Knowing how to set effective PR goals and objectives in the planning of your communication activities is vital because it enables you to prove their tangible value. This article explains how to write goals and SMART objectives for your programs, which will enable you to measure results and prove your worth. Many helpful examples are provided as a guide.
Be clear about what you mean by a goal and an objective. Some US business writers and commentators reverse the definitions of goals and objectives, ie they refer to goals as specific and measurable, and objectives as broad. I don’t understand why they do this, because management guru Peter Drucker, who originated the concept, used goals and objectives in the way I do in this article, as do knowledgeable people like David Grossman, for instance in his internal comms strategy and template, 2021. Also, I noticed this approach is used in the Semrush content writing workbook. You can read Drucker’s goals and objectives summary on pages 65-68 of his book, The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization.]
Vital benefits when you set effective PR goals and objectives
When you set PR goals and objectives you create a range of benefits:
- Clearer focus – Properly thought-out-and-stated goals and objectives clearly indicate your intentions. This is especially important to show you are aligning with organizational and business unit goals.
- Best use of resources – Resources are always limited, so setting goals and objectives can help you to prioritize resources.
- Effective use of time – Time is also a resource, but it deserves special attention because it is so important.
- Better decision making – Knowing what you are trying to do means that you can now ask: “Does this activity get me closer to my goal ahead of alternative actions?”
- Easier communication – Communication is improved between the participants, which improves efficiency – people know what is planned and what is expected of them.
- Easier measurement of what you do – (1) Tracking progress is motivating to participants, and (2) Measurable results are created, which provides evidence of tangible contribution to organizational performance improvement. This is vital to proving the success of the activity to senior management, and thus paving the way for their ready support of other projects.
I discuss this further in my article, “Setting PR objectives is even more important now.”
A double-edged sword
A widely held myth has been that PR performance can’t really be measured because too many ‘soft’ factors prevent PR activities from relating to tangible outcomes. Such factors include attitudes, awareness, influence, internal culture, employee engagement etc. Woolly social media outputs make it even more difficult to point to tangible results.
The supposed upside is that PR can’t be expected to undergo the performance and budget scrutiny that other functions are obliged to accept. This is all very well in good times, but dodging measurement means that PR practitioners are very vulnerable because their tangible value can’t be demonstrated. When senior management request to see how communication directly improves organizational performance, we can’t necessarily provide satisfactory responses. Therefore, it can be easy for management to cut PR budgets and staff numbers.
However, you can prove the value of your PR work by deciding on communication activities that support organizational priorities, and then setting and achieving measurable objectives for your activities.
Support organizational goals when you set effective PR goals and objectives
The aim of communication activities should be to influence audience behavior in a way that achieves business/organizational goals such as productivity, reduced costs, employee recruitment and retention, revenue, profitability, corporate reputation. (In government, this would be efficiency or effectiveness goals.)
You should consult with your stakeholders (internal clients) to identify the desired behaviors of their target audiences. These stakeholders include managers of relevant business units. Then ensure your boss and senior management document their approval of the proposed activities so they can’t pretend they didn’t know about them or didn’t support them. Finally, base your communication measures on the priority outcomes of your stakeholders.
Here’s how to measure the value of each communication activity:
- Determine the business outcome you’re looking to support.
- Identify the target behavior/s and measures for that outcome (eg who needs to do what for the business outcome to be achieved).
- Identify the barriers that prevent the desired behavior/s from happening. Use qualitative and quantitative research where you can to better understand attitudes.
- Decide the most worthwhile communication activities and measures for the result you want.
Aim to include qualitative measurement as part of the process of finding out the attitudes of your target audience. Talk with your media contacts, key customers, prospects, influencers and others individually or in focus groups to find out what they are thinking. Once these attitudes are identified at the start, then you can use these findings as the basis for quantitative measurement at the results stage. Experts recommend spending about 10% of project budgets on measurement.
The vital thing is to think ahead so you measure the state of affairs at the start of the activity – the baseline level of awareness, understanding, or behavior. Then you measure these levels at the end of the activity. Simple as that. But the important thing is to think of the relevant measures before you start so they are in place at the starting point. Therefore, you should plan the time and resources needed to measure at the start and at the end so you can measure results.
When you can show the change in results from when you set PR goals and objectives to the start of the activity through to the end, you are able to prove to senior management the value of your activity.
