I’ve been whirligigged!

That may not be an actual expression, but it accurately captures the joy and whimsy of visiting the City of Wilson’s downtown park filled with enormous, artistic windmills. Created by Vollis Simpson, whirligigs are the official folk art of North Carolina and are at the heart of a transformation taking place in Wilson as abandoned tobacco warehouses, empty mills and vacant lots are redeveloped into housing, retail and offices. RLF is working with a development firm that is participating in public private partnerships in Wilson and other communities. A field trip to see the sites first-hand was overdue. 

As part of the 36-hour trip, I visited East Carolina University for the first time in nearly 3 decades. While I have read about the remarkable growth and reinvention of ECU, it does not do justice to how this school has grown to meet the needs of North Carolinians. With a student body of more than 28,000 (and nearly half of those undergraduate and graduate students focused on STEM and Healthcare careers), ECU is a powerhouse. 

Dr. Jin-Ae Kang hosted me and Jane Nickles to dinner the night before I met with her students in the Department of Communication. We met Dr. Kang last summer at an event in Charlotte hosted by my Worldcom partner Bill Imada out of Los Angeles. She graciously invited us to visit ECU, tour the campus and speak with some of the more than 700 students in the School of Communication.  

As we had dinner at the Dickinson Avenue Public House, Dr. Kang told the story of how she had come to the United States. She was born and raised in South Korea. She earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Seoul. And then, without ever having visited the United States and knowing no one here, she applied for a doctoral program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. How brave! How committed! I used to think I was being bold when I traveled from North Carolina to Philadelphia to attend graduate school at Temple University, but Dr. Kang’s story puts me to shame!

The drive back from Greenville is smooth and fast, with Highway 264 a paved testament to the vision of 4-term governor Jim Hunt and our unofficial slogan of “the good roads state.” But even from the highway it is impossible to ignore the sweeping landscape of farms and open spaces. I have often said that people who live in the I-85\I-40 crescent that spans from Charlotte to Raleigh have little concept of the rural power that has defined our state for more than 300 years. 

The next time you take a trip to the North Carolina Coast, get off the interstates and highways to take the back roads. Let the history, beauty and significance of our state sink in. 

Commit To Be Great

By Monty Hagler

I recently traveled to Lambertville, New Jersey, for a two-day intensive presentation training workshop. When I first learned about the Heroic Public Speaking program, I was reluctant to commit to the class. After all, public speaking and presentations are a core component of my skill set. I competed in speech and debate competitions across the country in high school and college, have spoken at hundreds of conferences, seminars and college campuses and regularly present ideas for public relations campaigns.

But a good friend – whom I competed against more than 30 years ago in forensics – told me that I needed to make the time. “You’re very good,” she said. “But you can be great.”

Her comments reminded me of the seminal business book Good to Great. It takes vision, commitment and hard work to take performance to the next level. In my case, that started with acknowledging that my presentation skills can and should get better. So, I swallowed my pride and was richly rewarded for it.

Heroic Public Speaking was founded by Michael and Amy Port, who lead all of the sessions. They intensely believe a speech has the power to change the world and the people in it. The only other professional training I have done that compares to their level of excellence is the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As) week-long seminar for managing agencies. Michael and Amy are a dynamic duo who run a tight ship, impart valuable strategies and tips in every part of the program and challenge you to be great.

In addition to wanting to improve my skills for my role as CEO of RLF Communications, I am also working on an outline for a keynote speech. I’m interested in how we move forward as a society in which there is constant disagreement and disbelief over the most basic facts, statistics, data and science. My thesis is that we will be better served – as individuals and communities – if we focus less on getting people to agree with us and spend more time on awareness and acceptance of what motivates our actions and those of others. I call my keynote “Positive Friction,” and I now have a better sense of structure and techniques to move forward with it. I hope to find some conferences and venues to test it out in the second half of 2023 and 2024.

All of us have things at which we are good. Figure out what is important to you, what makes a difference in your life and the world, and then make a commitment to get better. Make a commitment to be great.

