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You Don't Want Me As Your Judge, Unless ...Part 4

By Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR

Originally Posted

Rich Barger doesn't think we know how to write objectives. In project work for our companies and in competition after competition, says Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR, two-time Gold Quill Blue Ribbon Panelist for the International Association of Business Communicators and member of IABC's Accreditation Board, otherwise excellent communicators stumble when it comes to preparing project objectives. And he should know. He's judged a couple of thousand contest entries and accreditation portfolios over the past two decades ... Gold Quill, Silver Quill, Bronze Quill, PRISM, and more. He's seen well-written, evaluable objectives, project objectives that support corporate objectives, and plenty of "pretend" objectives. The latter give him a headache. This article is the fourth in Rich's series, "You don't want me as your judge, UNLESS ..."

Now, we get to the "meat" of any communications plan: the objectives. I want to pose a hypothesis: Most of us "do" objectives wrong. In competitions and in the workplace, many otherwise excellent communicators stumble when it comes to preparing project objectives. Oh, surely most experienced PRSA and IABC and NSPRA members are good enough communicators that we don't begin a project without at least thinking of objectives, even if we don't always write them down. Most seasoned practitioners DO plan -- at least in our heads. While it is best practice to begin with a written plan, that doesn't happen very often. It certainly doesn't happen often enough. And of course I understand that some projects are on such a short deadline or are so minor in scale that there's no reason to set objectives down on paper or in your computer. But we should never begin a project without at least giving objectives some thought.

  • What is it we want to accomplish?

  • What publics do we want to affect?

  • By when?

  • With what business result?

And, most important, how will we know if we hit our target? Even without a written document, it is the rare project that begins without planning. None should. Are You Cheating On Me? Let's say you actually planned, but you didn't write out the full plan in advance. That's pretty typical. For purposes of a competition, so long as you remain honest, you certainly can set the planning process, the thought process, the project objectives down on paper in the entry's Statement of Objectives and Results. And that's what competitions want. Unless the submission itself is a communications plan or a strategic plan or a crisis plan, you almost certainly do not need to have begun with a comprehensive written plan in order to submit a good competition entry. However, you MUST demonstrate planning. I don't recall ever seeing a Call for Entries that failed to ask the entrant to include project objectives. They are required in accreditation portfolios. They're in almost every business plan and communications proposal ever written. And, frankly, formulating well-designed project objectives is just good professional practice. Oh, it's pretty easy to slam something down on paper, and call them objectives. But, done right, they're not that simple. Not even close. In my opinion, good project objectives have three characteristics:

  • They support the objectives of the organization.

  • They are action-oriented.

  • They are evaluable.

First things first: Your company or organization or client has goals and objectives for operating its business, for doing what it does that provides you with a paycheck. Your communications operation may have its own stated goals and objectives. If they're written properly, they directly support your organization's goals and objectives. If they don't, they should. Every project you do should specifically support these broader organizational objectives. Project objectives always should be stated in terms of the organization's objectives. Getting Wasted If there is anything done by the communications department that doesn't directly support the parent company's operational objectives, why are you doing it? You are, frankly, wasting corporate resources. I once saw a set of contest objectives that were, roughly, to "educate and inform consumers" and to "position [the company] as an expert." These are fairly typical, and typically wrong. How do they help the company? I doubt that the corporation -- which is a heavy equipment manufacturer, not a consulting or information services company -- has any corporate goal of "educating and informing consumers," or of becoming known as "an expert." Whatever the communications objectives should have been, they weren't the ones that were put down on paper. The true objectives may have been to get the company's name and expertise before the public in order to increase brand awareness, or to develop store traffic, or to increase sales, or something similar. Such action-oriented objectives support the purposes of the parent corporation, and they can be measured. But I'm sure a well-known manufacturing company isn't paying its communications experts to educate and inform consumers or to position it as an expert without also having some measurable corporate business goal in mind. Your objectives and evaluation should reflect those business goals. What Are Your Measurements? Now, what do I mean by "evaluable" objectives? Why, they're objectives with built-in goals or measurement possibilities. No company should be satisfied with projects whose goals are to "focus attention," "educate the public," "boost morale," "outline progress," "make clear our commitment," or anything similar. That's like saying the company is happy if the information just appears somewhere. No advertiser would be satisfied that the ad merely got IN the paper, without knowing anything about its results or effectiveness; you shouldn't be, either! No, projects -- and their objectives -- should be designed to change or reinforce opinions, attitudes, actions, beliefs, and behaviors. Good objectives involve both a desired action and measurement of results. Let me repeat that: Project objectives should reinforce opinions, attitudes, actions, beliefs, and behaviors or should move them in a way that is measurable and beneficial to your organization. Let's Have Some Action I don't believe it is possible to write good objectives that not action-oriented and quantifiable. I want every project objective to change actions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, or opinions in ways that are measurable and that affect something of importance to the client. If the objectives are stated in measurable terms, then evaluation is built in: Did I succeed? To what degree? If not, where did I miss? Why? In other words, if you ask the question in the right way, the answer will tell you if you've "nailed the problem." If your company or client doesn't quite "get it" about objectives, stiffen your backbone and show them why they're paying you. Guide them, counsel them, educate them. Drag them along, kicking and screaming. Gee, That's Fuzzy If their objectives are fuzzy, stop them, go into your experienced communicator/counselor/advisor-to-management role and lead them to proper procedure. Don't accept soft objectives, for, if they don't know precisely what they are trying to accomplish, how will you -- or they -- know when you get there? Every one of the "pretend" objectives listed earlier -- indeed, almost every project objective ever written -- could be rewritten so you could tell if it had been achieved, and to what degree. Pretend objectives may fool your boss -- for a while -- but they won't stand up under close scrutiny, and they shouldn't be part of your repertory. That's where "evaluable" objectives come in. Properly developed, objectives always should have a built-in, quantifiable outcome with some internal mechanism for measuring success. The best ones are based on baseline, or planning, research that tells you something about your starting point. If "boosting morale" is the general desired effect, then an objective of, say, a newsletter ought to reference something like "improving positive responses to questions about employee attitudes by xx percent" from one survey to the next, or "reduce the volume of employee grievances and complaints by xx percent" over some defined time frame. If you don't state objectives in quantifiable terms, you have no good basis on which to measure what has been accomplished. With poorly defined, non-specific objectives, ANY result could be presumed to be a success. For communicators who lack confidence, or who are lazy, this may sound fine. But for a professional, for judging, and, certainly, for our organizations or our clients, such an attitude isn't satisfactory. No professional communicator should be willing to accept that, and we should not let our companies or our clients accept such a standard, either. Our profession needs to have the confidence to support business goals in terms that business executives understand. We need to talk the talk of senior management. Hitting On Your Target We need to aim to improve results, and then measure to see if we hit our target. As we fight for corporate resources, having quantifiable proof of our success in helping the organization meet its goals increases our effectiveness, as well as our standing and respect along mahogany row. In competitions and in your organization, evaluable objectives will set you apart from the crowd. They demonstrate your professionalism, your understanding of the true function of project objectives, the way your communications efforts support what management is trying to do with the organization as a whole. And they allow easy measurement and proof of success. Writing objectives properly is like a system of thought. Once you make the leap and include a specific measure of success in each objective you write, you'll wonder why you ever imagined that pretend objectives had any value at all. The next article of this series will help you learn how to include information on measurement and evaluation in your competition entries. If you have questions, email me.


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