PR's Little Strategy Problem

An Industry's Ongoing Challenge When people first enter the public relations industry, they start out doing the grunt work — the time consuming, minimal-thinking-required activities that every more senior person also started their career doing. Anyone who’s ever worked in PR knows the type of activities I’m talking about — mind-numbing tasks like building and updating media lists, award calendars and event calendars; creating status reports or activity reports and making updates to them on a weekly basis; handling calendars, often for the entire team; or finding and managing the now quickly nearing extinction editorial calendars that publications distribute … or sometimes don’t.

These are all important activities that hold value for a PR team and program. They really are the foundation of someone’s skill set.

When someone is seen as having mastered this first level of the PR corporate ladder they then move on to pitching, drafting briefing sheets, crafting award or speaking proposals and writing press releases. Once those skills have advanced sufficiently a person will begin managing others on these tasks and finally, acting as a strategist.

What exactly does that mean? Acting as a strategist...

Having worked in the PR industry for eight years I’ve come to the conclusion that many simply don’t know. I hesitate at saying most because I don’t want to broadly categorize the ENTIRE industry; in my experience though, I’m very comfortable saying many.

PR professionals advance through their career largely based on their performance with tactical activities. Then suddenly they reach a point where they’re thrust into this role where they’re responsible for what are supposed to be higher level actions. However, similar to people management (which is an entirely different topic I’ll cover another time), many of these PR people never receive any training or guidance in “becoming strategic.”

This is the point where many PR people, especially those from agencies, will jump in and say they do, in fact, offer courses, academies or programs to train staff in the areas required for future roles and advancement. Yes, you do. I know you do. I’ve seen a number of them. Here’s the thing … they don’t work.

How else can I explain encountering an ever-growing number of “senior” PR professionals who don’t understand strategy?

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I once had a manager who discussed with me thinking strategically vs. thinking tactically. It was only one meeting that lasted just an hour, but it stuck with me to this day. He talked about setting objectives, goals, strategies and tactics for a campaign. How to write them. How each differs.

I had thought about these things before, but it impressed me that he took time for the conversation. And, it impressed me more that he did it with all the people he managed.

I’ve never had another manager even touch on this topic.

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Typically, when I’m part of a “strategy session” with other PR people an objective may or may not be given, which is the first issue. They also tend to be given with short notice, minimal context and called brainstorms — “let’s get creative and talk strategy.” Experience has proven this to be a poor way to strategize or brainstorm, but I’ll expand on that another time.

The next issue is that the group usually jumps straight to tactical ideas. More often than not, these tactics revolve around pitching or special events (and then pitching about the event).

The problem is that by jumping straight from the objective to the tactics, or from no real objective to randomly thrown out tactical ideas, a number of crucial steps are left out of the process. Those steps, which would be covered if a problem was approached strategically rather than tactically, would guide your tactics to ensure what you end up doing is actually worthwhile.

As an example, let’s think about audiences for a minute. When developing a strategy, you carefully define the audience your campaign or program is targeting and then come up with tactics that allow you to reach that audience. If you skip that step, you may end up implementing tactics that don’t accurately touch your targets.

Failure to thoroughly define an audience is a big reason why media relations and pitching are the tactics most often used by PR people. If you don’t have a good sense of your audience, the default thing to do is pitch media that you think influences your audience. That’s a difficult thing to prove or disprove so someone could be hard pressed to contradict your choice. However, if you’ve actually defined your audience, you quickly realize you may not need to go through the media to reach them; you could go directly to them using other methods. Yes, that’s right. In actuality, the media is rarely the audience a company truly needs to reach. They are a vehicle for reaching other audiences. A vehicle that PR people have become all too reliant on (another topic for a later post).

The point here is that pitching is a tactic that supports a strategy. Just like social media. Just like events.

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Every PR campaign or program needs a strategy. You can’t just “hurry up and go,” which seems to be the mantra taking over the industry. Clients and executives want quick results so tactics end up getting spun to be strategies, audiences aren’t properly defined and PR people rely on media to do all their communicating for them. The results from that, while often good, aren’t sustainably good.

Many PR people talk about “getting a seat at the table.” What they’re really saying is that they want a hand in making business decisions for their company. They want to join executives from all the different parts of the organization to make choices that affect the future of not just the company, but its employees. If we can’t think critically as a way to solve problems, though, do we belong at that table?

We as an industry shouldn’t expect “a seat at the table” until we improve our approach.

You don’t “get” a seat at the table. You earn it. Not by being a tactician, but by being a strategist. Someone who can see and understand the big picture and think creatively and critically to solve problems.

We need more strategists in PR.

This post is syndicated from its original publishing on Medium.