How to set effective PR goals and objectives
Some management observers say the difference between goals and objectives is that a goal is a description of a destination, and an objective is a measure of the progress that is needed to reach the destination. More specifically:
Goals are the means to express the end points towards which effort is directed. They are broad, relatively abstract and may be difficult to quantify (“Our goal is to increase our share of the market for [our product].”)
Objectives are subsets of goals and should be expressed in concrete, measurable terms. (“Our objective is to increase our share of the market in the largest city in this State for [our product] by 15% by the end of the next financial year.”) An objective is something that can be documented; it’s factual and observable.
A goal is achieved by achieving a subset of supporting objective/s. Therefore, an objective is a strategic step along the way to achieving a desired goal. This is how you set PR goals and objectives effectively.
Three types of communication goals
- Reputation management goals, which deal with the identity and perception of the organization. Example: “We aim to improve [stakeholder group] opinions of our organization significantly within the next year.”
- Relationship management goals, which focus on how the organization connects with its stakeholders. Example: “We aim to improve communication with our shareholders during the coming year so we form more positive relationships with them.”
- Task management goals, which are concerned with achieving tasks. Example: “Our goal is to increase attendance at our staff ‘town hall’ meetings next year.”
Decide the criteria that have to be met for ‘success’
Setting objectives is essential. At the start of an activity, measure the starting position and then set a goal and an objective based on it, agreed by relevant bosses, which can be measured at the end of the activity. This is the vital starting point to allow you to set PR goals and objectives effectively.
If you haven’t decided on your objective/s at the start of an activity, you can’t compare the ‘before’ position with the ‘after’ position. And if you can’t prove how well your activity went, then why would senior management take your role seriously?
Communication objective/s measure the actions and outcomes you have decided you need to enable a communication goal to be achieved. In turn, each communication goal supports the achievement of one or more business or organizational goals.
When you set objectives, you first need to define the level of a relevant activity that would need to be achieved to quality as ‘success’ in your view. This level and nature of activity should be developed together with the business unit or executives you are supporting. They need to agree that your definition of success matches theirs. You need to make those objectives measurable so you can quantify how successful you are.
As noted in my article, “Clearly define problems to reach best solutions,” the problem or opportunity you are faced with should be the starting point for the development of a communication goal and related objective/s. For instance, the two problem statements below enable you to think clearly about the outcome/result you need and the activities you need to initiate to achieve the respective goal:
- The community group’s objections are slowing the local council’s rezoning approvals for the property we have bought for our new manufacturing plant, which we need to be approved by 15 May to meet construction deadlines.
An internal example:
- As only 37% of our employees are aware of the 3 key points in our new bonus plan, which will be put to their vote on 15 March, this will reduce their support for the plan.
Goal: [You would need to decide in consultation with senior management as to how much employees should know to be at a satisfactory level of knowledge.]
- Make sure company employees know enough about next financial year’s 3 key corporate strategies.
Possible outcome/results objectives: [Any of these would be appropriate – you would need to use your professional judgment in consultation with senior management.]
- To have 80% of employees know where to access next financial year’s written corporate strategy.
- To have 50% of our employees able to identify our 3 key strategies for next financial year from a list of 5 possible ones. [Multiple choice answers.]
- To have 67% of employees know what percentage of market share we are trying to achieve by the end of next financial year.
After you decide which of the outcome objectives you will use to measure, you will need to decide the process (activity) objectives you wish to put in place in order to measure progress towards the outcome you want.
- To produce an emailed newsletter about the planned structural changes by the 21st of every month, starting in June.
- From this, can you see how to set PR goals and objectives?
SMART format for objectives
It is helpful to think of an objective as consisting of four parts, expressed in one sentence:
- an infinitive verb
- a single outcome stated as a receiver of a verb’s action
- the magnitude of the action expressed in quantifiable terms
- a target date or timeframe for achieving the outcome.
SMART objectives are widely used in business, and therefore communicators should know how to set them.
SMART objectives are written in one sentence comprising the following parts:
- Specific – explain clearly one action that will happen
- Measurable – you need to include a number to enable comparison between the level at the start and at the end of the activity
- Achievable – make the objective challenging but achievable
- Relevant – the action taken needs to clearly determine the outcome
- Time-bound – always put a time limit so there is a clear finishing point.
