Setting goals and objectives makes your PR planning more effective
Knowing how to set measurable goals and objectives for your communication activities is vital for your long-term success. When you can show the change in measurable results from the start of the activity to the end, you are able to prove to top decision makers and clients the value of your work.
(Please note that some business writers and commentators reverse the definitions of goals and objectives, ie for some reason, they refer to goals as specific and measurable, while referring to objectives as broad. The use of objectives is based on Peter Drucker’s concept of Management By Objectives [MBO]. According to Wikipedia, Drucker’s MBO in a business involves 5 steps: (1) Review organizational goal, (2) Set worker objective, (3) Monitor progress, (4) Evaluation, and (5) Give reward [!]. Therefore, goals are broad and objectives are specific.)
Benefits of setting goals and objectives
Setting communication goals and objectives creates 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 –
- Tracking progress is motivating to participants.
- 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 PR projects.
Work to your organization’s key goals
The aim of communication activities should be to influence target audience behavior in a way that enables business goals to be achieved. (In government, this would be efficiency or effectiveness goals.)
When planning communication activities, you should consult with your stakeholders (internal clients) to identify the desired behaviors or contributing behaviors of their target audiences. These stakeholders are typically managers of relevant business units. Finally, base your communication measures on the priority outcomes of your stakeholders.
If you are developing an annual strategic communication plan, you identify the top-priority business goals. This means finding out the stated goals of your organization and each business unit. 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. But make sure you are letting them know you are trying to support them with your communication activities and wish to coordinate with any other of their related activities.
If you are supporting an individual program, project or campaign, focus on the goals expressed in the business plan for each of those.
Define target audiences as specifically as possible
The organizational strategic plan is the sum of individual programs, projects and campaigns, so you can identify the target audience behavior/s and the measures for the outcome being sought for each.
Don’t forget to identify the barriers that prevent the desired behavior/s from happening, and use your problem-solving skills on those. Use qualitative and quantitative research where you can to better understand attitudes.
Be sure to define and segment target audiences as tightly as possible. Prioritize them by their importance to the respective business area, eg by their financial power, influence with decision-makers, voting power, media contacts, productivity etc.
Work out the range of possible responses from the target audiences to the business unit goals. Determine what can you do to satisfy the most audience segments, or at least the most important audience segments. Decide the ideal audience (segment) response that your organization is trying to achieve in each case.
This will help you decide the most effective communication activities to reach each key audience. You need to persuade the audiences to respond in the way that will best suit your organization (and ideally suit them as well) in each case. Detail the best combination of communication channels and measures for the result you want, including the time period needed and the estimated cost.
Aim to include qualitative measurement as part of the process of finding out the attitudes of your target audience segments. Talk with your key customers, prospects, influencers and others individually or in focus groups to find out what they are thinking. When these attitudes are identified at the start, then you can use these findings as the guide to messaging for the activity, and 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. Therefore, you should plan the time and resources needed to measure. When you can show the change in results from the start of the activity to the end, you are able to prove to senior management the value of your activity.
Define the problem first
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.
- As only 37% of our employees are aware of the 3 key points in our new bonus plan, this will reduce their support for the plan, which will be put to their vote on 15 March.
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. Goals are whats, not hows. Sample communication goals:
- Our goal is to increase the share of the market for [our product].
- The aim is to influence the decision of the government planning committee.
- The goal is to increase attendance at these public meetings.
- We want to use social media to drive more traffic to our website.
- Our goal is to more effectively listen to social media conversations affecting our reputation.
Three types of communication goals
There are generally 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 relationships with our shareholders during the next 12 months.”
- Task management goals, which are concerned with achieving tasks. Example: “Our goal is to increase attendance at our staff ‘town hall’ meetings next calendar year.”
Each communication goal supports the achievement of one or more business or organizational goals. A goal is achieved by achieving a subset of supporting objective/s. Therefore, an objective is a step along the way to achieving a desired goal.
Strategy in public relations is the overall concept, approach or general plan for the activity, which is intended to achieve a goal.
Tactics are short-term activities and outputs through which strategies are implemented. Tactics are the implementation tools or action part of PR. Example of how the different concepts relate to each other:
- A communication goal might be to launch a new product from the beginning of July to support the marketing goal of opening up a new market for [name of product] in the State.
- The communication strategy might be to run a publicity and social media campaign to launch the new product during July in the State.
- One of the communication process objectives might be to run media relations activities about the new product in July in the State’s three main newspapers. [See the explanation of process objectives below.]
- One of the communication outcome/result objectives relating to the process objectives would be to achieve publication of at least one story on the new product per week in each newspaper during July. [See the explanation of outcome/result objectives below.]
- Several communication tactics might be to hold a press conference, issue press releases, run exclusive news angles with the three news media outlets, send product samples to relevant reporters and social media influencers in the State during July, etc.
Objectives are subsets of goals and should be expressed in concrete, measurable terms. An objective is something that can be documented; it’s factual and observable. Communication objectives measure the actions and outcomes/results you have decided you need to enable a communication goal to be achieved.
- Our business objective is to achieve a 15% share of the market in the State for our new product by the end of July.
- One of our communication outcome objectives is to achieve publication of at least one story on the new product per week in each capital city newspaper during July.
Decide the criteria that have to be met for ‘success’
When you set outcome objectives, you first need to define the level of a relevant activity that would need to be achieved to qualify 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.
At the start of the activity, measure the starting position and then set an objective, agreed by relevant bosses, that can be measured at the end of the activity. 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?
