More than just clippings, PR research and evaluation provide insight into whether your message is received and understood

Understanding media analysis: more than just clippings, PR research and evaluation provide insight into whether your message is received and understood

Carolyne Van Der Meer

Through his extensive work on the media and its far-reaching effects, the Canadian critical thinker Marshall McLuhan changed the way society views the media by making us understand its ultimate power. In a 1966 lecture at the Kaufman Art Gallery in New York City, McLuhan said, “The medium is the massage, not the message…. It really works us over; it really takes hold and massages the population in a savage way.” Nearly 40 years later, new strategies in media analysis are helping organizations tap in to this “savage massage,” essentially changing the way they do business.

And why shouldn’t they be tapping in? According to Bill Fox, the author of Spinwars: Politics and New Media (Key Porter Books), the media represent a primary site of discourse in Western liberal democracies. “In arts, politics, business, sports and public policy, among others, a lot of what we know is because of the media,” he says. “So measuring our impact there makes sense.” Fox points out that with every other form of messaging, such as advertising, “you test constantly to see whether your messages are getting through. When you’re talking about earned media as opposed to paid media, the same principle should apply.”

But individuals trying to communicate messages must have some way to measure whether those messages are being received and understood as they intended. “It’s the social science of media analysis that’s so important,” Fox says. “The analytical and measurement capability allows you to determine the answers to these points. And if the answer is no to both questions, it provides a road map for what to do about it.”

Meeting demand

There are different types of analysis: Two of the best known are media-clipping tabulation and advertising value equivalents. But neither of these provides any indication of how deeply the media massage takes hold and works over the reader. This is the kind of information organizations need in order to track and perhaps alter their messaging, as well as to execute their entire communication program.

Media content analysis is taking an increasingly prominent place in many PR programs because it offers in-depth data that speaks to McLuhan’s notion of understanding the media massage. There are a growing number of research companies that offer sophisticated statistical data that evaluate whether media coverage reaches target audiences, focuses on key issues and contains company messages. “The underlying premise of media analysis, of course, is that media coverage is likely to influence future public opinion or reflect existing public opinion,” notes media researcher Jim R. Macnamara. “Trends in media coverage generally correlate with public opinion and, therefore, can be used as a barometer and an early warning system.”

Rating the coverage

Most media analysis services rate coverage using a scoring system that considers several factors. These can include tone, the presence of key messages, quotes from company spokespeople, third-party endorsements, article placement, headline mention, initial mention, the extent of mention, dominance, visuals, the mention of competitors and the extent of these mentions. These criteria are then used to determine prominence and reach–in other words, how many people are likely to remember news about a company, and for how long.

Delahaye, the Norwalk, Connecticut-based public relations research arm of Bacon’s Information, has developed a method called Weighted Impact & Net Effect for evaluating prominence, tone and reach. President Mark Weiner believes that media content analysis and the related statistical data contribute to “meaningful business outcomes by demonstrating and generating a positive return on investment for companies.”

“Most organizations want to track the delivery of their key messages and to build and raise awareness about themselves,” Weiner says. “It’s a comfortable place for PR to begin to measure–and it is measurable, meaningful and reasonable. It’s important to determine the reasonable balance between what companies say they want, what PR can sensibly deliver and what everyone agrees is important enough to measure–and then providing it in a way that, when adopted, becomes a business imperative.”

Weiner says that as a preliminary step, companies need to ask some important questions about why they want media analysis services. Some of the questions concern business and departmental objectives and how they match up. But the more important issues, he says, are deciding how the research will be used, determining which other departments will be affected by it, crafting key messages, and identifying target audiences, as well as identifying who influences those target audiences and which media they typically read, hear or view.

“Organizations tend to go with the major dailies,” Weiner explains, “but depending on what your company does, you might need to consider counterintuitive media–trade publications, weeklies–more carefully.”

Of course, there are often barriers to conducting research, as Lisa Richter and Walter G. Barlow explain in Selling Public Relations Research Internally. (2) They identify some of those barriers as a lack of interest or support from senior management, suspicion of evaluative practices, a lack of expertise within the PR function and the widely held belief that PR can’t be measured.

But Weiner emphasizes that such obstacles can be overcome. Senior management can be swayed by constant communication that documents success or demonstrates a commitment to improvement. Having a practical expert on staff will create a center of expertise within the department. As for the myth that PR can’t be measured, Weiner stresses that most CEOs and senior executives know that everything can be measured. “PR is no different,” he says. “And results can form the basis for continual improvement.”

Measuring the market

Once these barriers have been overcome, media analysis can help identify trends and the ever-changing tide of public opinion. Figuring out what is driving media coverage is critical, notes Paul Senatori, director of analytic services for San Mateo, California-based Biz360, a media research and analysis firm. “If we can measure what the media is centering on, it provides a view of what is really a concern–the pulse of the marketplace,” he says.

