Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

The Measurement Life Interview: Sean Williams on Internal Communications

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This month we are very pleased to talk with Sean Williams. Sean is the owner of Communication AMMO, Inc., which helps organizations plan and execute communications effectively and measure the results. He is an adjunct professor of public relations at Kent State University, a member of the IPR Measurement Commission, and past chair of the PRSA Employee Communications Section. He also leads the Institute for Public Relations’ project to establish standards for measuring internal communication. He is the past head of internal communication at National City Corporation (where he created the company’s PR measurement program) and at The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Follow him on Twitter at @commammo.

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

—Sean Williams: Two regular channels: Pandora’s Dinner Jazz is number one. SomaFM’s Groove Salad is the other. I’m in a mellow mood these days.

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Sean at the 2016 Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement

—TMS: At last month’s Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement, we noticed your fondness for inserting music lyrics in conversation. Where does that come from? Do you have a music or theater background? Do you have an alter ego that sings in a rock band on weekends?

—SW: My mom, natural dad, and step-dad were actors, so it’s both genetic and environmental. I was onstage from about seven years old, then decided I was happier behind the scenes. I do sing, and play guitar, piano, and bass. But not in public. Mostly.

—TMS: How did you become interested in measurement and evaluation?

—SW: When I ran internal communications globally at Goodyear, I was curious about how we could better represent the value our work brings. I attended the Summit on Measurement, and met Katie Paine, Dr. Don Wright, Angela Jeffrey, and others. I got totally hooked. I joined the IPR Measurement Commission and have been pulling hard for measurement ever since.

“With internal comms, you see the results of your impact clearly, and fast. I’ve got nothing against external comms, but always disliked having an intermediary between me and my publics… When employees become experts, performance increases. It’s great.”

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

—SW: I have a BA in political science and an MA in journalism/mass communications. I created classes on measurement for Kent State University, and they have had great impact on me and on our students.

If you’re interested in public relations and communications, you have to be a business person. You have to understand what’s important to the business, speak that language, and adjust your “art” to its “science.” So study leadership, finance, and operations. Understand what drives the business forward, and then apply communications strategy and tactics to those objectives.

“There are precious few who apply measurement to internal communications, and I feel like I make a real impact. That’s very satisfying.”

—TMS: One of your specialties is measuring internal communications. Why internal? Pardon the blunt question, but isn’t that a little low on the glamor scale, PR-wise?

SW: Over my nearly 30 years in this work, I’ve always preferred internal comms to external. Preparing people to give great service and to sell effectively is ennobling. Seeing leaders get more comfortable with dialogue and discussion—and seeing them get things done more effectively as a result—is awesome.

With internal comms, you see the results of your impact clearly, and fast. I’ve got nothing against external comms, but always disliked having an intermediary between me and my publics. The media, especially these days, is so beat up and overworked. They don’t have time to become experts. When employees become experts, performance increases. It’s great.

—TMS: In a blog post for the IPR you made a strong case for the strategic importance of internal comms. Give our readers your elevator speech…

—SW: Internal comms is important because you cannot expect satisfied—let alone enthusiastic—customers and investors if your employees are not knowledgeable about the business, know what to do to bring value to the business, and act to do so. It’s vital that your employees get it, and that your leaders know what to do to help them.

“If you’re interested in public relations and communications, you have to be a business person. You have to understand what’s important to the business, speak that language, and adjust your ‘art’ to its ‘science. ’ ”

—TMS: Now back to measurement and evaluation in general. What’s so special about it? Why are you so interested in it?

SW: We in PR have historically been the only department that got away with “trust me.” Our work needs measurement for several reasons, the most crucial of which is to inform our strategy and decisions. The ability to demonstrate and illustrate value is a bonus, but in many cases is not necessary if we’ve set solid objectives and articulated a solid strategy to attain them.

—TMS: And with respect to internal comms?

SW: I do this because there are precious few who apply measurement to internal communications, and I feel like I make a real impact. That’s very satisfying.

This is a good time to acknowledge my colleagues in the IPR effort to set internal comms measurement standards: Stacey Smith from JJW, Michele Ewing from Kent State, and Julie O’Neil from TCU. You can expect our first paper on the subject early next year.

—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?

—SW: Hey, everybody has to make a living. 😉 I have been fortunate that I have never been asked to do measurement in a way I know to be false. But I’m sensitive to the needs and desires of the client. We propose, they dispose. Because I stay away from a lot of “promotion,” I’ve not had to grapple with clients who want ad-value (AVEs) or straight impressions.

But on the strategy side, I have been asked to support activities that I don’t think are right for the circumstances. I politely guide the client when I can, and bring evidence and research to bear to support my points.

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Sean Williams in front of the classroom.

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

—SW: Know your audience, know what you want them to think, feel, and do. Only then do you choose messaging and methods. The preparation of the AMMO model (Audience, Message, Method, Objective) gives me an advantage.

Tactically, you have to engage and enlighten. I’m not going to compete with motivational speakers with soaring rhetoric. I’m going to teach you in an engaging way, with drama, anecdotes, and compelling calls to action. You’ll walk away knowing more than when you arrived.

—TMS: What are your favorite measurement tools or projects?

—SW: Content analysis is one. My Master’s thesis is on influence, for which I did a qualitative study. Digging into the transcripts of those interviews was fascinating, and thinking critically about the text and what’s behind it is a fabulous measurement tool.

Another is advanced stats, for which I get help to make happen. Seeing in figures how the relationships among tactics affect objectives offers a clear and compelling story that reveals strategic direction. Structural equation modeling is at the heart of how we account for various inputs to our objectives. You gotta see the results of the math to see it all clearly.

—TMS: Tell us a story of when you used measurement or evaluation to significantly improve a client’s program. Yes, when you were the hero; go ahead and brag.

—SW: I partner in the education market with a digital marketing company, and they bring very deep knowledge of the demographics, trends, personas, and other data of a given market. We did an integrated communication plan for a school in Denver, and our ability to bring together measurement strategies from situation analysis, to advertising, to direct mail, to public relations and internal communications in a unitary plan was a revolution for them. For the first time in their long history, they understood their market and proved it with data. That meant their tactics were grounded in research and supported by measurement and reviewed by evaluation. Everyone knows, now, what they have to do to be successful. Boom! [drops mic.]

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Sean Williams presents at the 2016 Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement

—TMS: Where are measurement and evaluation going? What great strides do you see in your crystal ball?

—SW: I want to believe that strict output measures will be better supported by deeper measurement. But I fear that we still need to recruit more organizations into the fold first. We don’t have a simple set of measures available to share with people who are twice as busy and have gotten no raises in a few years.

Ideally, we’d see a nearly free tool on the market to help communicators run at least multiple regression analysis easily and quickly. Would be nice to be able to dump in survey data and web data, for example, and see the impact on sales, retention, brand loyalty, willingness to recommend…

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

—SW: A landmark study that shows conclusively, across multiple industries, the causal link between communication effectiveness and financial performance. Towers Watson has run a study for years that shows the link, but it’s not across geographies and size of business and industry, let alone specific to a sector with comparisons across competitors. We know comms effectiveness is important to performance, but we need bulletproof data that supports our contention, ideally from organizations who aren’t trying to win comms business from clients.

—TMS: What’s next for you? You have a book coming out?

—SW: The book is still in my head, but first it’s the research on measurement standards for internal communication. I wouldn’t be surprised if my book isn’t too far behind.

—TMS: Thanks for the interview, Sean, all the best.

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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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