Some people use Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Time-bound. The most important components are Specific, Measurable and Time-bound, which are common to both alternatives. Realistic and Achievable are virtually interchangeable, and Relevant is similar to Agreed in the sense that stakeholders need to agree with the objective, which makes it Relevant.
You can see the component parts of the above SMART, one-sentence, objective:
Results and process objectives
Objectives and the measurement of a PR activity ideally should be expressed in terms of results gained. Results, or outcomes, are the key measure. Results or outcomes measure whether the communication material and disseminated messages have changed awareness, understanding, opinions, attitudes, preferences, and/or behavior by target audiences.
Set your intended result first
As noted above, you need to use your professional judgment to set quantifiable results objectives that will enable you to specify the end result intended. Then you can measure whether the intended result has been achieved. Setting results objectives and achieving the results enables you to judge the effectiveness of the programs.
Having planned the intended result, you use your professional judgment to decide which communication activities or processes will be necessary to achieve the result. Objectives can be set for all these activities or processes. They are called process or output objectives and are stated intentions towards production, effort or output. The combined impact of all the process objectives should be to create the result.
Each process objective should be written in quantifiable, measurable terms that allow the result to be easily compared against the objective. The wonderful thing about using specific, measurable process objectives is that they effectively spell out the implementation as well – they detail all the steps involved in achieving the end result. Therefore, time spent on the laborious construction of specific and measurable objectives saves a large amount of time spent in preparing the implementation details.
Process objectives help to determine the exact details of the activity, including its cost and timing in contributing to the end result. Generally, process objectives should include as many as possible of the following measures: time, quality, quantity, labor resources committed (time), and cost.
Give sufficient thought to solutions
You need to use your professional judgment to decide the potential importance of an activity. Setting a goal or objective doesn’t prove whether the goal or objective is worthwhile. An objective can be SMART without being wise. It should be used more as a test to check that the objective is well stated.
Also, you need to be aware that the SMART structure can motivate people to set low targets. By putting in place a Realistic component, people can avoid setting stretch targets that can generate the greatest levels of effort and performance.
Also, steer clear of setting objectives where the person or communication function has only a minimal or low impact on the outcome. For instance, when I was a corporate affairs manager in a power utility, senior executives suggested my department’s KPIs should include responsibility for the organization’s reputation. I declined firmly because “actions speak louder than words,” and the actions of the workforce, especially those in contact with customers and the general public, such as linesmen, had a much stronger impact on reputation than communication activities. Therefore, to set PR goals and objectives, you need to be clear in your own mind on what to accept as relevant measures.
Experience shows that PR pros invariably perform better than the minimum, and if measurable intentions have been laid out, you can easily prove the value of your work.
Achieving measurable objectives helps the planning of future campaigns and offers you the political benefit of enabling you to justify more resources in future. Specifying measurable objectives is also the best practical way to make senior managers understand the effectiveness of the communication role.
However, life is not simple. Measuring the overall impact of a PR program or strategy can be difficult unless the individual elements or components of the program are clearly defined and measured – and outcomes calculated. These can include publicity activities, a particular community relations program, a special event, government affairs, speaker program, investor relations activity, etc.
The individual components may be quantifiable, but overall outcomes are more difficult to measure, such as attitude or behavior change of a specific target audience over time, eg for attitudes relating to a social issue. In these cases, careful thought is required beforehand as to measuring outcomes. You may need to use your professional judgment to decide how many of the components you need to implement to achieve the overall result you are seeking when you aim to set effective PR goals and objectives.
The available budget may dictate how many and what type of components you may be able to use in your quest to achieve the result. The budget would need to include sufficient funding to measure the result.
It is often difficult to separate PR programs and activities (such as publicity, distribution of information material, special events, etc) from other activities such as marketing (advertising, point-of-purchase promotional activities, give-away activities, etc), especially when they are implemented at the same time, as in a product launch. Again, it is important to plan ahead of time how to measure the extent of communication at the start of a project compared with that element of communication at the end point. Too often, communicators don’t think of measuring the state of affairs beforehand.Also, the setting of challenging but realistic objectives can be difficult, requiring arbitrary selection of target figures that depend on a range of underlying assumptions.