Graysen Shirley, Communications Specialist at RLF Communications for Fall 2022

Introduce yourself!

My name is Graysen Shirley, and I am interning with RLF Communications this fall. I am currently a junior at Elon University studying Strategic Communications and Media Analytics and minoring in Business Administration. Some student organizations I am involved with are my sorority Kappa Delta, Elon News Network, the Public Relations Student Society of America and the American Marketing Association. I am a North Carolina native and love going to the beach!


What made you decide to pursue a degree in communications?

I have loved writing and storytelling since I was young. In elementary school, I spent much of my free time drawing and creating my own stories. I loved the feeling of being creative and imaginative. In middle and high school, I took classes like Yearbook, Media Studies and Creative Writing where I was able to better my writing skills and grow my interest in communications. While looking at colleges during my sophomore and junior years of high school, one of my teachers recommended I look into communications because of my love of writing and longing to be creative. Touring Elon University’s School of Communications and meeting some of the faculty during a Fellows Weekend event at the university further excited me to want to pursue a career in communications.


What is your favorite part about the internship program at RLF Communications?

One of my favorite parts has been the company’s creative and collaborative environment. I constantly feel challenged to improve my skills in public relations and marketing through different projects and tasks for client accounts — I love getting to be a part of the process and getting to see projects from start to finish! Many of my coworkers are also kind and talented and offer me advice and guidance when needed!


What is a cool place you have traveled to recently?

In January, I studied abroad in Germany for three weeks with other students from Elon University. During the three weeks I spent abroad, I was able to try schnitzel, which is a famous German dish, visit castles, and learn about the unique history of Germany. I especially fell in love with the cities of Munich and Berlin and hope someday to visit Europe again!


What is your favorite food?

I have always been very fond of Italian food. My love of Italian food began when I was in high school — I often had pasta dinners with teammates and friends from my high school’s cross-country team. My go-to order at an Italian restaurant is chicken alfredo pasta.


Where do you see yourself in five years?

In five years, I would love to have a full-time job at a medium-to-large public relations and marketing agency or in corporate communications in the Boston or D.C. area. Throughout my internship experience with RLF Communications, I have been able to work with a variety of clients across different industries and hope to do this in the future!



“Come over and listen to this band from Ireland.”

Those words reshaped my life in February 1983. A high school friend invited me over to hear War, the third album from U2. Every song captivated me. The energy, the lyrics, the emotion, the passion. Until that night, I had never been a huge music fan. I immediately bought U2’s first two albums Boy & October (on cassette tape!) before launching out to explore different genres and sounds from a broader spectrum of artists. It was my gateway to appreciating, if not always embracing, new artists.

I frequently listen to XM satellite radio’s dedicated U2 channel, particularly the “Desire” program. Fans  play their top five U2 songs and explain what the songs and the band have meant to them. Every episode is compelling. People recount how specific songs and concert experiences shaped relationships with friends, families and lovers; how lyrics and videos got them through heartbreak, sickness and tragedy; how the band’s activism, resilience and commitment to reinventing themselves over the past four decades has inspired people to make difficult decisions and positive life changes.

U2 is not alone in creating passionate connections with fans. Bruce Springsteen is preparing to launch a global tour that is instantly selling out despite insanely high “dynamic pricing.” The Rolling Stones still sell out the largest stadiums. I was never a big Grateful Dead fan but was fortunate to attend a few shows in the early 90s and was always amazed at the commitment and passion of Deadheads traveling from show to show across the country. I do confess to being a member of The Herd for Donna The Buffalo.

Brands need to act and think more like this. Make fantastic products that tap into perhaps unexpressed but deeply felt emotions. Deliver in an amazing and memorable fashion. Stand up for what they believe and give customers a reason to be passionate about them. Some brands have figured that out and taken their companies to the next level – Trader Joe’s (grocery) and Buc-ee’s (convenience store), Warby Parker (eyewear) and the stalwart, Apple.

