It isn't enough to know what public relations is and what purposes it serves. To practice public relations, one must understand the process by which public relations operates. As we have already discussed, public relations goes far beyond the task of producing messages. An effective public relations effort is the result of mutual understanding between an organization and its publics. The development of this understanding can be regarded as a four-step process:
Research An initial fact-finding stage defines the problem areas and differentiates between publics.
Planning Once the facts have been gathered from the various publics, decisions must be made regarding their importance and potential impact on the organization. After these decisions are made, strategies must be developed to enable the organization to achieve its goals.
Action and Communication Strategies are implemented as new organizational policies and/or projects. Messages are then constructed to reach target publics.
Evaluation Once a public relations campaign is developed and implemented, it should be followed by an evaluation of its effectiveness in meeting the criteria that were set. The results of the evaluation are used both to assess the effectiveness of the effort and to plan future action.
These four steps are essential to any effective public relations campaign. They are not, however, four independent functions. Each step overlaps the others; if any one of them is neglected, the entire process will be affected. The next four chapters discuss each of these steps in detail. To help you keep in mind the interdependence of the steps, an integrating case study will open each chapter. The case of Cedar Springs Community Hospital, presented in Chapter 5 and subsequent chapters, illustrates a complete public relations project as it progresses through each stage, from research through evaluation. You may find it useful to turn back and review the previous case segments as you read through the next four chapters.