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."
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. …