5 Ways to Improve Your PR Strategy in 2015
“Study the past if you would define the future.” ― Confucius
2015 is fast approaching and a glut of content marketers will be writing about myriad resolutions that everyone should make for the new year. And while it might seem both unimaginative and hypocritical for me to say something so cynical and then write a piece on improving PR strategy for 2015, my topic has one distinct advantage over (nearly) everyone else: strategy is entirely forward-thinking.
Good strategy is also fluid and contextual, which is why I thought it would be interesting to examine some best practices of how notable people approach their PR strategy. I think you’ll find that great strategists don’t just have good process, they have a whole different strategic mindset.
First things first: a definition of “strategy”
The first thing you’ll find when discussing “strategy” is that people don’t always agree on a definition. For the purposes of this piece, we’ll define strategy as the overarching corporate goals. Its goals are defined from the top and executed by plans and tactics. You’ll read some people articulate “PR strategy” interchangeably with PR plans, and this isn’t a huge obstacle to my points so long as you understand these definitions:
- Strategy articulates goals.
- Plans are formed to accomplish goals.
- Tactics are used to execute plans.
1. Acclimate to Altitude
I’m a part of some random mailing list that sent me an article about webinars the other day. The subject line read “Webinars that rocked in 2014.” Without reading further I clicked “delete.” IMHO, webinars decidedly do not rock. There is one exception that I know of:
A webinar I’ve listened to this past year that resonated very deeply with me was James Lukaszewski’s PRSA webinar, “How to Develop the Mindset of a Strategist.” If you have opportunity to listen, I recommend it highly. It doesn’t rock in the way that a Led Zeppelin reunion concert would rock, but for me it rocked my understanding of articulating and executing strategy.
Lukaszewski makes one thing clear from the outset: strategy is determined from the C-Suite.
This shouldn’t be as massive of a revelation as it is, but it goes against our inclination to think of ourselves as leaders and orchestrators of PR strategy. Consider this thought experiment: could you create PR goals (PR strategy) for a company apart from corporate goals? Yes. Would anyone besides you consider these goals sound strategy? Unlikely. This means that your role to develop strategy is to gain buy-in from a CEO (or their designee).
Once you acquiesce your role in the planning hierarchy, Lukaszewski masterfully describes how to present your ideas to a CEO as effectively as possible. If you want to inform strategy, you have to become a “trusted advisor.” Among his insights to do this:
- CEO churn is quick (41 months on average). This can make CEOs somewhat risk-averse
- Time is at a premium (CEOs only have 40 percent of their time to deal with operational business). You must be succinct and articulate.
- CEOs respond to business-speak, not communications-speak. Although they understand PR jargon, it’s easier to digest in business-speak.
- CEOs are self-guided: learn their needs and read what they are reading.
- CEOs don’t want single recommendations: they want choices. Make recommendations in threes.
(Lukaszewski also share a phenomenal “three-minute pitch” format to this end)
The important insight here is that strategy input (for everyone except the CEO) is as much a function of influencing a decision maker as it is developing great ideas. Improve your PR strategy by focusing on how you influence the ultimate decision maker.
2. Cease your management and lead!
I used to work with a consultant who would chastise me about being a “leader” versus a “manager.” He would tell me that a “leader” provides vision and a “manager” plans and executes on that vision. I always thought that was a stupid distinction (and thought accordingly of the consultant), but in the context of strategy this is actually kind of helpful.
When you’re contributing to a strategy, you want to avoid two things that a “manager” (like me) might do:
- Set constraints based upon what you can execute.
- Confuse execution plans with goals.
If that’s too obtuse, an extreme example of a strategic planning leader would be Jeff Bezos of Amazon. There is no Black Friday for Amazon. Amazon perpetually operates in the red, much to the chagrin of investors. Bezos uses his capital to continually invest: the Kindle, the Kindle Phone, the Echo (as well as his personal purchase of The Washington Post). He set a large part of his strategy in his first shareholder letter:
“We will continue to make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions.”
Bezo’s strategy is at odds with the prevailing thought of many publicly traded companies, and if he limited his scope to what he could accomplish relative to other companies he probably would have accomplished much less.
