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Public Relations Research at the Program Level

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James Grunig PRRom

Conceptualizing Quantitative Research in Public Relations. Part 4

The discussion of metrics for public relations begins with the program level because this is the level that most public relations professionals think of when they are asked to do research to demonstrate their effectiveness. However, keep in mind that a senior public relations officer should begin planning public relations programs at the organizational and societal levels so that specific communication programs relate to organizational goals and decisions, and to stakeholders who affect or are affected by organizational goals and decisions. As I discuss research at the program level, therefore, I also will explain how specific communication programs can be connected to effectiveness at the organizational and societal levels.

When most public relations professionals think of research, they think of research directly related to specific communication programs. For example, when they think of media relations, they think of monitoring the content of media. When they think of community relations, they think of a survey to determine the level of satisfaction that community residents have with an organization. When they think of employee relations, they think of an audit of employees’ satisfaction with the organization, their jobs, or the quality of communication in an organization.

It is important to remember three things about these kinds of programmatic research, however.

First, they are evaluation-only studies, which generally have not been preceded by formative research to help plan the program.

Second, the studies typically do not measure carefully constructed objectives based on formative research or theoretical guidelines that categorize logical and measurable communication objectives.

Third, the measures cannot be used directly to conclude whether public relations programs contribute to the effectiveness of the organization at the organizational or societal levels—the levels at which the return on investment (ROI) of public relations must be measured.

Measures of processes and outcomes at the program level can be used to infer effectiveness at higher levels only if they are logically and empirically connected to broader organizational goals—most notably to developing quality long-term relationships with strategic publics—and the publics affected by the program are strategic to the organization.

In the Excellence study, we found that the most effective public relations departments participated in the making of overall strategic decisions in organizations. Less effective departments generally had the less central role of disseminating messages about strategic decisions made by others in the organization. By participating in organizational decisions, excellent public relations departments were in a position to identify the stakeholders who would be affected by organizational decisions or who would affect those decisions. Once they had identified stakeholders, excellent public relations departments strategically developed programs to communicate with them. They conducted formative research to identify potential issues and define objectives for programs to communicate with the stakeholders, they specified measurable objectives for the communication programs, and they used both formal and informal methods to evaluate whether the objectives had been accomplished. Less excellent departments conducted no formative or evaluative research and generally had only vague objectives that were difficult to measure.

In the next chapter: Formative Research at the Program Level

Read Part I, Part II and Part III

James E. Grunig is Professor Emeritus of Public Relations, University of Maryland

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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