Achievement of objectives should never be treated as an ‘all or nothing’ process – objectives should refer to the extent of accomplishment along a continuum of performance. An ‘all or nothing’ approach to objectives will subvert the value of the process because people will always go for ‘low hurdles’ to maximize the chances of attaining them. What if you set out to generate a 75% positive employee attitude towards a workplace issue like revised conditions, but only achieve a 65% positive response? Or if someone achieves 95% of an objective, how can this be considered a failure?
To treat anything less than 100% achievement of an objective as a failure will inevitably lead to game playing, ‘low-balling’ and the massage and manipulation of data. To use objectives in such a simplistic way distorts the process away from sound results, according to experts.
Sample results and process objectives
The results or outcome objective for a lobbying project might be:
- To persuade a majority (21 of the 40) local branches of the Lions community group to vote for the charity project at the state annual meeting in September.
A suitable process objective for the project might be:
- To meet with all 40 local branch committees of the Lions community group throughout the State before June to brief them on the proposed charity project.
In organizing a conference, a results objective for the PR practitioner might be:
- To achieve representatives of at least 250 exporter companies at the Export Council of America conference on 21 September.
Some of the process objectives might be (time and cost components could be added in):
- Prepare and send a promotional direct mail letter to all members of the Export Council of America executive committee by 15 July.
- Prepare and distribute a promotional brochure and covering letter to all member company contacts of the ECA by 21 July.
- Write and distribute media release to all relevant news media outlets and industry publications promoting the conference by 28 July.
- Prepare and send a promotional email to all member company contacts by 31 July.
- Promote via social media from 15 July to conference start date
- Follow up email by 15 August to contacts within member companies who have not yet registered to attend the conference.
- Follow up email by 23 August to CEOs of all members of the ECA who do not yet have a representative registered for the conference.
Other types of objectives
Other types of objectives could also be used for communication work. For instance, you could decide to use output and impact objectives. The output objectives would relate only to what the communicator produces (which is a limited focus), while the impact objectives would relate to the effect of the activities on the target audience or stakeholders.
Impact objectives can comprise three types of impact: informational, attitudinal and behavioral:
Informational objectives concentrate on message exposure, comprehension or retention. Message comprehension informational objectives can also be measured by readability formulae, audience survey or focus groups, eg:
- To increase to 85% the extent of staff awareness of the organization’s Equal Employment Opportunity policy by 31 December.
- This would be achieved by writing process objectives for a staff briefing and two newsletters over the next four-week period.
Attitudinal objectives need to be measured by formal or informal audience surveys. Attitudinal objectives create attitudes, reinforce existing attitudes or change existing attitudes, eg:
- To create a favorable attitude among more than 50% of potential users of the new telecommunications service by 1 September within the target area. [The support or satisfaction rate could be measured on a 5-point Likert scale.]
- This would be achieved by writing three process objectives covering two newsletters and a group meeting
Behavioral objectives are the most difficult to achieve because it is difficult to change behaviors. The objectives may set out to create new behaviors, intensify existing behaviors or reverse existing negative behaviors, eg:
- To influence 60% of women in the 50-59 year old age group in the Binningup area to undertake x-rays (mammograms) for breast cancer between 1 July and 31 December.
- This would be achieved by writing two process objectives for a letter to each person with a telephone follow up for those who don’t make an appointment by 31 October.
Sample objectives used in a public relations project
A good example of using objectives as the basis for planning is the following program of activities intended to create stronger employee support for a proposed change in pay conditions.
- To gain the support of at least 70% of employees for the new pay package, as measured by an employee survey conducted in the week following the completion of the communication program on 5 November. [The support or satisfaction rate could be measured on a 5-point Likert scale.]
- To draft a briefing note in the name of the CEO, to send to all directors by 1 September, outlining the details of the planned change in pay conditions.
- To produce two special 8-page, quarto-sized newsletters on the new pay package for the 1,500 employees by 31 October and 30 November respectively at a cost less than $3,000 for each newsletter.
- To send an email to all employees outlining the new pay agreement by 8 November.
- To support the briefing of wages employees by their 35 supervisors by producing, by 1 October, printed briefing information material comprising information cards and a summary letter from the CEO explaining the new pay package at a maximum cost of $1,000…and so on.
Overall, I hope you have a much better idea of how set effective PR goals and objectives