The important insight here is that strategy is developed with a different mindset than execution. As Bruna Martinuzzi recently wrote on Open Forum, in order to succeed we need to understand our own blind spots and adjust. The execution mindset (plans and tactics) can be a blind spot for strategists. Improve your PR strategy by being a strategic thinker as opposed to a “nuts and bolts” thinker.
A couple of weeks ago, Moz.com published an article entitled “The Coming Integration of PR and SEO.” The gist of the article is that PR, SEOs and digital marketers are doing (by and large) duplicitous work in many different areas. For example, keyword research in digital and audience research in PR would likely be more powerful if the tactics were combined. SEOs and PR practitioners are both trying to maximize their resonance to a particular audience. (It’s definitely a thought-provoking piece if you have a chance to read it.)
In a separate PRSA webinar, Johna Burke, EVP of BurrellsLuce discussed how businesses can engineer KPI measurements into their processes by articulating everyone’s roles and finding ways to measure impact relative to strategy. For example, a customer service rep might ask callers “How did you hear about us?” to gain feedback for PR or marketing activities.
The way that this collaboration informs better strategy is that it improves the quality of feedback to the strategist. A feedback loop from customer service or sales is far more valuable than trying to interpret datapoints from a generic analytics tools. And the combined insight from PR and SEO would make digital and offline tactics even more effective and give a strategist more feedback as to how people are being reached.
The important insight here is that because strategy is fluid, it relies on feedback for adjustment. More precise feedback may help to optimize an overarching strategy. Improve your PR strategy by improving your measurement feedback.
4. Measure stuff better, or measure better stuff.
Aside from Burke’s point about finding ways to engineer measurement into your process, you can also improve your PR strategy by eliminating cheap metrics from your reporting. For instance, impressions, social shares, social reach, followers, et cetera.
Easily accessible metrics are oftentimes not directly tied to the overall corporate goals (strategy). For communications strategists, this means that there may be a disconnect between the actual impact that PR makes to the corporate strategy and what decision makers see. They might question the use of PR tactics when marketers conversely offer concrete data correlating sales to clicks.
Robert Minton also explains that it is helpful when strategic goals are quantified (using SMART criteria).
If the metrics we use in plans and tactics can’t be tied back to the SMART criteria of our goals, how can we prove value to the bottom line? And if our goals don’t have any quantification, how do we show value or congruence?
The important insight here is that sound metrics provide a feedback loop that informs good strategy. Metrics that don’t do this may be superfluous. Improve your PR strategy by improving your measurement feedback (I guess I said that already… but it is still true).
5. Communicate better.
The fact that strategy is top-driven isn’t just a conceptual problem for our inner-Napoleans. It becomes a practical problem when the strategy isn’t communicated within the organization. The fact that all plans and tactics should be informed by strategy affirms the importance for everyone to know the overall strategy. But most people don’t.
Harvard Business Review published a piece a few years ago describing that most executives can’t articulate their own corporate strategy. The problem being that ignorance of the big-picture strategy means that they cannot execute their jobs based upon it. Imagine a football team where no one knew the plays and executed their own “strategies:” I can’t imagine they would be too successful.
PR expert John Trader points out that internal PR is a critical part of external PR:
“If you can’t get a grasp on internal PR, external campaigns could be a lot more difficult to execute.”
The important insight being that the best strategy cannot be accomplished without everyone understanding them. Improve your PR strategy by disseminating it to the people responsible to execute it.
If you want to improve your PR strategy in 2015, you could do worse than to approach strategy as a twelve-step program:
Step 1. Admit I am powerless over strategy and cannot personally manage it lest anarchy ensue.
Step 2. Admit there is a power greater than me who owns strategy.
Step 3. Concede power of strategy to the greater power, and focus on influencing him or her as a means to inform strategy.
I could probably add nine more steps, but the point is that better strategy isn’t simply a function of one person. A strong PR strategy relies on our capability to effectively pitch ideas to a decision maker, to think in strategic context (and not about execution), to improve our feedback metrics through collaboration and critical analysis, and to communicate strategy internally so that plans and execution are aligned with the strategy.
You may not consider chess to have the duplicitous nature of strategy and execution, but in closing consider the thoughts of Max Euwe, a Dutch mathematician and chess master: “Strategy requires thought, tactics require observation.”
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