In every business case, there is an objective: it might include generating a profit, attracting and retaining top talent, or giving back to a community. In every case, the goal is to build and reinforce relationships, reputation, and organizational performance. To advance an organization, professional communicators must clearly understand its aims to help the organization achieve its business objectives. While each component of the research-based public relations continuum is integral to achieving positive results, the initial stage of objectives-setting research is the most important. Yet, it is also the most frequently overlooked. Setting objectives is the foundation for the entire public relations program on which strategy, execution, and evaluation are formed. Setting and then exceeding objectives that are meaningful, reasonable, and measurable support the communicator’s ability to demonstrate the value of public relations and provide forward-looking insights.
Writing Meaningful, Reasonable, and Measurable Objectives
The difference between a goal and an objective is that goals are relatively vague but represent an overall outcome the public relations professional wants to achieve. They should align with the business goals and reflect the broad aspirations of the organization and often appear in the form of “vision statements” and “statements of purpose.” On the other hand, objectives are measurable and focused, serving as a guide and allowing professionals and others to see how and when they have been met or exceeded. To elevate public relations, one must generate and demonstrate a positive return. While demonstrating the value of public relations is among the profession’s most vexing challenges, the best path is also the most direct: work with executives who control the budget and evaluate performance to set objectives that are meaningful, reasonable, and measurable.
- Meaningful objectives align with organizational goals and the priorities and preferences of executives in charge of evaluating and/or funding public relations.
- Reasonable objectives are openly negotiated with the executives who evaluate and fund public relations programs and confirm what the public relations function can realistically be expected to deliver.
- Measurable objectives ensure that communications performance can be easily quantified regardless of whether the person evaluating performance understands public relations or not. Measurable objectives specify:
- What should be achieved (e.g., “to increase awareness of our socially responsible investment funds”)
- The target stakeholder (e.g., “female millennials”)
- The time frame (e.g., “from June to August”)
- The desired measurable change (e.g., “raise awareness by 7%”)
Objectives should follow the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) format, which allows for the creation of strategies and tactics that clearly align with each objective and the ability to later demonstrate a return on expectations.
Unlike indeterminate objectives like “generate buzz,” “break through the media clutter,” and so on, the objective is specific and clear, such as: “to increase awareness of our socially responsible investment funds by 7% among female millennials from June to August.”
Why Set Objectives?
Research takes the emotion out of objective setting. There are six reasons for setting clear, concise, and pre-negotiated public relations objectives:
- Create a structure for prioritizing action among members of the communications team.
- Allow the team to stay focused and circle back to the objectives to ensure the strategies and tactics support achieving (and hopefully exceeding) the objective.
- Reduce the potential for disputes before, during, and after the program.
- Increase efficiency by concentrating resources where they will make a difference, thereby reducing waste.
- Help to form successful programs by focusing attention and action on those criteria by which the program will later be evaluated.
- Set the stage for evaluation by enabling public relations investment decision-makers to determine if the public relations program delivered on its promise.
Objective-Setting Research Methodologies
Research methods to inform objectives may include:
- Data or information gathered from conducting a public relations landscape analysis (i.e., market research, traditional media analysis, social media analysis, web analytics, and digital media attribution) to inform objective setting.
- Primary research (research conducted by the organization, such as surveys or focus groups with internal or external stakeholders) or secondary research (research that has already been conducted by the organization or another entity) that validates the problem or opportunity the objective seeks to address.
- Internal research to ensure that PR objectives align with overall organizational goals as determined through a review of the enterprise’s mission statement and publicly stated priorities.
- Leveraging prior company data as a baseline that objectives will be measured against.
Defining Metrics and Key Performance Indicators
When setting objectives, it is important to define metrics and indicators that communicate success.
For instance, the example objective above seeks to “raise awareness of our socially responsible investment funds.” To one person, raising awareness might mean securing media placements about the investment funds. To another, it might mean surveying the intended target stakeholder (female millennials) to gauge if they are aware of the investment funds. Having a clear definition of the desired key performance indicators and how they will be measured helps to determine later the success of your efforts to meet or beat the objectives. Regardless, the metrics should be valid, meaning that they must actually measure what they are supposed to measure. For example, some may use impressions to measure awareness, which is not a valid metric for measuring awareness.
Differentiating Between Outputs, Outtakes, and Outcomes
When writing measurable objectives, it is important to recognize the difference between measuring outputs, outtakes, and outcomes. Ultimately, all are reflected in your objectives since they are interrelated.
The number of communications deliverables the organization produces by using and resulting from a communications process; the number distributed and/or the number reaching a targeted stakeholder.
Example of an Output
How many internal messages did the organization send on a particular issue?
Outputs are a measure of production and distribution. They are focused more on what the organization does rather than how the program affects the attitude or behavior of the intended audience. Other important metrics include outtakes and outcomes, especially behavioral measures as communicators ultimately seek to ignite behavioral change.
Example Metrics Used to Measure Outputs
- Number of tactics, events, and materials produced, sent, or distributed (i.e., newsletters, brochures)
- Traditional and social media coverage, Share of voice Circulation/audience/reach
- Tone of coverage, intended and unintended message pull-through
Measurement and analysis of how stakeholders respond to programs, initiatives, campaigns, and content are foundational for optimizing and highlighting the value of public relations investments. Although many communications KPIs are more perceptual in nature (e.g., brand, reputation), outtakes are a key underpinning as they are clear and tangible (e.g., view, open, read, share, download, etc.). In this way, “outtakes” may be considered “short-term outcomes.” What did they take away from the communications program?
Example of an Outtake
The degree to which a stakeholder “received the message” is measured in terms of awareness, recall, understanding, and retention.
Example Metrics Used to Measure Outtakes
- Likes and retweets
- Engagement (i.e., comments, shares)
- Recall, awareness, understanding, and retention
- Web analytics (i.e., unique visitors, bounce rate, downloads, click-throughs)
- Open rate ratings/testimonials
This is the ultimate goal and related KPIs to which leading senior communicators aspire. Outcomes are more macro and often more perceptual in nature. These often include a quantifiable change in awareness, knowledge, attitude, opinion, brand/reputation equity, and/or behavior levels that occur as a result of public relations programs, initiatives, or campaigns. Outcomes result in an effect, consequence, or impact of a set or program of communications activities or products and may be either short-term – even immediate – or long-term.
Example of an Outcome
Outcomes represent what’s on the minds of stakeholders, including awareness, preference, and purchase intention, for example.
Organizations should also think about the impact of a program on business outcomes, such as: How did the PR program affect people’s attitudes toward the company or its product because of public relations actions taken or tactics deployed? To what degree did PR contribute to attracting and retaining talent? How did PR improve the organization’s ESG investment rating?
Example Metrics Used to Measure Outcomes
- Products/service preference
- Customer purchase/acquisition and retention
- Employee acquisition and retention
- Advocacy (e.g., Net Promoter Score (NPS))
- Brand equity
- Brand valuation
- Other behavioral changes (e.g., donate, vote, partner, policy change)
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Mark Weiner is the Chief Insights Officer for PublicRelay and the author of “PR Technology, Data and Insights: Igniting a Positive Return on Your Communications Investment.”
Excerpt from “The Communicator’s Guide to Research, Analysis, and Evaluation,” originally published by the IPR in March 2021.
Editor’s Note: Interested in learning how you can demonstrate the value of your work? Read our guide to PR attribution!