Plowman, Kenneth D., Wilson, Christopher (2018). Strategy and tactics in strategic communication: Examining their intersection with social media use. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 12(2). 125-144.

While public relations industry leaders have proposed a strategic approach to social media, industry research has found that social media practices may be more tactical than strategic. Likewise, scholarly research has focused more on specific parts of strategic planning, such as message—and channel-level communication in social media, but little research has been done to understand program-level communication planning. The purpose of this study was to examine the confluence of current trends in social media use with strategic communication processes through in-depth interviews and a national survey of public relations practitioners.

The in-depth interviews revealed two overarching themes: (1) social media use should be guided by strategic planning and (2) social media tactics should revolve around conversations. The survey results showed that practitioners are involved in social media strategy development and tactical implementation, yet see their involvement as linked mostly to their organizations’ strategic rather than tactical social media activities. In addition, practitioners delineate social media strategies and tactics differently than theoretical conceptualizations.

This study adopted two different methodologies to answer the proposed research questions: qualitative semi-structured interviews and a quantitative survey. The combination of these two methods allowed the researchers to examine the perceived influence of public relations strategic planning process on program-level strategy for social media, while, at the same time, providing depth and understanding about this issue by uncovering the perspectives of public relations practitioners themselves.

For the first phase of the study, a qualitative interview protocol based on the study’s research questions was developed. The interview protocol was pre-tested with mid-level public relations executives at a technology company. As the study involved the intersection of strategic public relations planning and social media, this was a purposive sample of practitioners with the requisite experience across a number of sectors of the public relations field.

Following the in-depth interviews, the researchers developed a cross-sectional survey to answer the study’s remaining research questions. The sample for the survey was drawn from the PRSA national membership list. The researchers worked with the PRSA National Research Committee to secure approval for the questionnaire and to produce a random sample of 5,642 members’ email addresses.

Key Findings

  • For the first time, the elements of strategic planning in public relations and social media management are conjoined in research or environmental scanning, goal-setting, message design to key publics or stakeholders in long-term relationships in a two-way manner, and measurement or evaluation of results.
  • Strategic communication or public relations practitioners are guided by strategic thinking but implement what they think of as strategy in tactical ways. These findings are encouraging as they link strategy development to research and measurement as well as social media goals to larger organizational priorities.
  • Practitioners view the distinction between social media strategies and tactics differently than how they are defined in the academic literature. Namely, aspects of strategic planning that are more operational in nature, according to theory, including focusing content on specific themes, engaging influencers, and selecting specific social media channels, were seen as strategic by practitioners.
  • Tactical approaches to social media engagement that are related to strategy, based on theory, such as long-term relationships and building community, were seen by practitioners as tactical.
  • There is a disconnect between social media research and strategic planning. This finding highlights a discrepancy between what practitioners think about the role of research in strategy development and the ways in which organizations actually formulate social media strategy.

Implications for Practice
The effect on practice for this research confirms what practitioners believe: “Social media is media – using social media platforms for meeting client communications and marketing objectives are part and parcel of a cohesive PR campaign, not a separate initiative.” Practitioners now need to know how to proceed in the future.  Questions that are relevant for practitioners include: How can they link what they do to what they believe as far as the intersection between strategic and tactical public relations? How do they make the results of their metrics or evaluation useful to their organizations in the future? As well, how long do social media effects last from social media campaigns?  And, then how can the practitioner combat those effects?  How then do we post on relevant platforms quickly, while also ensuring a consistent voice?

Article Location
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Twitter ID(s)
@kdp44, @cwilson2006

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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