Now that we're beginning a new year, it’s time to think about starting over. Yes, completely and thoroughly. If you ended 2018 without knowing clearly and concisely the degree to which your corporate communications program delivered value, met expectations and succeeded in generating a positive return, it’s probably because you began the year without knowing what your internal clients value most. You also probably didn't understand the degree to which PR can reasonably deliver on their priorities and how best to quantify your performance to communicate your accomplishments in preferred language. And even if you measure your public relations, without a clear understanding of why you measure, you may need to break with the past and start anew. That’s what we call “clean slate public relations.”
Clean slate public relations is a layering process that begins and ends with research. It provides a fresh beginning to reexamine the priorities of the organization, how they relate to public relations, and what public relations can do to advance these priorities. Clean slate public relations begins with discarding preconceived notions, conventional wisdom and approaches from the past. It requires an open mind to explore new avenues towards meeting and beating expectations using the language of the board room: data.
Now is the time to consider research to assess one’s business and communications landscape, to set smarter objectives, to develop more meaningful strategies, to create more compelling and credible tactics and to evaluate performance for continuous improvement. This process of research and objective-setting is cyclical, not linear—with each iteration being a bit more refined, more efficient, and more effective.
Clean Slate Objectives: The Key to Proving Value
Years ago, an Arthur W. Page Society survey revealed the public relations research conundrum: Senior executives want measurable PR results. PR leaders seek to deliver them. The reported disconnect? PR executives don’t know enough about research to lead and the executives to whom they report don’t know enough about PR to guide them. The result? Stasis. Stagnation. “Doing what we’ve always done.” You’ve heard that you need to know your destination to determine when you’ve arrived. Yet, many public relations programs do not begin with clear and measureable objectives. So when it comes time to communicate PR’s contribution, few PR programs can prove the extent to which—or even if—they succeeded. Consequently, PR leaders work to overcome an indeterminate state of limbo, never knowing whether they’ve succeeded and simply hoping for the best.
The best path is also the most direct: Work with executives who control your budget and evaluate your performance to set objectives that are meaningful, reasonable and measureable.
And then beat them.
For the longest time, I assumed that every communications executive set objectives; they just preferred not to share them with me. But a brief conversation more than 10 years ago with the CEO at a top mid-sized PR firm revealed the truth. He said, “I’d rather risk never being a proven success in exchange for never being a proven failure.” Unfortunately, the sentiment among many corporate communicators remains the same today.
Why Set Objectives?
There are five simple reasons for setting clear, concise and pre-negotiated objectives in public relations:
- Objectives create a structure for prioritizing action among members of your team
- Objectives reduce the potential for disputes before, during, and after the program
- Objectives increase efficiency by concentrating resources where they will make a difference, thereby reducing waste
- Objectives help to form successful programs by focusing attention and action on those criteria by which the program will later be evaluated
- Objectives set the stage for evaluation by enabling PR investment decision makers to determine if the PR program delivered on its promise
Determining the difference between goal and objective
The words goal and objective are frequently used interchangeably in public relations. For the purposes of this essay, let me suggest that there’s a differences between the two. Goals, often in the form of organizational vision and mission statements, are relatively vague—reflecting aspirations rather than a chosen destination. By contrast, objectives are measureable and unambiguous—allowing you and others to see how and when you’ve met or exceeded them.
Objectives become measurable when they specify
- What do we want to achieve (“sales” or “awareness,” for example)
- Who is the audience (which group of people represent the best target?)
- When (At what time does the program begin and end?)
- How much (the measurable change you seek to generate)
With proper research, PR professionals can transform vague organizational goals into measurable, specific objectives. For example, instead of “generate significant buzz” or “break through the media clutter” a specific objective would be “increase awareness by 10 percent references to products/services among (target market) by the end of the year.” Notice that the preceding objective is practically a template for you to fill in the blanks (how much) (what) (who) and (by when).
The Case for Clean Slate Public Relations
The purpose of using research and analysis at the beginning of a program is to assess the current public relations environment, to identify opportunities and to set objectives in light of the environment you find and the opportunities you seek. Using research as part of the objectives-setting process also allows you to pretest some early notions and validate others before allocating resources. Research and analysis reduce the risk of failure, and allow for calculated success in your PR program.
Mark Weiner is the Chief Insights Officer for Cision and the Chief Executive Officer of PRIME Research, an international research-based communications consultancy working with many of the world’s most admired companies and brands.