Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

The Measurement Life Interview with Shonali Burke


The energetic and effervescent Shonali Burke is a social PR strategist. She grew up in Calcutta, studied economics and theater, and is now an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. She’s the brains behind the USA for UNHCR digital #bluekey campaign, is well known for successes during her time as vice president of media and communications at ASPCA, and is founder and curator of the #measurepr hashtag and Twitter chat.

The first thing you notice when reading Shonali’s Waxing Unlyrical blog is how very informative it is, followed by how much of her vivacious personality comes across in her writing. Plenty of that personality comes across in our Measurement Life interview…

The Measurement Standard: Hi Shonali! First, let’s learn a little about you: What’s on your iPod, turntable, or Pandora channel right now?

Shonali Burke: Spotify. A bunch of dance music, Elvis and ABBA (always), Pink Martini and various Western/Indian classical music/artists. As an aside, I directed Spotify’s current Lead Growth Designer in a theater production way back, when he was in grade school. How random (or not) is that?

shonali-burkeI like winning. I also like feeling I’m doing something worthwhile. So when I started working in PR, I wanted to know what makes for that combination.—Shonali Burke

TMS: Ha! Random enough to remind us that you were once an actress and director. Any Bollywood productions we can see you in?

SB: I was an actress and director, that much is true—also choreographer—but my work was primarily in theater. I did quite a bit of radio, a little bit of TV work, and had a bit part in a film. I was getting ready to make the big Bollywood move, but then I met the man who would become my husband. So instead of a Bollywood star, I became a More-Than-Real-Not-Quite Housewife of DC. 😉

TMS: You gave up show business for love? That’s a story made in Hollywood right there.

SB: Yes! My husband and I met online—in 1998,—and only met in person ten days before our Big Fat Indian Christian Wedding. Good story, no?

TMS: True love is always a good story. So, has your acting experience informed your PR and measurement practice?

SB: When I switched gears from theater to PR, a lot of folks asked me if I miss it—some still do—and those who’ve seen me act / direct always tell me what a tragedy it is that’s no longer my primary line of work.

Shonali-Burke-bigsmileMy three fave measurement tools are
Google Analytics, Excel, and My Brain.
Shonali Burke

I’m not ruling out getting back on stage again—I did really love it—but what I loved even more than performing on stage was the way my workshops (and workshopping productions) brought out hitherto buried qualities in people, both children and adults. I’m in touch with so many of “my kids,” as I call them, with whom I have a very special bond that will never change. In fact, when I went to India recently, I met up with some of them whom I hadn’t seen since they were grade school munchkins… and it was amazing.

You know the light bulb moment people have when something clicks and you can literally see them “get it?” That was the most rewarding part of my work; there’s nothing like that feeling. And I believe I’m still doing that, I’m just doing it in the PR space, through speaking, teaching, and training I do—that’s what really fulfills me.

In fact, to that end I’m holding the first-ever free, live, online mini-training event for those who want to learn “how to become Social PR Superheroes.” It’ll be just one hour a day for three days—Nov 13, 14, 15, 2-3 pm ET—and will give those interested in this new approach to PR a really solid grounding in unleashing their inner social PR superhero, as it were. I have a lot of fun stuff planned, so everyone—sign up!

Theater taught me so much. Action/reaction. Body language. How to really listen (because so many clues in theater are non-verbal). Story structure. How to command an audience—you have to do this when you’re speaking! [Want to see Shonali get theatrical? Watch her perform Kathak traditional Indian classical dance.]

TMS: You are the founder and host of the #MeasurePR Twitter chat. Tell us about that.

SB: I started getting involved in Twitter chats in 2009, and loved how they connected curious minds. I saw that there were a lot of questions about PR measurement, but no way to really curate them.

So I decided to create a hashtag and chat to fill that need. That’s really all there was to it: I saw a need, and I wanted to provide a solution. The first chat was held in February 2010, and we’ve been going strong ever since.

I’m proud of the fact that the chat is still active and relevant. I’m proud of the caliber of guest and participant that we attract; the conversations are extremely engaged, and very… conversational. I’m proud that there are so many people around the world who look forward to the chat as an educational and networking opportunity.

