Sometimes what we do in public relations is so much fun — brainstorming creative messaging or activities or gimmicks to catch the eye of our stakeholders and convey information we are sure they want and need! Give us a problem or opportunity and we will dive right into activities and tactics that are sure to work. Or are they?
In fact, this “fun” part should be one of the last steps in a planning process if we want to be successful. To be effective, we must be strategic about what we do and how we do it. By applying the foundational body of knowledge that support these strategies, we elevate the practice of public relations to a profession and increase our chances of success.
To be strategic, we must start every plan with a review of the public relations goal(s) that we are working to achieve. Is that goal relevant to the organization’s goals? If not, should we even go down that path? Are the organization’s goals relevant to its mission? Vision? If not, shouldn’t that discussion happen first with management?
If goals are aligned, then we should focus on which stakeholders can give us the behaviors we need to achieve the goals. We all recognize that there is no such thing as the “general” public, so why plan for them? Every organization has groups of stakeholders who make a difference in achieving (or not) the goals. Identify those stakeholders and what we want them to start doing, stop doing or let us do without them interfering.
But what do we know about them? Their perceptions? Their barriers or affinities as they relate to our organization? Their patterns of behavior? Sources of information? Opinion leaders they trust? Without all this knowledge and more, we are seeking to move them without knowing anything about them. It would be like planning to drive a car when you are in fact, flying a 747.
Next, what is going on in the world around them, and around us, that could influence, impact or change entirely what it is we are trying to achieve. Many private schools were working hard to recruit students to their elite, nurturing environment. Yet they are now tainted by events that took place decades ago at other schools. Messages and outreach efforts need to acknowledge the fears and concerns on the minds of potential students and families and point to the values and safeguards in place that create a very different culture at their own school.
Now we apply the foundational theories and models from the behavioral sciences to make sure the plans we create are effective. We draw from the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, game theory and more to build a strategy that has a chance at succeeding. And we set objectives that can be measured at the end as well as along the way so that programs can be modified and improved for better outcomes.
And once — but not until — all this done, should we move to activities and tactics. Yes, this part of planning may be fun, but the steps leading up to it are just — if not more — interesting and exciting. Knowing how to create a behavioral and measureable strategic plan will position your organization for success – and you as a strategic partner whose place is at the management table.
Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA, Senior Counsel and Partner, Jackson Jackson & Wagner Smith is senior counsel and partner at Jackson Jackson & Wagner. She has over 30 years experience counseling organizations from large Fortune 50 companies to small non-profits. She has served as an instructor in public relations at University of New Hampshire and Antioch New England Graduate School. She is a member of the IPRRC Advisory Board, as well as the PRSA Educators Academy and PRSA Employee Communications Section.