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 action or 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 – 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 effectively makes it Relevant.
Still other people refer to the ‘A’ as Assignable to a person to be responsible for implementing it, and they make the ‘R’ stand for Realistic in this case.
You can see the component parts of this SMART, one-sentence, process or output objective:
Result and process objectives
Result or outcome objectives
Objectives and the measurement of a PR activity ideally should be expressed in terms of result gained. The result – or outcome – is 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.
As noted above, you need to use your professional judgment to set quantifiable result/outcome objectives that will enable you to specify the end result intended. Then you can measure whether the intended result has been achieved. Setting result objectives and achieving the result enables you to judge the effectiveness of the activity.
Having planned the intended result, you use your professional judgment to decide which communication activities or processes can achieve that 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 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.
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 our employees understand how their business unit contributes to successful achievement of our 3 key corporate goals.
- Through testing in a simple online questionnaire, at least 50% of our employees show they understand the way their business unit contributes to achievement of our 3 key corporate goals for the next financial year.
- To have at least 80% of employees know where to access a summary of how their business unit contributes to next financial year’s written corporate goals.
- To arrange for all managers in business unit to brief their staff by 15 February on how their business unit contributes to next financial year’s corporate goals.
- To produce a draft email by 10 February in the name each business unit manager to all their staff summarizing how their business unit contributes to next financial year’s corporate goals.
- To write an article by 29 January in the name of the CEO in the corporate newsletter explaining the importance of all staff understanding how the work of their business unit contributes to achievement of next financial year’s corporate goals.
An actual example
The UK’s PR Place offers this example, which is a winner of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Excellence Awards – Best Public Sector Campaign 2018. It was the UK Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) campaign about the new driving test. In 2017, the DVSA prepared Great Britain for the most significant changes to the driving test since the 1970s.
Although the following is given as an example of a SMART process objective from the campaign, it is vague, not specific. It says nothing about how driving examiners will ‘have the information,’ and it says nothing about what the information will consist of. As a result, it is only halfway SMART, in my view. It probably needs another couple of process objectives specifically to explain what and how. This is DVSA original version:
- Driving examiners have the information they need to deliver the new test six months before launch on 4 December 2017.
An outcome objective nominated by the DVSA is:
- Driving examiners understand the planned changes to the driving test and what they mean for them.
The PR Place comment about this objective is that “it is not SMART. It needs a timescale and a measure. It also breaks one of the rules about objective setting in that it is a double objective talking about ‘understanding’ and ‘what it means for them.’ It would be better worded as:
- By 4 December, 80% of driving examiners understand what the planned changes to the driving test mean for them.”
Nevertheless, in my view, the objective still needs to detail the specifics of what is meant by the phrase ‘what the planned changes…mean for them’ – or at least refer to a document that explains this information.
Give sufficient thought to the complexities
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 should be responsible for goals and objectives relating to 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, it was not relevant for my department to take responsibility for the organization’s reputation.
Achieving measurable objectives proves your worth
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 add up to achieving the intended outcomes. These can include publicity activities, a particular community relations program, a special event, government affairs, speaker program, investor relations activity, etc.
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.
Set realistic objectives
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.
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, because various other factors can account for the outcome. In these cases, careful thought is required beforehand about 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.
It is often difficult to separate PR programs and activities (such as publicity, distribution of information material, special events, social media activities etc) from other departments’ 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.
Sample results and process objectives
The result 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 result objective might be:
- To achieve attendance of at least 250 representatives 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):
- Publish a page in the Council’s website by 10 July to promote the conference.
- Publish a Facebook page, LinkedIn articles and Twitter messages promoting the conference for implementation from 10 July.
- Prepare and send a promotional direct mail letter to all members of the Council executive committee by 15 July.
- Prepare and distribute a promotional brochure and covering letter to all member company contacts of the Council 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 Council who do not yet have a representative registered for the conference.
Each objective should ideally just contain the one variable, the one action verb. To save space, I have shown some process objective actions that are really two objectives, ie “Prepare and send…” Strictly speaking, these should be separated into “Prepare [the letter]” and “Send [the letter].”
Sample internal objectives
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 a follow-up 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.
Example based on an actual case study
Goal: Achieve effective communication to support the smooth relocation of staff from the three other areas [name them] to head office.
Result objective: Ensure impacted staff are kept up-to-date on the key milestones associated with the relocation of our head office.
- To update the 750 staff impacted by the move by sending each of those individuals an email or newsletter on progress in meeting key milestones, alternately every two weeks during the period 2 June to 29 October.
- To familiarize affected staff by inviting each of them to spend a month in a pilot workspace replicated to the new environment, starting in April.
- To arrange weekly progress meetings for each of these affected staff members with their supervisor to deal with any issues about the relocation that they may wish to raise, with these meetings commencing on the Friday of the first week after each of these staff members starts in the new pilot workspace. Etc.
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.
Always get senior management to sign-off on your plan
Having set measurable objectives, you need to ensure management or client sign-off on them. Get senior management or the executive committee to endorse your objectives in 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. Thus this makes it very difficult for them to question your PR achievements in tough times, whether you are in-house or a consultant.
Practice writing PR goals and objectives
Like many aspects of public relations, writing effective goals and objectives is actually more complex and sophisticated than it may seem at first. Therefore, it is worthwhile for you to practice writing goals and objectives, and getting a colleague to review your drafts so you progressively improve. Setting goals and objectives is an important skill that will help you deliver – and prove you are delivering – communication results more effectively and efficiently.