At a recent Worldcom meeting, a guest speaker talked about a holy grail of finding positioning for your company that enrages 49 percent of your potential audience but thrills 51 percent. Leave no one in the middle. That’s not generally advice I would provide clients, but I strongly believe that consumers value authenticity. And when they believe in a company, they’ll brag about them, buy from them and return over and over again. The same is true for employees.

This Labor Day weekend, put on music from your favorite band (it does not have to be U2!) and take a few minutes to reflect on the core mission of your organization or company, why you do what you do and what you can do even better. When you have clarity on that, the odds are good you’ll generate more passion, loyalty and connection with the audiences that matter most. You’ll earn their loyalty… and their desire.

Worldcom Releases Special Report on War in Ukraine Influence on CEOs

Worldcom, a global network of PR agencies of which RLF is a member, recently released an updated Worldcom Confidence Index report analyzing how the War in Ukraine is shifting global CEOs’ conversations on social media. Below is a press release discussing the top 5 topics CEOs were engaged in from Feb-May 2022.


The War In Ukraine WCI Report Highlights The Top Five Issues Where Stakeholders Expect Leaders To Be Taking Both Immediate And Sustained Action

NEW YORK (June 21st, 2022) – In a special topic tracking report from the Worldcom Confidence Index (WCI) of what CEOs are saying about the impact of the War in Ukraine, The Worldcom Public Relations Group (Worldcom) has identified five main topical issues that global CEOs and CMOs are talking about. In the period between February and May 2022, the top five topics are: The massive displacement of people and refugee flows; the impact on energy prices; the impact on food security; making the issues of hunger and poverty worse; causing divisions among people and countries.

Human cost of the war receives sustained attention, but global food security became the number one topic in May

Unsurprisingly, the most talked about issue at the beginning of the conflict was the massive displacement of people and refugees fleeing Ukraine. This topic had the biggest engagement from global CEOs and CMOs between February and March[i], out of the top five topics discovered. The Ukraine war has caused the worst refugee crisis since World War II, which could lead to a significant increase in human trafficking and child protection crisis. However, by May concern over global food security and the impact that would have on their people and their business, had become the top issue.

The Ukraine war is disrupting supply chains and has caused the price of oil and gas to skyrocket. This topic received the second biggest engagement from global CEOs and CMOs between February and May, out of the top five topics. The cost of energy has obvious implications for the cost of ongoing operations but has significant implications for the way organisations operate too. For example, companies that were returning to office-based working, might have to rethink their strategy to relieve pressure on the rising cost of living.

Todor Janev, chairman of The Worldcom Public Relations Group (Worldcom), said: “Leaders need to develop a clear strategy for protecting their brands from the impact of the war. Stakeholders expect immediate action to minimise the impact of increases in fuel and food prices. The WCI data shows that they also expect leaders to take action on policies which will have longer term implications. This includes increasing the pace at which they embrace ESG policies and demonstrate that their business believes in profit with a purpose. Communicating clearly, consistently, and transparently on these topics will be essential to building stakeholder trust and belief.”

Todd Lynch, managing director of Worldcom, said: “Many business leaders have been quick to show support for the people of Ukraine and make meaningful decisions about their business ties to Russia. But the results of this special tracking report, by the Worldcom Confidence Index, show that the focus is now switching to issues that have both immediate and sustained implications on operations, employees and their customers/key stakeholders. Brands with an international or global footprint need to identify how these five topics change in priority from one country to the next and then make sure they are communicating their positions/actions effectively and frequently to their key stakeholders.”

View the special War in Ukraine Topic Tracking Report and the Video summary.


The Worldcom Confidence Index is the world’s most extensive monthly study of what the C Suite is talking about. And it is the only global study that shows the change in confidence and engagement across a range of important business topics. This extensive data is now available via an interactive online portal and can be filtered by geography, industry, and role. You can explore the latest Worldcom Confidence Index data here. Our Worldcom partners in 115 cities are ready to provide even more local context. Contact Todd Lynch to start the discussion.

