Social media has changed the world forever. It has changed society, behaviour, social skills, invoked wars and uprisings and even evolved a completely new language. In our fractious, disrupted, demanding and chaotic world, the youth of today are seen as the answers to our hopes for tomorrow. But we mustn’t wait or pass off our responsibility. This is the time for the communications profession to act and lead with courage, as catalysts of purposeful change, stewards of the future, transforming business for the better. From atoms to bytes and from value in the tangible to value in the intangible, we are entering a different world where deeper information through sound data gives us that essential knowledge and a clearer compass.
"This is the time for the communications profession to act and lead with courage, as catalysts of purposeful change."
Someone once said that CCO stands for compassion, conviction and optimism. I believe that with the combination of good data on the one hand and absolute integrity, compassion and conviction for change on the other, the human voice can achieve much.
This text is adapted from Sandra’s acceptance speech for the Page Distinguished Service Award on 25 September 2018. Page annually bestows two prestigious honours recognising and celebrating those whose careers have made tremendous contributions to the communications profession.