It’s a curious thing how the overwhelming majority of public relations agencies and practitioners identify as “strategists.” Here is the problem: if everyone is a strategist, how does anything get done? The natural inclination seems to be that “tactics are subordinate to strategy.” True, public relations is much more than just press conferences, interviews and publicity but it’s important to remember that the only way to accomplish our PR and business objectives is to bring strategy to life through tactical execution. As such, strategy and tactics are interrelated and equally essential for success.
Communications research provides a foundation for the entire public relations process from landscape assessment to objective-setting to strategy development to tactical creativity and performance evaluation. Since the process is cyclical rather than sequential, it’s important to learn and refine over time. To focus on how research ensures a balance between strategy and tactics, let’s define the terms:
- Strategies are a foundation for action. They focus on audience identification and messaging. As such, strategies are longer-term with only infrequent changes.
- Tactics are shorter-term bursts of activity directing strategic messaging to targeting audiences meant to trigger a positive response
For public relations strategy development, research helps to identify and qualify potential targets as those most – and least – receptive to your message based on demographics, lifestyles, product/service preferences and communication preferences. Once research specifies the optimal audience, research allows the communicator to test messages to identify these themes, which are most compelling and most credible when coming from your company or brand. Once established, strategies offer positive differentiation and tend to endure for extended periods of time, even years.
The research process for public relations tactics provide direction and insurance for creative endeavors. A tactic delivers your strategic messages to the audiences most likely to respond affirmatively. Research helps to identify the channels – traditional and social media sources, spokespeople, influencers, events, partners, causes and more — through which your messages can be delivered to your target audience in ways that are most involving and trustworthy. Tactical research is time-based and should be updated regularly to identify which communications vehicles offer the greatest likelihood for success at a given moment.
The need for a balanced approach to strategy and tactics extends well beyond communication to affect every aspect of yours and every purposeful organization, all of which share a common resolve to achieve equilibrium. For public relations, consider these six recommendations:
- Research-based PR objectives come before strategy or tactics. To succeed, you must know the outcome you seek to accomplish
- PR research optimizes efficiency and reduces risk by pre-testing strategy and tactics before resources are allocated
- Strategy research ensures tactical alignment. Tactics safeguards the strategy. When combined, strategy and tactics improve the organization as well as the function
- Research for strategies and tactics reflects the preferences of external audiences as well as internal audiences. Consider the impact within and throughout the organization and especially among those executives who fund and evaluate PR performance
- Research grounds the natural desire for purely creative activation based on what’s “edgy,” “disruptive” and “cutting edge.” Be all these things but make the most of your creativity by designing programs which support the strategy and contribute to achieving or surpassing your objectives
- Evaluate performance of strategy and tactics to ensure they remain relevant and to uncover opportunities for continuous improvement over time, versus objectives and against the competition
One can achieve strategic and tactical success without research but it’s a risky approach. Communication acumen and category expertise matter greatly but they only go so far. Research provides an enormous advantage in pre-testing for success, eliminating risk and improving efficiency to ensure positive differentiation and meaningful business results.
Mark Weiner is CEO of PRIME Research America’s, an international research-based communications consultancy working with many of the world’s most admired companies and brands. Mark is the chair of IPR’s Measurement Commission and an IPR Trustee. Follow him on Twitter @WeinerMark.