The Story of the Elephant in the Room and the Emperor with No Clothes!
Or: why are we still struggling with the vital business issue which is to prove our value and measure our results?
Since I was a child, I have always loved good story telling, which is also one of the continuous threads weaving through my professional career in teaching, consulting and communications. There is one story in particular that I cannot get out of my mind ever since I entered the world of public relations and discovered what appears to be a kind of ‘silent agreement’ about how we go about measuring results. It includes signalling some form of ‘helpless consent’ and even comes with the appropriate gestures such as shoulder-shrugging and whispering with some clients from the communications department who are ‘in on the secret’. It seems we’re all part of a conspiracy, an elaborately woven cloak of pretence that we’re all holding together. Maybe we are scared of being uncovered as imposters who don’t create anything of value, once this layer is peeled away?
The whispered doubts, should you need to ask, are all about the use of AVE (Advertising Value Equivalent) metric, which is the basis for the so-called PR value that some clients are still demanding and that many practitioners in our market are still using. According to AMEC, the international association for the evaluation of communication, AVEs have long been the subject of intense criticism but because they claim to put a financial value equivalency on PR and Comms work, and are easy to produce, they just don’t seem to want to go away.
AMEC is conducting a Global education initiative to help eradicate the demand for AVEs as it believes that AVEs will only disappear completely when all parts of the industry work together and speak with a consistent voice. Educators, academics, in-house practitioners, PR agencies, communications trade associations and the monitoring and analytics vendors all need to work together with unified messaging to make sure that this latent demand dwindles and dies.
I will not repeat the details here, but please do check out this link to ‘The definitive list of 22 reasons why AVEs shouldn’t be used’ if you want to brush up on it or arm yourselves with arguments for discussion with clients (www.bit.ly/saynotoaves).
In case the phrase ‘cloak of pretence’ hasn’t given it away yet, the story this reminds me of is the famous parable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. For those of you who are not familiar with it – and those who, like me, prefer to read a good story to an industry article anytime – here is a brief synopsis:
The story tells of two swindlers who come to the town where the emperor lives. They persuade him that they can make clothes which can only be seen by people who are wise and suited to their jobs. The emperor, who pays more attention to his clothes than to his people, is excited about getting special new clothes, and also about the opportunity to find out which of his people are foolish or ill-suited to their jobs. He hires the swindlers to make him a suit of clothes. They put on an elaborate show of making these clothes, and the emperor’s advisors and his court pretend that they can see the clothes. At last, the emperor puts on the imaginary clothes as best he can and sets out, stark naked, for a grand procession to show them to everyone. A child in the crowd says what everyone is thinking: “The emperor has no clothes!” At this, everyone else in the crowd admits this is true, and the emperor himself realizes that he is naked. However, in a poignant final sentence, his pride causes him to continue the procession, with his counsellors behind him carrying his imaginary train.
1935, by Rex Whistler
Indian ink on white scraperboard, Illustration for The Emperor’s New Clothes in Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Legends published by Cobden Sanderson. Rex Whistler Archive, The Salisbury Museum
In addition to the invisible clothing dilemma, we seem to have borrowed an elephant from another parable and are tiptoeing around it when it comes to measuring what we do. I cannot help but think that PR lacks confidence in its own worth.
Another inconvenient truth we hate to admit is that it is far easier to keep using those readily available numbers as long as we get away with it and everyone seems to agree with us on this: media monitoring companies are happy to provide them to keep their customers i.e., PR agencies happy so we can keep our clients happy in turn.
Perhaps it’s just too complicated, tedious and time-consuming to learn about and apply appropriate measurement metrics and educate our clients on them? Or maybe many of us don’t have the confidence to defend the value of what we’re doing because we secretly suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ and fear that we are not actually providing essential, strategic services that help protect our clients’ most valuable assets, i.e., their brands and their reputations?
And so the saga continues and the AVE semblance of a measurement is upheld, regular PR value reports are submitted and people continue to boast their campaigns ‘achieved millions in PR value’.
Does that mean the emperor from Andersen’s famous story is condemned to prance around in the buff for all eternity? Let’s imagine for a moment that someone with credibility and gumption and committed to ethical professional behaviour and honesty – which is what PRCA stands for – stepped up like the child in the story and called out the truth, that the emperor has nothing on – what’s the worst and the best that could happen?
At worst, the emperor – for the purpose of our story, let the emperor be the client – and his entire court – in-house comms, procurement and PR agency – would feel embarrassed and exposed and quickly try to ‘cover up’. They would say things that may sound vaguely familiar such as. ‘we know it doesn’t really fully express the value of PR but it is some sort of approximation and helps us present our results in a format that fits in with how senior management looks at business activity– i.e., showing ‘growth’, ROI, other quantitative markers that assure them the budget allocated to it is well spent. I’m always dumbfounded by the notion that a CEO who is smart enough to run an entire company would accept a measurement that pretends to generate excessive ROIs far superior to ROIs generated by other business activities.
What could be the best outcome? Once we all openly admit that “the emperor has nothing on” and agree that AVE derived PR Value is not suitable at all to measure PR activity, we ask the obvious question. How then, do we go about measuring our results?
How do we ensure we stay relevant and are not considered a waste of time and money or a ‘feel good, nice to have’ activity in the marketing mix? How do we avoid always getting cut from the budget first? And how do we ensure that we are regarded as a strategic, value-adding discipline which is essential for a business and brand to thrive?
Here’s where the elephant in the room trumpets in our ear, that we better just leave things be, but we have to stay strong: The elephant tells us that we will have to do a lot of work if we give up PR value. We will need to conduct research to have a proper basis for measurement, we will need to learn how to segment our PR campaigns and set specific objectives for each element – both quantitative and qualitative, and we need to incorporate some research and convince clients that they should spend money on having reliable data about their customers and about stakeholder perceptions before embarking on any outreach campaign. Only then will they be able to measure improvement and show evidence of success. We also need to be much more involved in monitoring progress, analysing results, and regularly re-calibrate and adjust our plans for our campaigns to stay on track. We probably have to learn some new skills and master some new tools.
One of the themes of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is self-confidence. People pretend to admire the clothing because they secretly fear that they are stupid and incompetent, and don’t want others to realise it. I don’t think we have to fear that. We are experts in communication and we need to stand up for what we do and justify and defend its value!
The story is also about peer pressure (maybe in our case we should add ‘client pressure’?) The onlookers all pretend to see the clothes until one brave child speaks the truth. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is also certainly about honesty. Let us all be that child. PR is about telling the truth!
Finally, this story is about pride: the emperor – and for the purpose of this conclusion, I include the entire industry here, not just the client – is unwilling to admit having made a mistake, even when he realizes that he is walking naked in front of all his subjects. Let’s swallow our pride and become the communication power-tool that we can and should be.
By Stefanie Braukmann, General Manager, Strategic Public Relations Sdn Bhd (SPRG)