Communicators: 'bWAR' metrics myopia

Baseball's return every spring has been a source of joy for me since I was a boy. But lately, I feel more disengaged from the game because I no longer understand baseball statistics.


Half the fun of baseball was the ability to compare today’s players with those of decades ago based on stats like home runs, runs batted in, batting average, wins, losses, earned run average. In shorthand: HRs, RBIs, BA, W, L, and ERA. Not anymore.

Now we have bWARs, WHIP, TTO, OPS and numbers after players’ names like .432/.519/.727. I have no idea what these mean (help me Joe Sheehan!). They are being used by managers, general managers and fantasy players to drive personnel and in-game decisions.

Data analytics in baseball have led to highly effective defensive innovations but as they have risen, human judgment has receded; watch a game and you’ll see a team manager paging through a binder of stats rather than looking at the field.

The same is true of public relations, where metrics are changing and, in some cases, supplanting the “art” of our work. I remember sitting in meetings on PR/marketing campaigns listening to reports of impressions, web site visitors, reach, email open rates, and other metrics and wondering if we had made a meaningful connection – or any connection -- with anyone.

...we should use these tools to make adjustments, do a better job, and help us to set benchmarks for our goals and objectives.

In marketing, data provides insights into customer preferences and practices. For example, if 60 percent of your online customers end up seeking follow-up help from your call center, you know that something is wrong. 

In public relations, however, many metrics still ladder up to the old reliables of favorability, trust and message receptivity/audience preferences that can be tested quantitatively and qualitatively. At their worst, these metrics drive a strategy to the exclusion of other factors.

Here's what I mean. Say you're a company responding to the loss of customers' personal data. What determines your plan? The number of customers who close accounts? Favorability and key words in social media? Employee feedback?

Any smart company is sure to be looking at these and other metrics. Yet, in many instances, the responses seem to be lacking. 

Perhaps it is first and foremost a clear expression of the values that guided the enterprise in its decision-making. Metrics should inform your strategy but not determine it. Don’t let them get in the way of values-based actions, common sense and good judgment. Get your nose out of the binder and look at the field.

Metrics must be simple, predictive, well-defined and, to borrow a golf phrase -- “dead solid perfect” – meaning they must be as carefully scrutinized as financial numbers. They must be defendable under withering cross-examination in the C-suite.

Our profession is determined to get there. The Institute for Public Relations and its Measurement Commission have done amazing work advancing the definition, validity and value of measurement through research and collaboration. As IPR President Tina McCorkindale smartly says: “Our purpose should not be to try to prove the value of our profession or worth compared to other organizational departments…rather we should use these tools to make adjustments, do a better job, and help us to set benchmarks for our goals and objectives.”

IPR is sponsoring a free webinar on May 22 by two terrific communications leaders, Mark Klein of Dignity Health, and Rob Clark of Medtronic, Inc., From Complex to Concise: Using Data, Research and Measurement to Simplify Healthcare Communications.

Now if IPR can explain to me what is going on with baseball stats. Go Yankees!