Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

How To Link Communications to Your Organization’s Business Goals and Objectives (Part I: Setting Goals)

Business meeting with megaphone image on wall

This is one of a series of posts by Forrest Anderson on how to use research to plan communication strategy. Visit his Reputation, Research, Relationships and Messages blog to read them all.

According to research done by Jim Sinkinson, publisher of (the recently closed) Bulldog Reporter, one reason PR practitioners have trouble adhering to the Barcelona Principles is they don’t know how to set measurable objectives. Another is they have trouble tying their results to corporate strategic objectives.

In my next two articles here, I’ll outline how to do both.

For reference, I wrote a paper with Linda Hadley on this topic for the Institute of Public Relations Commission on Measurement and Evaluation back in 1999. David Rockland, Mark Weiner and I updated that paper in 2010.

Tying Communications Results to Corporate Objectives
To tie communications results to corporate objectives, you need to start with corporate objectives. These might be:

  • Increase sales
  • Increase share price
  • Reduce employee turnover
  • Reduce supplier costs
  • Etc.

Sometimes you can tie a communications campaign directly to a business result. But this is unusual because communications is usually only a part of what makes behavior happen. In sales, for example, price, supply, shelf placement, advertising, promotion, competition, and many other factors affect a sale. With share price, management’s business model and strategy must be solid, no matter how good the communication. With employee turnover, research I have done suggests an employee’s immediate supervisor has a much greater effect on retaining that employee than does communications. Some sophisticated organizations are using marketing modeling programs to assess the effect of PR on sales. You can find a paper on that here.

Unique Internet Links
Another way to tie communications directly to business outcomes in our online world is to include unique links for actions. For example if you can get a “for more information” link in the material you place, make it go to a unique page. Then you can not only get credit for the information request, but you may also be able to track the person who made the request on to sales.

The Communications Goal Link
Though we can rarely tie the effect of communications directly to achieving a business goal, we can articulate a communications goal that supports the business goal your organization is trying to achieve. Some useful questions to ask before coming up with the communications goal are:

  • Who is the target stakeholder group?
  • What does the organization want this group to do (what behavior does it seek)?
  • By when must this be accomplished?

A Measurable Communications Goal
Let’s take our first business goal as an example: Increase sales. What will increase sales depends very much on what you are selling, who you are selling it to, and the general sales environment. But generally speaking, communications might help sales by increasing awareness of the product and its features. By doing homework with the sales and marketing people in your organization and by doing research on your target audience, you should be able to identify the primary barriers to sales and come up with a communications objective that should help achieve the business objective of sales. Let’s say that in this case the communications goal that will support increasing sales is:

  • Increase awareness of the product.

However, that’s a bit broad. A better communications goal would include a tighter definition of the target audience. Increasing awareness of the product among people who will never buy it would be wasted effort. If our sales target is U.S. women with children five-years old and younger and with household incomes of $80,000 to $150,000, we should include that in our objective. We should also note the time frame. Finally, we should put a stake in the ground and say how much we are going to increase awareness.

So a good communications goal that supports our business goal would be:

  • Increase awareness of the product by 10%
  • Among U.S. women (or women in a specified market)
    • With children five-years old and younger
    • With household incomes of $80,000 to $150,000
  • Within six months.

Management Agreement On Goals
You also want to get agreement from your management that this is indeed an acceptable communications goal. Then, when you achieve it, there will be no question about whether you had done the right thing.

Do Research So You Actually Achieve Your Goal
Note, too, that you need to develop a message that appeals to and use media that reach the defined target audiences. If you want to succeed, you will need to determine what these are. You may be able to get this information from your marketing and sales people, but you may need to do your own research.

Measuring Success Agains Goals
Part 2 of this series will be about how to measure your success against your goals.

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Forrest Anderson

Forrest Anderson

Forrest W. Anderson is a 30-plus-year veteran consultant in developing message architecture and managing corporate relationships and reputations. He works with organizations that are going through a change in strategic direction and that are concerned about what will happen if they mismanage their relationships with their key stakeholders. Forrest is a founding member of the IPR's Measurement Commission and teaches Communications Research Methods in George Washington University’s Masters Program in Strategic Public Relations. He holds an MBA in marketing and management policy from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Forrest Anderson
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2 Comments

  1. Ford Kanzler

    Some good points in this item. However, without wanting to initiate a semantics debate, strongly suggest the four bullet examples given as “Objectives” provided in the article, are actually financial Strategies for achieving an Objective of business profitability.

    The confusion occurring between what constitutes an Objective and a Strategy is rampant and leads to unclear or complete lack of effective planning, whether for PR or other areas.
    The giveaway that someone is swapping Objective for Strategy is usually when there’s a verb used. Strategies connote action. (Grow market share by 10 percent) Objectives are stable places or accomplishments usually tied to timing. (51 percent market share by Q4 2015)

    Best book ever on strategy and how to create it is Richard Rumelt’s recent “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.” He clarifies what an Objective is early in the book. More importantly he points out how to create a clear strategy and also what are not strategies at all but merely management wishes, oaths or pipe dreams.

    Lastly, under the subhead above: “A Measurable Communications Goal” suggest that PR Strategies would be effective in helping Sales achieve their objective (a number). Interchanging terms like goal and objective also leads to confusion.

    1. Forrest Anderson

      Thanks, Mr. Kanzler, for your thoughtful comment. I do sometimes mix up goal and objective, and for that I apologize.

      I also agree that the potential corporate objectives I list can be seen as financial strategies for achieving the objective of business profitability.

      My internal definition of “objective” goes back to the way we discussed them in business school. There, an objective was something that is desired or aspired toward and measurable. In that same setting, we referred to strategies as ways we achieved objectives, but which were not necessarily held to the constraint of being measurable. There was frequently confusion between the two, but if it were an objective, it had to be measurable.

      What I’ve tried to explain in the post is that we as communicators need to relate what we do to what the senior managers of the organization are trying to achieve. Yes, that might well be a profitable organization, but, for the most part, I find that a difficult objective to relate to clearly. And, in my experience, the non-communications managers with whom I’ve worked are generally working more at the increase sales or decrease employee turnover levels. Like profitability, these both are measurable. And they directly contribute to profitability. So, they are metrics senior management values. Communications programs sometimes can be linked to these. And even when they cannot, these senior managers frequently are willing to accept that increased awareness among target customers of product benefits or increased awareness among employees of how they contribute to the success of an organization will contribute to increasing sales or decreasing costs (in this case via reduced employee turnover), even if the managers won’t know by how much.

      Thanks, too, for the book recommendation. I’ve already ordered it.

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