About the Worldcom Confidence Index

The Worldcom Confidence Index (WCI) is the first AI-driven ‘living’ global market research, tracking the topics that over 80,000 CEOs and CMOs are commenting on online. The AI-fuelled tracker is updated monthly and is drawn from an active sample of over 100,000 C-Suite executives. It tracks data for two roles, six regions, 42 countries and 11 industry sectors. It identifies the levels of engagement with business topics and how much the level of confidence for each topic has changed. It is the first global study of this type to use AI supported data capture. The longitudinal analysis employed by ASI, the research company providing the data for the WCI, enables Worldcom to look back in time and make direct comparisons for levels engagement and confidence.

About The Worldcom Public Relations Group 

The Worldcom Public Relations Group is the world’s leading partnership of independently owned public relations firms, with 143 offices employing some 2,000 staff in 115 cities across six continents. In total, Worldcom partners reported combined revenue of US$350+ million last year from 3,034 clients. Established in 1988, the group was formed so that the strongest, most capable independent firms could deliver immediate impact and sustained value through the intelligent use of communications – wherever in the world a client needs support. Partners serve national, international, and multinational clients, while retaining the flexibility and client-service focus inherent in independent agencies. Through Worldcom, clients have on-demand access to in-depth communications expertise from professionals who understand the language, culture, and customs of the geographic areas in which they operate.


Connect with Worldcom PR Group on Facebook and LinkedIn

Learn more about Worldcom at www.worldcomgroup.com or call Todd Lynch at 1-800-955-9675.


It Is a Dream

By Monty Hagler

The grand journey is complete. Five countries, fifteen states and nearly 50,000 miles over 11 months, beginning with a road trip through the Upper Midwest in July 2021 and concluding in Southern Portugal in May 2022. It was a deliberate cadence for work, professional development, play, exploration and self-reflection.

Three of the trips involved meetings with my partners in the Worldcom Public Relations Group, the world’s oldest and largest partnership of independent PR agencies. We last met in person in Vienna in 2019. For nearly three years we used online channels for knowledge sharing, professional development and networking. It worked, but it exposed the gaps created when any organization tries to function in an all-remote environment.

Our global meeting two weeks ago in London was attended by nearly every partner. Over the course of three days of formal presentations, outside speakers and informal conversations, I took away a wealth of information, including insights into these topics:

  1. “Return to Work” is about “why,” not “how” or “when.”

Virtually every Worldcom partner is struggling with the same issue facing our clients – how and when to get employees who love the flexibility of remote work to return to the office, particularly at a time when hiring qualified people is an enormous challenge. But the “how” and “when” must come after organizations figure out “why” employees need to return to the office.

Saying “This is the way it has always been done” or “We’re paying a lot of money for empty space” are not valid “why” reasons to employees. But leaders know “why” being re-engaged in-person matters so much. Young employees need to develop workplace and interpersonal skills. Mid-level managers need re-engagement in the conversations, ideas and teamwork that drive organizations forward. Teams need to address the cracks and resentment spreading between front-line workers who have no choice but to show up (on the assembly floor, the restaurant drive-thru) and professional staff who can email it in from the kitchen table.

If your organization is struggling with how to get employees back to work, make sure you have articulated to everyone the “why.” Then comes the “how” and “when,” which most likely will involve small operational steps. My counsel is to not drop employees into a boiling pot of water. Slowly turn up the heat. And for those folks who resist or push back too hard, let them go. At the end of the day, employees (at every level) come and go in organizations. Customers come and go. Clients come and go. The organization remains. Make choices that are in the best short- and long-term interests of your organization, communicate them clearly and then decisively act on them.

  1. Difficult topics will never be universally embraced.

Just as the return-to-work issue stirs people up, organizations face a host of other issues that do not have clear roadmaps to follow such as DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) and ESG (environment, sustainability, governance). In most cases, I find that organizations want to “do the right thing.” But on every one of these topics, there are different viewpoints as to what “the right thing” is and contextual issues that defy standard approaches.

One agency leader described how their organization was developing internal processes related to diversity, equity and inclusion. They assembled a diverse group of employees who struggled to reach consensus on plans, policies and even language. And once decisions had finally been made and shared with external audiences, even more dissension was raised.

