Should it be measured in “publicity by the pound,” or by how well external audience behaviors help achieve the organization’s key objectives?
I opt for holding public relations responsible, first, for recognizing that people act on their perception of the facts leading to behaviors about which something can be done. And second, for how well its practitioners create, change or reinforce that opinion by reaching, persuading and moving-to-desired-action those people whose behaviors affect the organization.
Only then would I agree that a strategic public relations mission has been accomplished, not simply completion of a tactical assignment.
Now this presumes that our practitioner knows the next step, and the one after that, as s/he pursues increased productivity.
But initially, such gains in public relations must begin by efficiently prioritizing the organization’s most important outside audiences. Those whose behaviors have the greatest impact on the enterprise.
With that chore completed, you now want to learn what members of your #1external audience think and feel about you and your organization. Important because we know that what people perceive usually leads to a predictable behavior about which, usually, something can be done.
So, discovering that valuable information demands that you find out precisely how those target audience members perceive your operation. Which means you must now interact with those people, and ask a lot of questions such as “do you have an opinion about our organization?” Or, “what do you think of our products or services?”
Listen carefully for signs of negative attitudes, false assumptions, misconceptions, inaccuracies and, especially, dangerous rumors.
The responses to your questions, and the explanations people give for why they feel or believe as they do, will lead you directly to your public relations goal. For example, straighten out that misconception, correct that inaccuracy, or spike that rumor, fast.
By the way, as you efficiently move through the public relations problem solving sequence, you accumulate the productivity gains promised by the fundamental premise of public relations outlined in the opening paragraphs.
Now, you set your public relations goal, one that aims squarely at correcting the problem you identified during your perception monitoring activity.
And that might well include clarifying a misconception, correcting an inaccuracy, informing a misunderstanding or stopping a rumor dead in its tracks. What you’ve just done, is set a public relations goal towards which you will strive by altering specific perceptions held by that target audience, usually leading to the desired behavior.
But hold on. What strategy will you employ in your pursuit of that altered perception and changed behavior? Your choice of strategies is limited, but powerful. You can shoot for creating opinion (perception) where there really isn’t any. You can focus your efforts on changing existing opinion, or you may be quite happy to simply reinforce those existing perceptions.
This is a key decision because your strategy will influence the selection, direction, content and tone of all of your subsequent communications.
Which brings us to the question of just how you are going to structure the message to be sent to your target audience. Above all, your message must state clearly what the perception problem is, AND what it should be, based on the actual facts of the matter. At the same time, your message must be written persuasively and believably, thus imparting credibility to the message. No small challenge!
Now, with the message in hand, it’s time to select the communications tactics you will use to effectively carry your message to members of your target audience.
And there is no shortage of communications tactics. You can choose from among brochures, press releases, community briefings and one-on-one meetings with thoughtleaders. Or, letters-to-the-editor, radio interviews, speeches and emails. And dozens more, although your choices here will be influenced by budgetary reality.
Inevitably, you will want to know if your public relations program is making any progress. Other than spending big bucks with a professional public opinion sampling firm, there’s really only one way to do that quickly and accurately. And that is to get out there among members of your target audience, interact with a number of them and ask the same questions you did during your first perception monitoring session.
The difference now is that you are looking for movement in perceptions towards the views expressed in your message. In other words, you want to see some perceptions altered in your direction because that gives you a better chance to achieve your real objective, modified target audience behaviors.
Your first go at this may indicate that more work is needed to effectively influence opinion among your key target audience. If this is the case, you will need to reevaluate the mix of communications tactics you originally selected, as well as the frequency with which you aimed them at your target audience. Also advisable, would be another accuracy check of the facts and figures you used in your message.
As your public relations program takes hold, you will notice that key points in your message have been internalized, and are now being played back to you by members of your target audience. This will result in a general increase in target audience awareness of your organization and its role in the communities, industry sectors and geographies where it operates.
Another way of putting it is, when enough members of your key target audience are persuaded to your way of thinking, and their behaviors begin to reflect that change, your public relations effort is showing unmistakable signs of success.
About the author
Bob Kelly counsels, writes and speaks about the fundamental premise of public relations. He has been DPR, Pepsi-Cola Co.; AGM-PR, Texaco Inc.; VP-PR, Olin Corp.; VP-PR, Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.; director of communications, U.S. Department of the Interior, and deputy assistant press secretary, The White House. mailto:bobkelly@TNI.net. Visit: http://www.prcommentary.com