by Dan Berkowitz

Most simply, an objective is a statement of the outcome that public relations efforts are designed to achieve. There are two general categories: output objectives and impact objectives.

Defining PR Objectives...

Output objectives concern transmitting PR messages. An example output objective would be to issue two news releases each week. As you can see, an output objective does not really consider how a PR activity will influence an organization's relationship with its publics.

Impact objectives, in contrast, focus specifically on desired changes in public relationships. Often, but not always, these objectives focus on desired changes in the publics rather than the organization. Texts usually describe three kinds of impact objectives: awareness, attitudes, and behaviors.

There's a problem with those three categories, though, one that can lead to inappropriate public relations solutions. The key is how public relations is defined: public relations is an activity that focuses on public opinion and how it can be influenced by communication. Unfortunately, studies have long shown that the links between communication and behavior are uncertain at best, especially those links with short-term behavior.

Resolving the Difficulties...

So what is the public relations person to do? In this light, behavioral objectives are really organizational objectives. Suggesting how to resolve behavioral problems without understanding the public opinion factors that have shaped them are a chancy proposition at best.

Public relations objectives, then, must be limited to awareness or attitudes, but this concern goes back one step farther to how PR problems are defined: problems concerning behavior must also be considered as organizational problems. Public relations therefore needs to step in and conduct research to discover whether those organizational problems might be related to awareness or attitudes, and then suggest appropriate communication strategies that can resolve the problems.

An Applied Example...

Suppose that a small private university was experiencing declining enrollment, a decline even greater than other comparable institutions. Declining enrollment is a behavioral problem, and increasing enrollment is a goal of the organization. If a public relations practitioner is called on to solve that behavioral problem, matching recommendations to the problem at hand is a matter of chance. Why, after all, aren't people applying to the college as often as hoped for?

One reason could be awareness. Perhaps people don't know of the benefits that the college can offer its students, and have not really even considered applying. If that was the public relations problem, then the PR plan could focus on greater visibility, and on showing prospective students the benefits of attending the college.

Another reason for the organizational problem, though, could be related to prevailing attitudes. Students might have misperceptions about what the school has to offer. For example, they might believe that it has poor quality faculty and almost no social activities. In that case, a PR plan could work on adjusting negative attitudes and reinforcing positive attitudes, so that students would come to think of the college's faculty as leaders in their field (if that was truly the case), and campus life as socially lively.

Again, remember that if the PR person was trying to decide how to solve the behavioral problem of declining enrollments (an organizational problem), he or she would be in the dark about the appropriate solution without knowing whether the public relations problem stemmed from awareness or attitudes. And of course, that needs to be understood through careful public relations research.

In summary, public relations objectives and the problems they concern must focus on awareness or attitudes of key publics. Behavior of those publics, and problems stemming from that behavior, though, are really organizational concerns.