An evaluation u-turn: From narrow organisational objectives to broad accountability

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Journal Article
Public Relations Review, 2019, 45 (5)
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© 2019 Elsevier Inc. The development of evaluation scholarship progresses, but the slow and incremental steps taken are largely refinements on a direction of thinking that has become established and virtually taken for granted. Most frameworks and models which have gained recognition in the academy and practice follow programme logic methodology. They also point to the achievement of organisational objectives as being the principal, but not always sole, purpose of public relations programmes. The achievement of organisational objectives has therefore been the focus of evaluation. Parallel, to this, a second strand of thinking in the scholarship and practice has questioned the assumption that the meeting of organisational objectives is paramount and whether organisations alone should determine the measures of success. Other perspectives such as stakeholder judgements of success and the obligation of organisations to meet societal expectations have been discussed as legitimate ways in which to evaluate programmes and activities. This paper takes forward this second strand by proposing that the evaluation debate should be ‘flipped’. Instead of organisational objectives being a primary denominator for evaluation, the paper proposes that whether organisations discharge their accountabilities to stakeholders and society is of equal, if not more weight. An organisation will succeed only if it sustains its licence to operate. To achieve that it has to meet the reasonable expectations that licence-givers have and to obtain their active consent to support its actions. The key questions for public relations are therefore: who/what holds us to account? What are their expectations? How are their expectations fulfilled? Drawing on the management and public relations literature to answer these questions, the paper calls for a radical ‘turn’ from the prevailing thinking, which the authors suggest is more about public relations explaining and justifying itself, towards a model that aligns with contemporary management thinking and practice. The paper proposes a model and process that provides a way forwards based not only on organisational aspirations, but on a hierarchy of obligations: to society, stakeholders, the organisation, and to the professional function which runs campaigns. It offers a principles based evaluation approach. In doing so, it takes the evaluation debate in a new direction and thereby adds to theory-building. It also offers a new way forwards for the practice which has become increasingly mired in developing more comprehensive lists of indicators and metrics and expanding taxonomies of evaluation terms.
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