Strategy in PR has nothing to do with tactics – it is seeing the bigger picture

It is that time of year again, a benchmarking moment in CIPR’s annual calendar – the publication of the State of Profession Annual Survey. It provides us all with a snapshot of the current industry trends, various interesting demographics but, most of all, it indicates where we are and where we should be heading.

For instance, 65% of recruiters who took the survey said “they looked for evidence of resource and people management in senior hires” – sadly, only 25% of senior practitionersranked those abilities amongst their strongest skills”. Why is that?

Could it be because that these skills are not considered important? Or that they have not been required in our previous roles? Or could it be that, one might argue, PR has nothing to do with resource and people management skills, but with media relations and campaigns?

In my view, there is not a single client/media facing activity that does not require resource and people management skills: you need to know what resources you have available (people, budgets, materials etc.) and how to manage the people you interact with (they do not have to be your employees or employer – every human interaction requires a degree of management).

Unsurprisingly so, 66% of the recruiters who participated in the survey “reported looking for senior professionals with business acumen”, but only 33% of the respondents presented business acumen as one of their strongest competencies.

What is “business acumen”? The simplest definition is understanding a business situation. I strongly believe that we cannot – and we should not – provide any PR advice, strategy, and even various tactical outputs (media relations, campaigns, creative materials, social media promotions etc.) without understanding:

  • The situation the business is facing, together with the risks and opportunities associated to that circumstance;
  • The internal and external environments of the business/employer;
  • Porter’s 5 Forces which, at any time, may totally disrupt any strategical or tactical output if they are not closely monitored

Every year I’m hoping to say: “Yay!!! We’re getting there!” Sadly, in 2018 it still is just hope. One day, probably in the next 10-15 years, I’ll be able to say it, but not right now, not when “practitioners remain predominately tactical” as Sarah Hall (CIPR President) has rightly concluded.

And this brings me to my pet peeves – campaigns and media relations: “PR programmes/campaigns (68%) and media relations (65%) are in the top three most commonly undertaken activities, suggesting PR professionals spend the majority of their time on tactical delivery.”

Here, I need to clarify something: there is absolutely nothing wrong with media relations and campaigns. God knows I’ve run enough media and market engagement campaigns to last me a lifetime, and I know more journalists than (no pun intended, guys) I would have ever thought I’d need to know.

But, and here is the BIG BUT: not even once had I carried out any media engagement/campaign/tour etc. or awareness campaign as the ultimate goal of my PR existence. Never once. Everything tied back to the very simple, yet exceptionally powerful question that still not many of us ask: “why?”.

Media Relations and Campaigns, in and out of themselves, are just pieces in a much bigger puzzle. You can and should, if you want of course, understand the puzzle – how do these two tactical outputs fit into the bigger picture? What are the risks and opportunities each of them present for the business further down the line?

Rich Leigh, the author of Myths of PR, said in a Twitter exchange recently: “I’m cynical of all this talk of strategy and CEO-whispering, esp when it bashes good day to day PR, often based around media relations. Clients want results, not (in most cases) to be told how to run their business. That way lies overstepping to validate our existence (and fee)”

I fully agreed with the latter part of Rich’s comment above, simply because we shouldn’t tell a company how to run its business – we should tell that company what could happen if its business is run in a certain way.

Stephen Waddington, on the other hand, argued that “Some of my best work has been campaigns, developed around a business objective.

Strategy in Public Relations has nothing to do with tactics – it has to do with seeing the bigger picture, with weighing the pros and cons of the business doing something, of forecasting what could happen if A = B, and if A # B.

Last week I had coffee with a Head of Communications of an international business. We started discussing about CIPR’s Energy Leadership Platform, what our purpose and outputs were, and how likely are we to succeed to change perceptions and public narratives on the energy mix. I told him that we, the PR practitioners, are the best placed people to do it because we understand the “why” and the “how”, as well as the “why now” and “why us”.

He said something very powerful afterwards, something that totally represents my vision of what we can be should we choose to: “you know, Ella, I don’t do a lot of comms here. I’m here because I am more like the CEO’s Chief of Staff.” In other words, he is his CEO’s most trusted advisor – and not a PR advisor, but a business/corporate advisor. Can you be one?

There can be no strategy without tactics – someone needs to break down the big picture into bite-sized chunks and see how they all fit into the bigger plan. Also, there can be no tactics without a strategy to inform the direction of the activities to be taken.

My definition of what Public Relations is all about may be very different than yours or it may be very similar to yours. Sadly, like with everything else in life, the more we do just one / two things, the more we believe that everything revolves around those two things – in our case, campaigns and media relations.

The greatest majority of PR practitioners are brilliant people – there is absolutely no one and nothing stopping you to prove to yourself, first and foremost, that you have a brilliant mind and are a great strategic thinker. That you can see all the movements on the chessboard and know exactly what piece to move next and why.

About 5-6 years ago I met a grey-haired energy journalist (Editor Emeritus, actually) with whom I developed a wonderful friendship. He told me something then, over a coffee, which I’ll never forget for as long as I live: “Ella, what you do is not PR. It is strategy.” It appears, given the stark findings of CIPR’s State of Profession 2018 Annual Survey, that he was right.

Image courtesy of pexels

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