A previous post dwelt on the abuse of the term strategy by public relators and raised a number of interesting concepts. Benita Steyn is one of the commenters and here it is, as a post in itself
I agree with Toni that most people misuse and abuse the term ‘strategy’, and also with Jean Valin that many (especially in the field of public relations) do not ‘have a clue’ what strategy means. Educators should probably take most of the blame for this, since there are hardly any guidelines for the development of public relations strategy and pitifully little research on the concept of ‘public relations/ corporate communication strategy’ amongst academics on any continent. Hopefully this situation will receive attention now that Tom Watson’s study has indicated the Nr 1 priority for public relations research to be “public relations’ role in contributing to strategic decision-making, strategy development and realisation, and organisational functioning”.
In searching for reasons why there is a problem with understanding ‘strategy’ in a public relations (PR) context and also why there hasn’t been more research on the topic in the past, it might be that PR people (practitioners and academics alike) think they understand ‘strategy.’ This illusion might have come about because of the appearance of the term ‘strategy’ as a step in the model for developing a communication plan. Looking back over the last 50 years, there are various versions of the steps/stages in the development of a communication plan, but most refer to Research (problem/ opportunity statement and situation analysis), Planning (communication goals/ objectives), Programming (target publics, messages, strategy, activities, scheduling, budget), and Evaluation.
Based on strategic management theory of the previous century, the term ‘strategy’ as it appears in the communication plan, refers to implementation or operational strategy (see b-steyn-bled-2002-paper.pdf Bled 2002 conference paper). This is the organisational level where most PR practitioners are stuck — developing communication plans, programmes and campaigns in support of corporate or business unit or other functions’ goals and strategies. I find it useful to call it ‘communication’ strategy at this level (rather than PR or corporate communication strategy) since the decisions to be taken in formulating implementation strategy here have to do with which communication channels are to be used to get the messages across, followed by decisions on which activities to use. For example, if the implementation strategy (approach) to reach employees is a print campaign, then the activities could entail using the organisation’s newsletter; or a special series of letters from the CEO, or the monthly in-house journal. If an interpersonal approach (strategy) is decided upon, then a meeting between manager and employee might be a more appropriate activity.
Implementation strategy, as referred to above, is the very lowest level of strategy formulation. There is also functional strategy (e.g. marketing or HR strategy), business unit strategy, corporate strategy, and some even acknowledge enterprise or institutional strategy at the very highest organisational levels. Viewed from this perspective, it can come as no surprise that public relations/ corporate communication is not involved in strategy development at higher organisational levels. Taking decisions on whether to use interpersonal or print or electronic channels is not going to earn senior PR people a seat at the boardroom table. Clearly, they will have to get involved in strategy formulation at higher organisational levels. (I am aware of other more modern views on organisational structure such as matrix organisations functioning in project teams. However, I still maintain that decisions on communication channels will not be seen as a strategic contribution by top management).
If implementation strategy in a PR context refers to decisions on channels, then what is the meaning of ‘public relations or corporate communication strategy’ as a functional strategy? And even more important, what is “public relations’ role in contributing to strategic decision-making and strategy development” at levels higher than the functional PR strategy? In my master’s degree and a few early conference papers/ articles, I started searching for answers to these questions. The research on which my first model for the development of public relations strategy (as a functional strategy) is based, is now almost 10 years old and in need of updating. I have however since reconceptualised ‘public relations/ corporate communication strategy’ and present a summary below.
Based on Mintzberg’s (1987) views on deliberate strategy formulation and emergent strategy formation, PR strategy is conceptualised as consisting of both deliberate and emergent components:
1. PR strategy as ‘deliberate strategy’ is a pattern of decisions for using communication as a strategic opportunity in organizational goal achievement (e.g., building relationships with strategic stakeholders, portraying the organization as a good corporate citizen, maintaining a good reputation, or communicating change initiatives).
Deliberate PR strategy is formulated in the context of the organization’s vision, mission, corporate strategies, policies and strategic goals. It can therefore be considered a mid-term strategy (two years or more). The organization´s key strategic priorities are reviewed to select strategic organizational positions and goals to be communicated to internal and external stakeholders (Digital Management, 2005). A key focus is therefore the organization’s strategies that have already been formulated as part of the regular cycle of strategy development or budgeting process.
2. PR strategy as ‘emergent strategy’’ is a pattern in important decisions on using communication to solve organizational or communication problems in unstructured situations, or to capitalize on opportunities presented. In emergent PR strategy, the final objective is unclear and elements are still developing as the strategy proceeds, continuously adapting to events and people (i.e. external and internal stakeholders, societal issues, and the interest/activist groups that emerge around issues). Emergent PR strategy thus outlines the communication needed to address constantly emerging societal and stakeholder issues, and crisis situations. In this sense, emergent strategy is a shorter-term strategy (i.e. less than two years). The rationale is that should an issue continue for a longer period, it will become part of deliberate strategy.
Emergent PR strategy is in accordance with Grunig and Repper’s view (cited in Grunig, 1992) that managing communication strategically entails analyzing the environment to make an organization or institution aware of stakeholders, publics and issues as they evolve, and developing communication programs that can help resolve such issues. Stakeholder and issues management thus form a core focus of emerging PR strategy.
Deliberate and emergent PR strategy produce a profile that can be used to determine which stakeholders or issues should receive more or less emphasis (within the PR strategy’s Triple Bottom Line focus of “people” and “planet”, rather than “profit”).
For those who might be interested in starting a conversation, more detail on the conceptualisation of ‘public relations/ corporate communication strategy’ can be obtained in the excerpt-excellence-book.pdf.