While it is not quite as bad as the mantra “No good deed goes unpunished,” organizations need to take to heart the reality that sticky issues are not cleanly handled. It does not mean they should be avoided or hidden; but don’t expect gold stars and pats on the back from people who more than likely want to tell you these things should have been addressed a long time ago. As with return-to-work issues, make decisions that are in the best short- and long-term interests of the organization, clearly communicate them to all key stakeholders (and don’t stop communicating) and move forward.

  1. Learn about emerging technology, even if you decide it’s not right for your organization.

I listened in on multiple conversations in which I have limited knowledge – blockchain technology, NFTs (non-fungible tokens), establishing a presence for clients in the meta-verse. While many of these topics are related to finance or operations, they are also about communication and brand. Bring your communications’ team and/or agency partner into the loop (or seek out new ideas from them) to ensure your organization is not caught short in adapting to new technologies and realities. The choices you make on these fronts help define your organization. And as noted several times already, make decisions that are in the best short- and long-term interests of the organization, clearly communicate them to all key stakeholders (and don’t stop communicating) and move forward.

Last summer, at the conclusion of my 30-day road trip, I wrote a blog post  that reiterated my belief the United States is  an amazing country unmatched in the world. Having now added five more countries (Russia, England, Portugal, Costa Rica and Jamaica) to my overall list, I stand by that statement.

But don’t take my word for it. In every one of those countries over the past 11 months, I have heard the same refrain from waiters, hotel clerks, hairdressers, taxi drivers and countless others. When I ask if they have been to the United States, they all have the same reply. “No, but it is a dream.” Despite our challenges and shortcomings as a country, America remains a beacon in the world for personal, societal and political freedom.

I look forward to sitting at my desk, in my office, in the coming months and helping our clients make progress on many of the issues outlined in this blog post. If your organization needs a dependable partner to help navigate these issues as well, please reach out. We’d love to have a conversation with you.

New Perspective on “Global Reach, Local Knowledge”

By Monty Hagler

Sitting in a conference room high above the crowded streets of San Jose, Costa Rica, among a group of public relations agency CEOs, I witnessed the Worldcom Public Relations Group tagline in action.  Partners from Mexico, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and other Latin American nations passionately discussed how to help clients in their respective countries succeed by understanding the communication, political, economic and cultural nuances that so often trip up companies.

I attended the Worldcom LATAM Regional meeting for several reasons – to represent the North American region and Global Board, to meet new partners who have joined the world’s largest and oldest partnership of independent PR agencies and, most importantly, to learn how RLF can better support clients as they evaluate expansion into Latin American markets.

Just as colleagues at work are more than images on a Zoom screen, Worldcom holds in-person meetings for the express purpose of ensuring we do not look at our partners as simply dots on a map. In an emerging, Covid-fragile world, we are starving for interactions that are not defined by a screen, text or call. While the work world is definitely a better place with the freedom and flexibility technology provides, there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions, casual conversations over coffee or meals, spontaneous brainstorms, subtle mentoring and a host of other ways we build trust, confidence and bonds with our colleagues and clients. That’s particularly valuable for younger workers. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on studies in which Generation Z workers love the flexibility of working remotely, but their levels of stress, loneliness and anxiety from never meeting their colleagues and working in isolation are incredibly high.

The LATAM meeting was organized by local partner Agencia Interamericana de Comunicación. They did an excellent job blending presentations from current partners with outside speakers. One presentation detailed the impact of COVID-19 on educational access in Latin America. Virtual learning in countries with significantly less than 50 percent of the population having broadband accessibility will have a dramatic, negative, long-term impact on the poor and vulnerable. We’re hearing a similar story in the United States as well; there will be societal consequences for reducing in-person learning to young people who need education the most for emotional development, social mobility and stability.

Presentations also detailed the dramatic shift in consumption patterns. Almost overnight, and in almost every corner of the world, people shifted from consuming services to consuming goods. Since we could not go out to restaurants, entertainment or take trips, we invested more in home makeovers, automobiles, new technology and other consumer goods.

