I’ve been sitting on this one a while. I’ve heard a wide variety of definitions of tone in my day. Some from the Canuck media analysis master and soon-to-be Ph.D. @ Cormex, some from the organization of which I am a booster and disciple: The Institute for Public Relations and their commission on measurement. And, a whole bunch from PR practitioners via blogs, events, cocktail chats and around the water cooler.
We’ve known this for moons, but it’s worth revisiting. The industry has got a serious clarity and consistency problem and so our day of aTONEment beckons. I don’t normally do this, but the problem rarely sits with those who are trained media analysts, the problem sits with PR practitioners who are moonlighting at it. In fairness to them, most have not been trained on how to analyze media content, generally, and analyze for tone specifically.
My definition of tone? Well, it’s really Andrew Laing’s at Cormex. I’ve been schooled by the master. I use it because it’s painfully simple and it’s clear by design and it works. It’s: “the (reporter’s) explicit or strongly implicit characterization of (the story’s) subject. Content in brackets added. Or, if you prefer, the IPR definition: “Content analysis factor that measures how a target audience (is likely to) feel about the client or product or topic; typically defined as positive, neutral-to-balanced, or negative.
Tone is tone is tone. It’s supposed to be (as much as possible) objective. Tone, one media analyst to the next should come out the same. Content analysis, methodologically, has checks and balances built in to test and correct for this. Called intercoder reliability.
What I’ve seen and heard in the last few months is discouraging. I’ve heard things like:
1. We got almost everything we wanted in the article–so that’s positive.
2. We got a call to action mentioned in the article–so that’s positive.
3. We got a front-page, colour photo of our product–so that’s a positive.
4. We were the only company in our industry mentioned–so that’s positive
5. We got into the publication we wanted–so that’s positive.
6. The piece included a key message–so that’s positive.
No. Those may speak to the presence of other important variables or indicators of the relative quality of the coverage, but the fact that they are present does not have any bearing, in my view, on tone. Tone is tone is tone. What’s potentially beneficial to the client cause isn’t necessarily tone.