Hshonali-burke-headshot_personal_smallI won’t sign a contract
that includes crap metrics.
—Shonali Burke

Most of all, I’m honored to be of service to the industry through the chat, and extremely grateful that so many industry stalwarts love to participate in it. Just in last month we had ten guests on the chat, all world-class leaders in the PR/measurement arena. It was mind-boggling.

TMS: Have things changed over the years?

SB: It’s interesting… Some of the questions/answers are not that different from what they were five years ago (What tools do you like? yada yada). However, there is significantly more awareness and understanding of digital tools. And better, more holistic measurement, especially from younger professionals. That’s a remarkable path to have walked over five years.

TMS: Yes, indeed, five years in Internet time is like, what, 50 years in real time? Congrats. So back to what makes you tick: How did you become interested in measurement and evaluation?

SB: It’s in my genes; I was born in India. 😉 Seriously: I like winning. I also like feeling I’m doing something worthwhile. So when I started working in PR, I wanted to know what makes for that combination.

TMS: What course of study did you follow? What would you recommend for today’s students?

SB: I studied Economics and then Theater, so today’s students should totally not do what I did. What they should do is:

  • Stop being frightened of Math and learn the basics of Statistics,
  • Get as tech- and analytics-savvy as possible,
  • Put a little less emphasis on the “what” and focus more on the “why,” and
  • Learn how to write really, really well.

TMS: What’s so special about measurement and evaluation? Why are you doing it instead of something else?

SB: First: Why not? It’s fun and super-sexy. Second: There’s nothing like knowing you made a difference, and measurement lets you do that. Also… see First.

TMS: When a client or your boss asks you to do measurement or evaluation in a way that you know to be misguided, how do you handle it?

SB: I don’t do it that way, it’s as simple as that. And the way I get around that is to be very clear, from the start of the engagement, as to what constitutes success. It is written into our contracts. And I won’t sign a contract that includes crap metrics.

TMS: Suppose you have to address a tough audience about a tricky project. What A-game presentation techniques will you bring to the meeting?

SB: Ask them questions. Get them to open up about their feelings, frustrations, fears, desires. 90% of your work is now done.

TMS: What are your favorite measurement tools and/or types of projects?

SB: My three fave measurement tools are: Google Analytics, Excel (or Google Spreadsheets), and My Brain. I love research and audit projects. When they are done well, they give a company a really solid and long-lasting foundation for a smart and strategic approach to communications.

TMS: Tell us a story of when you used measurement or evaluation to significantly improve a client’s program. Go ahead and brag a little.

SB: Last year we had a client who was pretty data-savvy. So we had access to Google Analytics from the get-go; the campaign was to launch a certain online offering in the education space. We had a set target as to how many registrations they needed for “success,” as well as access to GA.

Initially the strategy comprised heavy traditional media relations, organizational outreach, limited social PR, and social advertising. Thanks to GA, however, we could see that the traditional stuff wasn’t really converting, while the social PR stuff—like when we did Twitter chats—was.

So midway through the campaign we completely flipped the strategy on its head. We pared down media relations significantly, increased our digital efforts dramatically, and continued with the social ads to give earned, owned, and shared efforts a boost.

Voila! We reached our goal. One of the happiest moments of my life was when the client called to say they were opening champagne in the office to celebrate!

TMS: Always nice to hear a story that ends with champagne. Where are measurement and evaluation going? What great strides do you see in your crystal ball?

SB: I’m a terrible prognosticator. But I love, love, love what AMEC is doing to bring symmetry in measurement in as many parts of the world is possible. That’s no small feat, and the amount of strides they’ve made in just a few years is commendable.

TMS: If you could invent one magical measurement or evaluation tool to accomplish anything, what would it be?

SB: Not a tool so much as an AVE zapper. Die, AVE, Die!

TMS: Thank you Shonali, for our visit today.

Shonali Burke: Thank you, Bill, my pleasure!


Photo by Nakava Photography.


Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and was its editor until July 2017. He also edits The Measurement Advisor newsletter. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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    Great interview Bill where you have captured the personality of Shonali. Terrific read.

  2. Bill Paarlberg

    Thank you very much, Barry. Shonali is easy to interview, and has so much personality that it’s easy to capture.

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