“You need to go beyond the numbers,” adds Biz360 founder You Mon Tsang. “For example, how do you get media attention off something, not on? How do you get into a journalist’s head in a positive way? Which journalists are in your camp, which are not, and how do you get them there? [With media analysis] clients get a solid feel of how to manage this process.”

And managing the process definitely pays off. Research and case studies have shown that media analysis can help generate incremental revenue, as well as reduce or avoid some marketing and other costs. For example, Weiner notes that one of the world’s largest brewing companies determined that media analysis was helping to drive sales on a lower cost-per-sale basis than any other form of marketing. A Texas utility company, using research that indicated that taking a proactive stance leads to a shorter period of negative news coverage, handled lower-than-expected quarterly earnings estimates by putting its CEO front and center with the media, instead of adopting a “no comment” approach. After a brief–and expected–spike in negative coverage, the story died. Given that stock prices tend to follow news coverage, the company avoided the costs of a long-term drop in the stock price. Finally, Weiner adds, media analysis can reduce costs by focusing on media reception and journalists, “which may just generate better results than other costly PR-based programs like special events.” (See the case study on page 33 to find out how another company used media analysis to fine-tune its communication program and improve revenue.)

With these kinds of results, it’s not surprising that more companies are adding media analysis to the mix–and that more research companies are cropping up to meet the demand. As Weiner points out, it’s a discipline that is helping companies generate solid returns on their PR investment.

Bill Fox puts it another way: “If you don’t use the disciplines of social science and critical analysis–the very cornerstones of media analysis–then your research is not research; it’s completely anecdotal. And you wouldn’t run any other part of your business based on the anecdotal, would you?”

(1.) “Research in Public Relations: A Review of the Use of Evaluation and Formative Research.” Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, 1.2, Winter 1999.

(2.) Selling Public Relations Research Internally: Changing the Mindset About Communications (a report for the Commission on Public Relations Measurement and Evaluation for the Institute of Public Relations), October 2000.

RELATED ARTICLE: Case study.

For Bonita Bay, the results are proof positive

Mary Briggs has learned a lot in the year since the Bonita Bay Group undertook a comprehensive media analysis program. The result, she says, is that she now runs a smarter media relations program than before. And that has translated into increased sales.

“We have always tracked how advertising brings people into our sales centers,” says Briggs, the corporate public relations director for Bonita Bay, a developer of upscale gated communities in southwest Florida. “But we were not measuring our PR. We believed that PR was working but had no real evidence.”

Working with Connecticut-based Delahaye, which specializes in PR evaluation and research, Briggs got the kind of evidence she was looking for. For example, one of Bonita Bay’s communities hadn’t been meeting its sales expectations. “After our first measurement, we saw that it wasn’t getting as much play as our other communities,” Briggs says. So she and her team increased their efforts to generate positive news and “got it out there. And sales are up this year.

“Before, everyone had their own numbers–‘Here’s how many press releases I’ve sent out, here’s my clip book,'” Briggs says. “And that was it. But now we are able to measure and discern whether each of our seven communities is getting its rightful place in the media relations mix.”

The research also allows Briggs to track key messages. “We have four branding pillars to the company, and our research ensures that we’re hitting all of those.”

Briggs understands the importance of negative results. “No matter how painful it is to see negative news on the front page, you need that data to make progress,” she says. “It’s so important to understand how the goodwill you’ve built up can disappear if something goes wrong–and you need to have the numbers to see the real impact.”–C. V.

RELATED ARTICLE: Considering media analysis for your company?

Here are six basic guidelines from Mark Weiner, president of media research firm Delahaye.

* Eliminate tear, Some clients view research as a pass/fail exercise and want to see only positive results. “The information gained from media analysis should be viewed as instructive,” Weiner says.

* Select the right firm. Do your own research and evaluation, and know what you are getting for your money. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed right out of the gate.

* Provide complete information. Not doing so causes delays and ambiguity–and ultimately leads to faulty research. Be honest throughout the process.

* Don’t delegate research management through too many levels. “Administrative staff shouldn’t be tasked with the media analysis file,” says Weiner. “Research of this nature often calls for feedback and input from senior management. If it’s delegated too far down, everyone will be frustrated, and no one will get what they wanted or expected.”

* Make your research initiative a win-win program. You and your research firm both want a positive return on your investments.

* Be open, responsive, reasonable and curious. “It’s exciting when a client is excited about research,” Weiner says.–C. V.

Carolyne Van Der Meer is a journalist who has also worked as a media analyst. She is completing her doctorate in a related field at Universite de Montreal in Canada. She can be reached at cvdm@ca.inter.net.

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