Define your purpose for more powerful communications

U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987 in which he famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”  There was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to his purpose in delivering the speech. The message to his target audience – in this case, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev – was overtly stated. He called on Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin wall that had separated West and East Berlin since 1961.  The Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989 and East and West Berlin, as well as all of Germany, were reunited.

The effectiveness of Reagan’s speech and his other interactions with the Soviet Union have been debated quite a bit in the 30 plus years since, but the takeaway for me is clear: powerful communications can happen when guided by a simple and well-defined purpose.

Despite this and countless other examples, I think PR pros and corporate leaders at times confuse the purpose of their communications.  For example, some PR pros still rely only on metrics that show the size of the audience reached when reporting the outcome of their campaigns to senior leaders or clients.  However, if we truly desire to add value to the bottom line, then simply reaching a large audience is not a worthy goal.  The ultimate purpose or goal of all communications must be influencing the behavior of that audience.

The right question to ask during the planning stages of any communications campaign is, “What do we want our target audience to feel, think, say or do as a result of our communications?” It’s applicable not only to PR pros conducting a campaign, but to every leader in every field every time they communicate.  We’ve all been bored to tears during a conference call by a person who is neither sure of his or her purpose nor what he or she wants you to do.  Imagine how much more effective phone conferences would be if the communicator took the time to clearly define his or her purpose and the desired behavior before communicating? Imagine the same thing for the following forms of communication:

  • E-mail
  • Face-to-face meeting with a colleague or client
  • Weekly team meetings
  • Performance reviews
  • Keynote address at a trade conference
  • Meeting a new contact at a networking event
  • Connecting with a new contact via LinkedIn

Clearly defining the behavior you want before communicating would likely shorten any conference call. It might obviate the need for certain groups to attend. It most certainly will increase chances that listeners will perform the desired behavior.  As you evaluate yourself or other leaders after such communications, you might ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did I clearly describe the desired behavior?
  • Did I invite the audience to engage in the behavior?
  • Did I make clear the rewards of engaging in the behavior?
  • Did I make clear the disadvantages of not engaging in the behavior?
  • Did I provide all information necessary for the audience to engage in the desired behavior?

As PR pros, instead of being content to measure reach alone, we ought to place greater emphasis on measuring influenced behaviors. It will likely take some time and effort on our part to educate leaders and clients about the metrics that will help us measure behavior, but it will help them better understand the value public relations offers.  Here are a few metrics I feel are especially pertinent:

  • Adoption of key messages by targeted outlets in news coverage
  • Social media comments and content sharing (engagement)
  • Adoption of key messages in user generated content (UGC)
  • Event attendance
  • Votes

Where budget and timing permits, PR pros also should use opinion surveys to reveal perceptions among the target audience that might have influenced the audience’s decision making.

In the end, not all communications will take place on the center stage of history.  And, not all communications will be part of a PR campaign.  But the communications of all leaders, whether PR pros or otherwise, will be much more effective if we define beforehand our purpose and the behavior we wish to influence.

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