PR objectives more important than ever
Most of us are familiar with the need to set objectives in communication projects.
Despite the agreed need, it is tempting not to bother in cases when an activity is repeated every year, or when senior managers direct something to be done at short notice or when the need for the project seems blindingly obvious.
However, it is best for several reasons to set objectives before embarking on an activity.
PR activities are being scrutinized more heavily than ever before. We need to justify our programs, or at least justify budgets to people who may not understand PR and who are looking to make organizational budget cuts.
In these times, we need to demonstrate that PR is effectively supporting the achievement of organizational goals and ideally is doing a better job than alternative communication options such as advertising and promotions would. In fact, during tough times, many organizations come to realize that PR offers better return on investment than other options.
Develop objectives that support organizational goals and objectives
The best way to demonstrate the value of PR is to create communication objectives that directly support organizational goals and objectives. This may seem to be a non-issue because practitioners are supposed to set objectives for significant communication activities as a matter of course. But all too often, PR people fail to plan and document the objectives for activities that demonstrably support organizational priorities.
The penalty for this is found in research findings. Research shows organizations that don’t set PR goals and objectives to evaluate performance experience the greatest downsizing in corporate communication staff and budgets.
It is easy to set individual project and program objectives, but more complex to show that the activity links PR objectives to business objectives.
Goals and objectives explained
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 marketplace 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 set of goals is achieved only by achieving a subset of interrelated objectives, even if those objectives are not clearly stated or articulated. Therefore, an objective is a strategic step along the way to achieving a desired goal.
The act of setting the objectives helps you get your mind around the key points of a project. Going to the effort of producing specific, measurable objectives will spell out how the program or project will be implemented to reach the desired outcome.
Although it may seem obvious that the organizational goals and objectives need to be directly supported by communication programs, communicators quite often forget to emphasize the link when they seek to explain and justify their activities.
Linking PR effectiveness to the organization’s corporate plans is not easy. It requires careful thinking on what the communication program seeks to accomplish to help the organization achieve its goals.
In setting communication objectives, it is usually important to recognize that measuring the overall impact of a communication program or strategy can be difficult unless the individual elements or components of the program are clearly defined and measured, especially the response of key stakeholder groups.
Identify your organization’s highest-priority goals
When planning communication activities, you can increase your value to the organization by asking some key questions to yourself that can help your organization achieve its highest-priority goals with your astute communication support:
- What are the stated goals of each operational area of your organization, as well as the stated corporate priorities evidenced by the latest strategic plan for each operational area and the corporate area? If you are unsure what they are or can’t get access to them, ask the manager from each area – they will invariably be impressed that you are going to the effort of finding out the information directly from them – either from their documents or from interviewing them.
- Who are the key stakeholder groups for each of the most important operational and corporate activities outlined in the above plans? Be sure to define and segment those groups as tightly as possible. Prioritize them by their importance to the respective operational area, eg by their financial power, influence with decision-makers, voting power, media contacts, productivity etc.
- What is the range of possible responses from those stakeholder groups to the plans outlined in point 1 above?
- What can you do to satisfy the most stakeholder segments, or at least the most important stakeholder segments?
- What is the ideal stakeholder (segment) response that your organization is trying to achieve in each case?
- What communication activities can help you reach those key stakeholders in the most effective way, ie a way that will persuade the stakeholders to respond in the way that would best suit your organization (and ideally suit the stakeholders as well) in each case? Detail the most targeted ways you can reach each segment so the messages are personalized as much as possible. Decide what combination of communication channels might be the most cost effective.
- Can you put a persuasive case to management outlining the effective ways that communication will help your organization to attain the goals and objectives developed above?
- What about other communication disciplines? Can PR be more effective than marketing, advertising, promotions etc? For instance, frequently PR people can manage sponsorships more effectively than other disciplines can.
By setting PR objectives in this way, you will form the basis for effective programs that support the organizational goals and objectives. This applies to consulting work as well as corporate activities.
How to set objectives and measure results
The most effective way to start is to develop objectives comprising four parts:
- 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.
- To produce an 8-page quarto-sized newsletter about the organization’s planned structural changes, to be distributed on the 21st day of every second month at a cost less than $5,000 per issue, starting in June.
SMART format for objectives
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
Setting quantifiable results objectives will enable you to specify the end result intended and 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 program production and effort or output. The combined impact of all the process objectives should be to create the result specified by the result objective or objectives.
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.
Sample use of 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.
- 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.
Always get senior management to sign-off on your plan
Having set measurable objectives, you need to ensure management or client sign-off to them. Get senior management or the executive committee to endorse your objectives and the way they support organizational objectives. Then evaluate the results at the completion of the activity. If senior management ever query the value of your activities, you can show proof that you achieved the objectives, which they endorsed, through the evaluation reports for the activities. Invariably, PR activities show a very healthy return on investment. This makes it very difficult for them to question your PR achievements in tough times, whether you are in-house or a consultant.
Further discussion on goals and objectives in my article, “Setting goals and objectives makes your PR planning more effective.“