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Jon Meakin, Board Member AMEC: Understanding “why” is not always easy, but it is always extremely valuable

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Jon Meakin

Like so many things in life, communication campaigns are a question of “garbage in, garbage out”. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately, as some very woolly briefs have come across my desk and I’ve been reminded of the importance of getting the brief right. If you don’t know what you want to achieve, and why (before you even get to how), then how will you know if you’ve been successful? How do you even know what you need to measure?

Writing a good brief is hard, so it’s no surprise that good ones are so rare. A former mentor of mine would always look for any opportunity to challenge a brief. Sometimes, when the brief was unclear (or quite clearly wrong) that was perfectly justified, and led to a better outcome. But sometimes it was just about said mentor showing that she was smarter than the client (which she usually was), and occasionally it was just about being bloody-minded (which she certainly was).

No brief should ever be taken at face value. A good consultant will always want to interrogate it, to drill down into the detail. But one has to tread a fine line. Of course we want the brief to be clear, so that we can deliver the best response, but we never want to embarrass our would-be client, or make them feel foolish. That can lead to a very short-lived relationship – as it did a number of times with the aforementioned mentor.

Getting it right, right from the start

One technique I have found that works very well in these situations is Five Whys. Five Whys is an iterative interrogation technique designed to identify the root cause of a problem, by asking the question “why?” up to five times. Since PR or communications campaigns are often about solving some kind of problem, this can be very effective.

A typical (poor) brief might list “raising awareness” as an objective. OK, but why? It’s important that the agency understands this. Moreover, it’s vital that their client understands this. And that is not always the case. Do you want to raise awareness so you can sell more products? Attract more funding? Attract more or better talent? These are all different commercial objectives, and change how one approaches the challenge.

Once you have an answer, ask “why” again and the true nature of the client’s challenge may begin to reveal itself. You want to sell more products because an upstart competitor is stealing market share. You want to attract more funding because you plan to make an acquisition. You want to attract more and better talent because you have recognized a deficiency in a particular area. These are all unlikely to have been in the original brief (“Why would the PR agency need to know that?” is a common refrain), but they quickly illuminate the true potential role of communications in solving the commercial or organizational challenge.

Now plug all of that information into the AMEC Integrated Evaluation Framework and suddenly you have a very clear picture of what really matters to the organization, and what you should therefore be measuring to determine true success.

Understanding “why” is not always easy, but it is always extremely valuable.

And while “why” is certainly not the only question, it’s a great place to start.


Jon Meakin has more than 25 years’ public relations experience, encompassing consumer, corporate, and business-to-business communications, and crisis and issues management. His career to date has seen him work for boutique agencies and international networks alike, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jon was recently appointed President, North America, for Clarity, where, as well as being responsible for the growth and strategic direction of the agency’s expanding US footprint, he is also global lead on measurement, evaluation and impact.

Prior to this, Jon ran the West Coast team for Grayling, where he oversaw strategy and execution for domestic and international clients, from startups to blue chip multinationals. He was concurrently responsible for that agency’s global Strategic Services team, whose remit encompassed research, insights and strategy; measurement and evaluation; creative and content solutions; and the agency’s proprietary online reputation management tool, which Jon developed.

Jon is a regular judge of PR and creative industry awards, a speaker at international conferences, and has run crisis simulation exercises for clients and conference delegates the world over.

In addition, Jon has been a Board member of the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) since 2018, and is the founding Chair of that body’s Agency Group, where his focus is on embedding measurement and evaluation best practice throughout the PR agency world.

Republish with the permission of the author. 

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