In effect, there is a hurricane sweeping through companies and organizations, driven by the dynamics of health (COVID-19 and all its permutations), logistics (supply chain distributions), production (slowdown of manufacturing due to labor and materials), technology (lack of semi-conductor chips), energy (sharply higher costs) and commodities (rising costs driven by rising demand for corn, wheat, soy, beef and grain).

Challenging times bring out the best and worst in leadership teams and amplify the impact of their decisions. Consumer goods companies that reacted too slowly to the demand or were still overly dependent on brick-and-mortar retail to drive sales, lost market share and leadership positions. Companies that moved much too aggressively and stretched themselves too thin (think Peloton) have suffered similar fates.

Clear, consistent, transparent communications remain at the heart of how companies navigate complex challenges. It is much more than marketing, advertising or promotions with customer. Short and long-term success is dependent upon connecting with the internal and external audiences that matter most – employees, vendors, suppliers, regulators, legislators, investors, analysts, media and community partners – and ensuring all parties understand and have input, on the who, what, why and how of a company’s decisions. Because those decisions carry ripple effects for everyone associated with an organization, not just the executive suite.

Everywhere in Costa Rica one sees the slogan Pura Vida. It means “Pure Life” or “Simple Life,” and it reflects a desired way of living. For many people and organizations, it is easier said than done in these trying times. Our partners in Latin American described challenging economic conditions in their countries and all the steps they have taken to protect their employees and others who depend on them. I am honored to be their partner.

Brianna Gillard Earns Master’s Degree

By Isabel Allain

On August 5, RLF’s very own Brianna Gillard graduated from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in public relations and corporate communications.

Originally from Miami, Gillard received a bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising from Miami International University of Art and Design. Although she still has a passion for fashion, Gillard realized after graduation that she wanted to go into communications instead.

“I never got a traditional PR education, so I really wanted to go back to school to learn more about the profession,” she said.

Over the past two years, Gillard has excelled professionally while simultaneously working towards her academic goals. Although juggling these two commitments was stressful at some points, she tried to get the most out of each experience. For example, she was able to observe how the theoretical information that she was learning in classes came to life in the work she was doing.

“Working at RLF gave me that ‘ah-hah’ moment,” Gillard said. “I was able to apply what I was learning in class about internal communications to my work here and use my experience working on crisis communications at RLF in class.”

The program’s capstone project was another one of Gillard’s greatest learning experiences. She chose a client and created a communications plan from start to finish. Being interested in higher education communication, she selected Forsyth Tech’s Dental Hygiene Program as her client.

“The capstone project was something that I could really own,” she said. “I started from the bare bones and worked to build out a full, robust communications plan.”

The classes Gillard took within her master’s program have allowed her to become more confident in her position and excited about her future at RLF Communications.

Congratulations Brianna!

Road Trip Reflections

As I hit the mid-point of my road trip exploration of the Upper Midwest and Midwest, I’ve been keeping a journal of thoughts, experiences and ideas. A lot can occur to you over the course of 15 days and 3,500 miles, particularly when a big chunk of those miles come while following the path of Lewis & Clark up the Missouri River. My adventures have exceeded my expectations, particularly as I moved further away from states where I had friends and familiar memories. I am now on the edge of the South Dakota/Wyoming border, 30 miles from Custer.

I have now visited 48 of our 50 states, knocking off Indiana and North Dakota already on this trip and I will reach Nebraska next week. That leaves only Vermont. I feel qualified in declaring the United States truly an amazing country. We are diverse in geography, customs, expressions, food and culture, but we share common bonds of respect, openness and goodness. This is no disrespect to any other country. I am fortunate to have been able to travel extensively throughout the world and have so many friends – primarily through my Worldcom Public Relations Group partnership – across the globe. But no country that I have visited has the variety and splendor I have witnessed on this trip.

