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Prof. James E. Grunig: Evaluative Research at the Program Level - Developing Objectives and Measuring them

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James Grunig PRRom

Conceptualizing Quantitative Research in Public Relations. Part 6

After formative research has identified the publics with which an organization needs relationships and the problems and issues that exist or might exist, public relations staff should formulate objectives for programs to communicate with these strategic publics. Since the value of public relations to an organization and society exists in the relationships developed with strategic publics, objectives should consist of strategies to cultivate relationships (independent variables) and the relationship outcomes (dependent variables) that the organization strives to achieve with these strategies.

The theoretical expectation that cultivation strategies will lead to desired relationship outcomes is a hypothesis. Cultivation strategies can be specified as process objectives. Relationship outcomes can be specified as outcome objectives. Public relations staff can monitor both process and outcome objectives to evaluate its communication programs—as long as research has established that the process objectives do indeed lead to the outcome objectives.

Process Objectives and Measures

Most of the knowledge that public relations professionals possess has something to do with how to communicate with publics to cultivate a relationship with those publics. Not all strategies for cultivating relationships are equally effective, however. Therefore, we must recognize that not all public relations strategies, techniques, and programs are equally likely to produce quality relationship outcomes. Public relations researchers have identified and classified the strategies that research has shown to be most effective. Cultivation strategies that are symmetrical in nature generally are more effective than asymmetrical strategies. To be symmetrical means that the public relations staff communicates in a way that helps to balance the interests of both organizations and publics. To be asymmetrical means that the public relations staff strives for a relationship that benefits the organization but that it is less concerned about the interests of the public. Hon and J. Grunig (1999) provided a list of symmetrical and asymmetrical cultivation strategies derived from academic studies of relationships and conflict resolution.

Public relations staff can measure these process objectives to provide meaningful information in the short term that its communication programs are leading to desired long-term effects. For example, public relations managers can measure one of these objectives, disclosure of concerns by publics to the organization, by counting suggestions, complaints, inquiries, and other contacts that members of publics, the media, government, or leaders of activist groups make with the organization, rather than to regulatory bodies, legislators, or the media. Public relations practitioners can measure process objectives from the management side of the organization-public relationship by keeping a count of the times management seeks them out for advice or is willing to disclose its intentions, decisions, and behaviors to outside publics or the media through the public relations function. Other process indicators of effective cultivation strategies include counts of what management has done to show publics that their interests are legitimate, of contacts with networks of activist groups, or in social responsibility reports showing the extent to which management has worked on problems of interest to publics.

Outcome Objectives and Measures

The ultimate goal of communication programs such as community relations, media relations, or employee relations—and even of specific communication activities such as an open house, a media interview, or an employee publication—is a quality relationship with a strategic public. Relationships develop slowly, however, and a particular communication activity or short-term program can be expected to have only an incremental effect on the quality of a relationship. In most cases, that incremental effect will be too small to measure.

There are five short-term objectives that communication research (research for the profession) has shown can be attained through discrete activities and programs. Each can be measured either quantitatively or qualitatively, depending on the nature of the evidence desired to show the effect of the programs. Sometimes qualitative evidence is sufficient; at other times, management or a client demands quantitative evidence. In most of the communication literature, these objectives are defined as one-way effects—as effects on the public. These one-way effects can also be measured on management, however, to determine the effects of symmetrical programs. When we think of two-way effects, different terminology makes the objectives more meaningful.

The one-way effects are the following, with examples and measures included:

  • Exposure. Members of a strategic public or of management receive a message. Stories are placed in the media and members of publics read them. Members of a public see an advertisement, attend a special event, go to a website, or read a brochure. Managers meet with public leaders, read the results of a public opinion survey, or view a videotape of a focus group. Exposure can be measured through such methods as readership surveys, attendance counts, web hits, or management attendance at meetings. Note that media monitoring alone usually is not a sufficient measure even of exposure because it cannot tell you if anyone has read or seen a news story.
  • Retention of messages. Members of the public are not only exposed to a message, they also remember the message. Recipients of the message do not necessarily agree with the message or plan to do anything about it; they simply remember what you said. This objective can be measured through questions about the recall of messages.
  • Cognition. Recipients of messages not only remember messages but they understand them and develop new knowledge. To measure a cognitive effect, for example, survey participants could be asked a multiple-choice question testing knowledge of the organization.
  • Attitude. Members of a public or of management not only receive and understand a message, they also evaluate its implications favorably and intend to behave in a way that is consistent with a message. Attitudes can be measured through conventional evaluative questions.
  • Behavior. Members of a public or of management behave in a new or different way—changing the behavioral relationship of an organization and public, and the consequences that each has on the other. Behaviors can be measured by asking what publics have done that affect the organization or that management has done that affects a public. In situations in which a behavior of the public produces sales or revenue or reduces costs, it might be possible to compute a financial return on investment to a public relations program. However, a researcher must always take care to control for variables other than public relations that might have led to the increase in revenue or decease in cost, or that might interact with public relations to produce the financial effect.

The conventional wisdom in communication research has been that these five effects constitute a hierarchy of effects—that changes in behavior, for example, must be preceded by changes in exposure, message retention, cognition, and attitude. However, these effects can occur independently of each other or in a different order. For example, people often hold attitudes that are based on limited or no knowledge; or behavior sometimes changes before attitudes or cognition change. Therefore, a public relations manager should decide which objectives are most likely for each communication process that he or she wants to evaluate. The objectives become more difficult to attain as we move from exposure to behavior.

When a public relations department thinks of its objectives in two-way terms, it should use somewhat different terminology for the above five effects. Two-way objectives envision the effect of communication activities on management and publics simultaneously. Ideally, both change, although sometimes one must change more or less than the other. These two-way objectives are based on a theory of coorientation originally developed by McLeod and Chaffee (1973) and adapted for public relations by Broom (1977) and J. Grunig and Hunt (1984: 128).

  • Exposure becomes mutual awareness. Both management and public are aware of the effect they have on the other.
  • Message retention becomes accuracy. Both can accurately remember and repeat what the other said.
  • Cognitive effect becomes understanding. Both have similar cognitions about a problem or issue or purpose of the organization.
  • Effect on attitude becomes agreement. Both have similar evaluations of what the organization or public wants and intend to behave in a way that enhances their relationship.
  • Effect on behavior becomes symbiotic behavior. Both behave in a way that serves the interests of the other as well as their own interests.

Public relations professionals should recognize that the main reason to measure short-term objectives is not so much to reward or punish individual communication managers or the entire public relations function for success or failure as it is to learn from the research whether a program should be continued as is, revised, or dropped in favor of another approach. If pre-testing is conducted of programs, rather than just post-testing, such decisions can be made before large expenditures of time and money are made on a program.

Over the long term, successful short-term communication activities and programs should contribute to the development and maintenance of quality long-term relationships with strategic publics. These relationships have value at the organizational level. To understand the nature of relationships and how to evaluate them, I will turn next to the organizational level of analysis because of its logical relationship to the program level. Then, I will return to the functional level to suggest ways of auditing the public relations department.

***

In the next chapter: Public Relations Research at the Organizational Level

Read Part I, Part II and Part III, Part IV and Part V

Grunig, J. E.: Conceptualizing quantitative research in public relations. In B. Van Ruler, A. Tkalac Verčič, & D. Verčič, (Eds.). Public relations metrics (pp. 88-119). New York and London: Routledge, 2008. Republish with the permission of author.

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