How To Get Your Public Relations Money's Worth
By Robert A. Kelly
Feb 22, 2004 - 8:29:00 AM
Regardless of what activity we may be engaged in, what we all want is to get the value � let�s call it �money�s worth� -- we paid for up-front at the beginning of the program. Like, for instance, the �money�s worth� implicit in the underlying premise of public relations. Namely, people act on their own perception of the facts before them, leading to behaviors about which something can be done. So, when public relations creates, changes or reinforces that opinion by reaching, persuading and moving-to-desired-action those people whose behaviors affect the organization, the public relations mission is accomplished and your �money�s worth� received.
In my experience, there is broad agreement that people really act on THEIR perception of the facts, and that how they react to those facts actually does affect their behaviors. So, to me, it follows that individual understanding of those facts must be continually informed if the follow-on behaviors are to help achieve the organization�s goal and objectives.
That sounds like getting your money�s worth to me, but it does suggest that you need to keep your eye on a project�s end game to make CERTAIN you get the planned behavior modification you agreed to back when the activity got underway.
I don�t believe we can be more successful than achieving the goal we set at the beginning of ANY effort in life. We can�t. Certainly, it�s pure success and a sure way of getting your money�s worth in public relations.
Reminds me of an elevator reply to a fellow conferee who, as we stepped into the down elevator on the 9th floor, asked me �and what do you do?� In the nine seconds it took to get down to the lobby, I answered him clearly and simply: �I help organizations reach their objectives by modifying the behaviors of their key audiences.� And, oh yes, I�m in the public relations rack..er, I mean, profession. Actually, what I told him was I�ll try to make certain that he gets his public relations �money�s worth� by striving to modify the behaviors of his key audiences.
Which seems only fair since the employer/client is paying the freight for his or her public relations program.
Why do I feel so strongly about the fundamental premise of public relations? Because some of us have learned from leaders in the field, from mentors and from long years of experience that there are only three ways a public relations effort can impact behavior: create opinion where it doesn't exist, reinforce existing opinion or change that opinion. No surprise that the process by which those goals are realized is known as public relations. While behavior is the goal, and a host of communications tactics are the tools, our strategy is the leverage provided by public opinion.
We also learned the hard way that when your employer/client starts looking for a return on his or her public relations investment, it becomes clear in a hurry that the goal MUST be the kind of change in the behaviors of key stakeholders that leads directly to achieving his or her business objectives.
Even when we feel certain about the fundamental premise of public relations, maybe we should take another look? Because if we are wrong, at best we miss out on public relation's enormous benefits. At worst, we can damage ourselves and our organizations.
The fundamental premise suggests that, to help achieve true competitive advantage, management must insure that its public relations investment is committed directly to influencing the organization's most important audiences. And THEN insure that the tacticians efficiently prepare and communicate messages that will influence those audience perceptions and, thus, behaviors. For non-profits or public sector entities, the emphasis would be on achieving the organization's primary objectives.
The first �money�s worth� was the fundamental value that alters target audience perceptions and, thus, behaviors and helps you get where you want to be. Again, strongly suggesting that the proper application of public relations can be central not only to your organization�s success, but possibly to its very survival.
Which lands us squarely in tactical �money�s worth� country. Carefully selected communications tactics are the work horses of public relations. They are effective communications designed to reach target audiences containing specially tailored, persuasive messages designed to influence target audience perception/behavior.
We gain both momentum and impact when we �fire� our tactical, message-carrying weapons at their target audiences with pinpoint accuracy and timing.
The list of available communications tactics is long, flexible and richly diverse.It offers us effective message carriers ranging from media publicity, special events, sponsorships and financial communications to public speeches, awards programs, brochures, annual reports, the worldwide Internet and many, many more.
In the process, the employer/client receives yet another, essential �money�s worth� when public relations gains and holds the understanding and acceptance of those target audiences, those publics, without which his or her organization cannot prosper.
Concurrently with the first two �money�s worths�, you get a third in the form of reputational value. During the problem solving process, the organization�s reputation is burnished.
And that delivers enormous value that only strengthens its ability to pursue successfully its goals and objectives.
I�m sure we can all agree that a successful organization benefitting from public relations values such as these is more able to meet its obligations to society as a good corporate, association or 501-c3 citizen. Sometimes as taxpayer, employer and reliable maker/supplier of quality, fairly-priced goods and business services, and at other times delivering quality, public interest service. In this way, each delivers enormous �money�s worth� value by serving the interests of all Americans.
There�s still more �money�s worth� to come � now you get �measurement value� with the reality that all-important behavior changes can be clearly monitored and assessed as to their degree of success, i.e., gathering evidence for those paying the bill that the communications tactics have actually changed behaviors.
You should look for signs of measured success via Internet chatter, in print and broadcast news coverage, reports from the field, letters-to-the-editor, consumer and customer reactions, shareholder letters and comments from community leaders. And don�t overlook feedback tools such as informal polls of employees and retirees.
Include industrial neighbors and local businesses as well as playback from suppliers and reaction from elected officials, union leaders and government agencies.
Now, we need to get even more specific. We�re simply not going to get our public relations �money�s worth� if we fail to deal with what I call unattended perceptions among those audiences most important to achieving your objectives. The operative word is �unattended� and someone in your organization�s public relations apparatus must track the �unattendeds� on a regular basis if you want to avoid being bitten from behind.