I have also been struck by other random observations:

  • Community banking is alive and well. I have seen more local banks than churches on this trip and am reminded that it is local banks that truly support small businesses and individual dreams.
  • There are more colleges and universities in this country than I ever imagined. As a college sports fan, I thought I knew a lot about this landscape. But as I have gotten off the beaten path, I have discovered Concordia College (not to be confused with Concordia University in Nebraska), Presentation College, the University of Mary and dozens of others as well as countless community colleges. Education is the great leveler of inequality, and I am thrilled to see so many opportunities exist.
  • Every community is facing a labor shortage. I have literally seen thousands of “We’re Hiring” and “Help Wanted” signs for businesses of every shape and size. Restaurants have restricted hours, motels are closed, manufacturing plants are running reduced shifts. RLF is helping several clients that are recruiting new employees, and I know firsthand how challenging it is. It is a brutal restart to the shutdowns and restrictions created by how the pandemic was handled. There are multiple factors for this conundrum, and both the government and private sector need to make resolving it a higher priority.
  • While our country debates a massive infrastructure bill, I am constantly reminded of the amazing projects built during the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration. We are still benefitting from the national parks, trails, roads, dams and thousands of other projects that were built by men and women desperate for jobs during the Great Depression. A fantastic book on this subject is American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA by Nick Taylor. On my final day of the return trip, I am going to make a point to detour to drive part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a WPA project.
  • In driving through vast open spaces, there are thousands of enormous windmills generating energy. But in many places, particularly North Dakota, there are also thousands of oil drilling rigs relentlessly driving into the earth. Renewable energy is making tremendous advances but seeing flames shooting high into the night sky as oil is burned off is a vivid reminder that our economy runs on fossil fuels.

My highest point north on this trip was Roosevelt National Park in the Northwest corner of North Dakota. A fantastic national asset that brought to life the stories I have read about Teddy Roosevelt’s days as cattle rancher and how it shaped his life. If I could invite 3 people from any time period to a dinner party, the Bull Moose would be on the list.

I’m headed now to my farthest point west – Casper, Wyoming – before turning for home. Let the adventures continue.

Perspective on Measuring Public Relations Value

In conversations with clients and potential clients, the issue of measuring the value and impact of investments in public relations is a frequent topic. It is a simple question without easy or straight-forward answers. RLF Communications’ (RLF) point of view is that measurement can and should be implemented if the client is committed to long-term investments in strengthening its brand, building awareness for its products and services, and deepening its relationships with stakeholder audiences.

At the simplest level, public relations can be measured with “ad equivalency,” “share-of-voice,” or other metrics that track earned media coverage. For example, ad equivalency metrics assign a value based on what that same “space” would have cost if it had been purchased. A story on a local television news program that airs for 60 seconds would be assigned the value of what that same airtime would have cost to run a commercial. Most formulas also assign a multiplier of 3-5 times to reflect the third-party credibility that comes from earned media. It can also be measured by creating dedicated landing pages or phone numbers tied to specific news releases.

While there are multiple variations and flaws with these approaches (how to measure tone, how to account for negative coverage that could have been so much worse without skillful PR support, etc.), it is the easiest way to create charts and graphs that can be shared with senior leadership teams. Although most companies have moved away from ad equivalency metrics, there is still a role for them as a baseline to track earned media efforts over time, particularly for specific projects such as product launches and promotional campaigns. RLF invests significant resources in monitoring systems and databases such as Cision, Sprout Social, Mention and other platforms to help provide this type of reporting and analysis.

Tracking the deeper impact of public relations initiatives to support company\organizational brands requires a more sophisticated approach. New services such as Signal AI are developing tools that harness the power of Artificial Intelligence in data gathering and analysis. Beyond that, there are a multitude of studies that address how to arrive at brand equity formulas but do not segment out the specific role public relations plays in creating that value. Even the Valid Methods Framework (VFM) adopted as part of the Barcelona Principles in 2010 does not provide helpful measurement tools that can be applied by organizations.

RLF defines public relations as “communicating, connecting and influencing stakeholders who can help or hurt an organization by what they think, believe, say and do.” As companies\organizations seek to establish or maintain leadership positions in their respective industries, establishing original and relevant business metrics will help determine the value of their public relations efforts with stakeholders. Those metrics start with RLF helping to clearly define what “success” looks like and what goals makes a meaningful difference to the company\organization.

