Is it smart to be SMART?

While at University, for most of our assignments we had to develop SMART objectives. But, from talking to my former course mates, we’ve been surprised at how infrequently the model is used in PR practice. Is the PR industry failing to implement the “foundation for communications planning” that is SMART objectives?

Where did SMART come from?

All PR programmes need to have objectives, this much is obvious. But what separates a SMART objective from just an objective? SMART objectives are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time sensitive. The model was coined by George Doran in 1981 and has since become the gold standard in objective setting

One of the first questions you might ask is “what are you hoping to achieve?” this may be to build awareness, drive sales or to build company value. Any answer is useful, but none of them will a firm objective. It needs to be SMARTened before it can be considered objectives. That’s a critical job for a PR professional.

Osahon Ogbeiwi writes that when setting a SMART objective there should be components of OITT. OITT stands for an Outcome, where you elaborate on what you are hoping to gain, Indicator, which is how you plan to measure, Target, the exact amount of impact, and Timeframe. The framework serves as the benchmark template for evaluating the SMARTness of each objective statement’s goal framework.

Why develop SMART objectives?

SMART objectives provide clarity and set appropriate expectations between PR agencies and their clients. This model’s specificity guarantees that everyone involved understands exactly what must be done and by when, providing the foundation for evaluating success and future planning.

The time-sensitive nature of the SMART method allows you to create goals for both the long and short term, which are clearly defined by the dates set against them. This helps guide meeting agendas, activity trackers and brainstorming sessions.

 Where SMART lacks clarity

SMART objectives are great, but they are not perfect. They don’t account for external factors which could restrict your ability to meet them. And how do we define terms such as attainable or realistic? The two terms are subjective to individual opinions formed around lived experiences. Put simply – attainability and realism are different to different people.

SMART objective setting fails to prepare for the unexpected. PR can be unpredictable, with unexpected business decisions, external crises and more. SMART objectives only allow you to plan for what you can predict. By seeing objectives as things that can be shaped and adapted as situations evolve, they become more realistic. However, they may lose the ability to be time sensitive.

What are the alternatives?

There is a plethora of alternatives to the SMART objectives model. However, they all draw elements from this better-known structure. OKR, which stands for objectives and key results, was established by Andy Grove from Intel. The objective is your overarching goal that can spread over a long period and your key results are the smaller steps to reach it. Simply put, you either meet the specifications of a key result or you don’t.

GEMs are another alternative, established by VP Technology for Ad Hoc, Kathy Keating, and stands for goal, experiment, and measurement. The difference between GEMs and other types of objective-setting is that it includes the implementation, and the experiment becomes an opportunity to bounce ideas around as to how you plan to achieve your goals.

So, what does this tell us?

What we have uncovered is just the tip of the curiosity iceberg about what is commonly seen as an industry standard. It is clear that although we all understand SMART objectives, they may not always be possible, or desirable. The common theme between the different objective-creation approaches is measurement. In all three examples of objective-setting one question is always considered: “what metrics can we use to measure our success?”

My recommendation is a blended approach between SMART and GEM and enables flexibility, effective planning, and evaluation. Often, we see objectives only discussed twice, once when set and then again when achieved. Only by frequently discussing initial goals and objectives can we collaboratively adjust expectations and tactics, depending on both internal and external factors.


Written by Amber Ellis

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