Especially when you clearly want your �money�s worth� from every public relations dollar you spend.
I hope you buy the thought � as do I � that those audiences most important to your organization�s success need to perceive your organization in the most positive light possible. So, what would you do if your information gathering showed potentially damaging, unattended perceptions such as these out there among target audiences that happened to be vitally important to your organization?
0 Too many sales prospects are unaware of your product or service making it doubtful you�ll ever get them as customers.
0 And many of your current customers appear unconvinced of the value of your product or service so you may even lose them.
0 Worse yet, if employees believe you don�t care about them, productivity is going to suffer.
0 And if a minority person believes you discriminate when you don�t, a host of unnecessary problems may ensue.
0 Things will continue going from bad to worse if community residents don�t perceive your business a good place to work and you get employee hiring and retention problems.
0 And, oh boy, if insurance carriers perceive you as a bad risk, they don�t provide the business coverage you need.
0 If journalists are suspicious of your motives and you don�t convince them otherwise, you get �bad press� and that�s not going to put your CEO in a good frame of mind.
0 Worse yet, if business people believe what some competitors say about your firm, that joint venture you want so badly may not come about.
0 And, as if things couldn�t get any worse, as you grow, if government regulators believe your products are not completely safe, sales will almost certainly be negatively affected.
Now, I hate to tell you that�s just a partial list of unattended perceptions that could be festering out there. We haven�t even talked about environmental activists, labor union unrest, animal rights supporters or that vocal advocacy group angry about slack-fill packaging.
So, anybody�s list of unattended perceptions could be shorter, longer or just plain different. But the fact is that ALL of our organizations have a list of key target audiences whether you or I want them or not. They exist and they are not going away. So, here is a very important caveat:
Perceptions among your most important audiences MUST be monitored regularly and, to the extent possible, their concerns reconciled with both the interests of your own organizations and, of course, the public interest and the law of the land. If this activity is ignored, your organization remains terribly vulnerable to a variety of external shocks if not attacks.
So how do we approach such a daunting task, at least with regard to the most immediately worrisome behaviors that really COULD interfere with your organization achieving a key objective? Remember that unattended behaviors can easily prevent you from getting your public relations �money�s worth.�
Fortunately, in the crucible of battle, an action pathway begins to emerge allowing us to track how each key audience perceives our organization, particularly watching for any abrupt changes in perception. That�s one way we identify brewing public relations problems and prepare for them, so let�s call it the tracking mechanism that Identifies The Problem.
That lets us Set The Public Relations Goal. For example, take immediate action to correct the perception and behavior imbalance, and do so as soon as possible.
Next, we need a Public Relations Strategy to meet that goal and deal with any imbalance. We have only three choices: create opinion where there isn�t any, change existing opinion, or reinforce it. Here, we try to clearly establish what degree of behavior modification we expect to achieve because that�s how we�ll know to what extent we succeed.
Now, we carefully Prioritize Our Target Audiences because few of us ever have enough budget to work on everything at once. You could start with customers, prospects and employees, then follow with minority relations and regulatory agencies.
At this point, we Prepare Persuasive Messages designed to change any negative perceptions we discovered. Following which we select Effective Communications Tactics to carry those persuasive messages to our target audiences.
Of course, we must Monitor Progress at every step of the way, adjusting strategy, tactics and messages as indicated.
At last we come to the end game � did we meet the behavior modification goal we established up front? If we did, our public relations program is successful. If we didn�t, we must re-evaluate our goal, strategy, messages, communications tactics and our audience perception data gathering methods, and adjust them for the next effort.
So, getting your public relations �money�s worth� is somewhat like baking a layer cake.
In both cases, you make sure you know where you are going, exactly what you want to see at the end of the effort, and that your ingredients are just right.
The public relations practitioner must be skilled in crafting those persuasive messages, and in selecting just the right communications tactics to carry the messages to each target audience. And s/he must be especially skilled in regularly monitoring changing perceptions.
Put another way, when those audiences important to your organization do what you want them to, achieving your objectives becomes a lot easier. Which means, in the final analysis, that getting your public relations �money�s worth� is dependent upon your public relations professionals.
Especially their ability to carefully monitor each target audience�s end game changes in perception and behavior, as measured against the behavior modification goal set up front. Success also depends on how good they are at selecting the right goal, strategy, messages and communications tactics that, together, score the kind of target audience bullseye that delivers the public relations �money�s worth� you�ve been expecting.
But there�s a bonus: the best part is that when the behavioral changes become apparent, and meet the program�s original behavior modification goal, three satisfying values are realized: One, the public relations program IS a success. Two, by achieving the behavioral goal you set at the beginning, you are using a dependable and accurate public relations performance measurement. And three, when our �reach, persuade and move-to-desired-action� efforts produce a visible modification in the behaviors of those people you wish to influence, you are using public relations� core value to its very best advantage insuring that you really do receive your �money�s worth.�
Bob Kelly, public relations counselor, was director of public relations for Pepsi-Cola Co.; AGM-Public Relations, Texaco Inc.; VP-Public Relations, Olin Corp.; VP-Public Relations, Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.; director of communications, U.S. Department of the Interior, and deputy assistant press secretary, The White House. [email protected] or www.prcommentary.com
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