Once we know which way is “True North,” RLF advocates adopting the “outcomes” model identified in the Guidelines for Measuring Relationships in Public Relations study commissioned 20 years ago by the Institute for Public Relations. It is still considered the gold standard in PR measurement techniques. The model identifies five outcomes of successful relationships with key stakeholders:

  • Control Mutuality (The degree to which parties agree on rightful power to influence each other.)
  • Trust (Built through integrity, dependability, competence and confidence.)
  • Satisfaction (Where positive expectations are reinforced, and benefits outweigh costs.)
  • Commitment (When the relationship is worth spending energy to maintain and promote.)
  • Communal Relationship (Both parties provide benefits to the other because they are concerned for the welfare of the other, even when they get nothing in return. This is in contrast to “exchange” relationships where all actions are predicted on expectations to receive benefits of equal or greater value to what has been given.)

Organizations that communicate effectively with stakeholders develop better relationships because management and stakeholders understand one another and are less likely to behave in ways that have negative consequences on the interests of the other. Therefore, the value of public relations can be determined by assessing the quality of relationships with strategic publics and measuring effective outcomes.

Every company\organization has a different set of key stakeholders, but they generally encompass both internal and external audiences, such as senior management, employees, boards of directors, regulatory bodies, legislative bodies, activist groups, analysts, retail shareholders, institutional shareholders, trade media, business media, local media, vendor partners, retail partners, suppliers, financial partners and labor unions. Let’s also not forget customers and the myriad of combinations they form. The list goes on and on, driven by an organization’s size, complexity and industry.

There will often be times when a company\organization is at odds with the needs and desires of certain stakeholders. In fact, there are times when going to war against those groups is required to accomplish organizational objectives. In those instances, the value of having done the hard work required in public relations pays off. As Sun Tzu recorded more than 2,000 years ago in The Art of War, “Know your enemy and know yourself, and fight a hundred battles without danger. Know yourself but not your enemy and win one battle but lose another.”

If companies\organizations truly want to understand where they stand with friends and foes, RLF recommends developing a Perception Matrix that assigns a current score for each “outcome” with every stakeholder audience. Strategies and tactics can then be developed to stabilize, improve and track outcome scores, with the desired objective to more effectively operate and achieve business objectives.

For example, companies\organizations can establish baseline scoring systems ranging from -5 to +5, with 0 serving as neutral. For each stakeholder group, an initial score can be assigned in each outcome category (Control Mutuality, Trust, Satisfaction, Commitment, Communal Relationship) and then work to create strategies with specific outcome objectives such as increasing positive share-of-voice, reducing regulatory cycles, aligning third-party supporters and other metrics that ultimately lead to improved company\organizational performance.

There is a no question this is tricky to figure out. Professor Jim Macnamara has written, “human interactions, relationships, feelings, attitudes, loyalties, perceptions and engagement do not yield easily to numeric quantification.” But companies\organizations can and should be able to develop a model that assigns numerical value to the investments they make in establishing (and maintaining) leadership positions in their respective industries.

Companies\organizations interested in these issues should also review insights gathered in the Authentic Enterprise report commissioned a decade ago by the Arthur Page Society. Page is composed of the top corporate public relations executives in the United States. The study was updated in 2013 and reaffirms that a proactive narrative is a key part of explaining an enterprise’s social value and defending the company’s reputation in the global marketplace.

Another resource that can be helpful is the annual Global Communications Report conducted by the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. This survey is endorsed by the leading communication associations, and RLF participates in the data gathering process through our Worldcom Public Relations Group partnership. With more than 100 leading independent agencies around the world to draw on for trends, insights, proprietary research and best practices, we are able to access a multitude of resources for our clients.

RLF deeply believes in the power of public relations to move companies forward and build brand equity. Absolute quantification is a challenge in our industry, but we can develop metrics to inform our progress. We are devoted to ideas, strategy and service that help our clients succeed and we welcome the opportunity to work with clients who aspire to great things.