Knowing how to set communication goals and objectives in your strategic planning is vital because it enables you to prove their tangible value. You can read here how to set communication 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.]
When you set communication goals and objectives you create a range of benefits:
I discuss this further in my article, “Setting PR objectives is even more important now.”
A widely held myth has been that comms team unit performance can’t really be measured because too many ‘soft’ factors prevent comms 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 comms 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 comms 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 comms budgets and staff numbers
However, you can prove the value of your work by deciding on communication activities that support organizational priorities, and then setting and achieving measurable objectives for your activities.
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:
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.
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.
There are generally three types of communication goals:
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 communication 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 to set 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:
An internal example:
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.]
Possible outcome/results objectives: [Any of these would be appropriate – you would need to use your professional judgment in consultation with senior management.]
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.
It is helpful to think of an objective as consisting of four parts, expressed in one sentence:
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:
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:
Objectives and the measurement of a communication 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.
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 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.
You need to use your professional judgment to decide the potential importance of an activity. When you set a communication 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 comms 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 communication 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.
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 communication 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.
The results or outcome objective for a lobbying project might be:
A suitable process objective for the project might be:
In organizing a conference, a results objective for the comms pro might be:
Some of the process objectives might be (time and cost components could be added in):
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:
Attitudinal objectives need to be measured by formal or informal audience surveys. Attitudinal objectives create attitudes, reinforce existing attitudes or change existing attitudes, eg:
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:
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.
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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