In VUCA we fear, in data we trust

What is the future of measurement and evaluation in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world?

With fake news being the word of the year in 2017 and Bell Pottinger the first PR firm in history (potentially) whose business succumbed due to “acute embarrassment”, an acronym reflected more than ever all the concerns and hopes of communicators: VUCA.

(Image above: Ana Adi and the panel at BledCom 2018 / Photo: BledCom)

It is essentially a post-Cold-War term depicting the world as it was then perceived: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. But with disruption and transformation, digitalsation and globalisation, one could argue that today’s version of VUCA is even more nuanced and complicated than the post-Cold War one.

For once, everything can be thought of in terms of positives and negatives and their consequences – positive complexity (i.e. a product going viral and becoming an internet sensation) being seen in products and people gaining fame through virality, and negative complexity (such as how the Arab Spring indirectly contributed to Brexit) leading potentially to new political constellations or also to new public diplomacy pressures.

And while negative complexity can be harnessed to create positive complexity by moving to self-organisation, democratising information, speeding up interactions and using simple rules to make quick decisions (or so does Sunnie Giles say in her May 2018 Forbes article, “How VUCA Is Reshaping The Business Environment, And What It Means For Innovation”), only few organisations are equipped to do that, and dare I add only few communicators are ready for that as well.

To make things worse, communicators still talk about struggling to gain the trust of the people and organisations they are advising, debate how the profession can be taken seriously and made #futurePRoof yet, many continue to practice what they have been speaking against: target short-term, disseminate more than listen, lack business related KPIs, report aloof metrics which include Advertising Value Equivalencies (or Earned Media Value). 

VUCA we fear, data we can trust

If self-organisation and democratisation of information are the solutions to cope with the new VUCA, then certainly understanding what that information/data means and where it comes from will be central to the success of every communicator in the future. That takes us back to what we have been saying all along, that measurement and evaluation are essential to the PR skillset as well as to legitimising public relations and communications.

There is no shortage of measurement tools and models but, with VUCA, communicators need to move from data to information, to knowledge, to insight, to wisdom. What keeps us from getting there? And more importantly, how do we get there?

With this is mind, Thomas Stoeckle and I joined this year’s 25th edition of BledCom conference, asking questions about the trends, skills and sources of information that practitioners could use free of charge to make measurement and evaluation of communication central to their success. We did this on two fronts: we asked all the participants to answer our three open ended questions and we challenged three practitioners to answer the same in a panel: Fraser Likely (president and managing partner at Likely Communication Strategies and long-standing member of IPR Measurement Commission  and AMEC ), Hans Ruijgers (head of communications at KWR Watercycle Research Institute from the Netherlands and EACD member) and Ilia Krustev (chief executive officer at A Data Pro).

Worry about big data and AI, but worry more about budgets and standards

Speaking of trends that would affect measurement and evaluation of communications in a VUCA world, the respondents to our open-ended poll often point to AI/machine learning/big data as the next “big thing”. This has been associated with the fragmentation of publics, change in speed with which issues emerge and would need to be addressed and the continued rule of financial indicators as indicators of business success. But AI, participants at BledCom contended, should be seen as an opportunity for communicators and not as the ringer of their demise, with automation and more sophisticated data filtering and prognosis coming the promise of better insight.

Ilia Krustev warns that AI is too generic of a term, for in communications “AI” encompasses everything from data aggregation and selection methods, to automation, identification and projection of patterns: some of these already in use, some of these still the realm of imagination. So for Ilia, whose work in recent years has been to demystify and increase the adoption of measurement and evaluation in his native Bulgaria, the increasing mistrust of technology, news media and automation means humans are still needed but, “The convergence of PR with marketing and other communications-related disciplines is perhaps the biggest trend directly affecting PR professionals. Businesses increasingly expect communication efforts to be integrated and translate to measurable return on investment.”

Reflecting on his experience at KWR, Hans Ruijgers points out to the benefits and risks of such integrated and collaborative work. While communication becomes a responsibility and priority across the organisation, this means that pressures on the time and budget of communication departments are increasing so much so that communications budgets could be reduced. When this happens, Ruijgers says it is often the measurement and evaluation budgets that are the first casualties. 

To this, Fraser Likely added an entire list of barriers that deter communications teams to adopt and implement more sophisticated evaluation and measurement programmes, including the lack of access to sophisticated tools, the lack of knowledge, the lack of support within the organisation and last but not least, the lack of industry standards.

With all these challenging trends ahead, what skills would practitioners need to address them?

FuturePRoof means wider horizons

There is consensus here for the most often mentioned needed skills include:

  1. analytical skills (this includes media and news literacy, knowledge of research methods and tools, qualitative and quantitative analysis but also a better utilization and allocation of resources),
  2. societal sensitivity (which was often linked to the wider horizon that the study of social sciences could provide but also with a wider and deeper understanding of the organization, its stakeholders and their needs) and
  3. agility (which I dare interpret in the wider sense of entrepreneurship and strategic planning just because that would fit with Forbes’ solutions to VUCA and reflect what other recent debates about public relations practitioners capabilities allude to). 

There also has been agreement on the kind of personal characteristics needed to succeed in the VUCA world. They have to do with resilience and curiosity.

But if this is all it takes to be successful as a communicator in the VUCA world, then this is certainly doable because we know the unknowns. All it takes now is the committed collaboration between practitioners and academia to turn the scary VUCA (volatile – uncertain – complex – ambiguous) into a positive opportunity: visionary, understanding, clear and agile.

Ana Adi

Dr. Ana Adi is a professor of public relations and corporate communications at Quadriga University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She is the coordinator of PR2025, a delphi method study aiming to identify the technical and business competences PR practitioners should focus on to stay relevant and confident in the mid-term and editor of Protest Public Relations: Communicating Dissent and Activism (Taylor & Francis, 2018).