Strategic? Careful! Words are essential… at least for us! We should not abuse….

Nine out of ten communication and public relations thesis discussions a couple of weeks ago at Lumsa University in Rome overtly abused the term ‘strategic’.
In a subsequent comment in Italian on the Ferpi website, I argued that this plague…was our fault -not the students’- and this because professional, teacher and scholarly mouths and minds (often the second only following the first…) are increasingly engulfed by ‘strategic’ stupidities…
It is as if we onanistically rewarded our own selves by repeating what we would like our interlocutors to use in reference to our thoughts or accomplishments…
How misleading, for clients and students and fellow professionals or educators!

Confident that nobody would have noticed my rant, I was mistaken….
Francesco Lurati, from the Institute for Corporate Communication of the University of Lugano, the principal responsible for the creation of Lugano’s world reputed MScom program, sent me an email attaching an essay he had recently written together with his colleague Martin Eppler in which (but lurati-eppler.pdfwell deserves to be read..) he writes that:
corporate communication focuses on three main parameters– stakeholders’ expectations and cognitions and organizational identity – and operates within the strategic and the tactical domain. When it operates at the strategic level, corporate communication deals with the sustainability of corporate decisions in terms of communication – i.e. are strategic decisions in line with stakeholders’ expectations and cognitions and with organizational identity? When it operates at the tactical level, corporate communication is in charge of designing communication plans. These two domains have two distinct aims. The first is to contribute to the definition of corporate objectives, the second, to support the achievement of corporate objectives.
The strategic domain of corporate communication is the least known and practiced. It implies that corporate communication participates in the strategic conversations of the organization.
Traditionally, organizations decide what to do and where to go based on availability of resources such as human resources, financial resources, technological resources and market conditions. If a new strategy can rely on these resources, then it is considered sustainable. Today, organizations are increasingly required to make decisions which also consider public expectations and cognitions and the identity mix supporting the organization’s activities. In other words, the particular characteristics of these factors are considered additional corporate resources. If the objectives of a strategy do not meet stakeholders’ expectations, are not supported by the public’s image of the organization or are not in line with the organizational identity, they may not be achievable, in the same way strategy objectives can not be achievable if technological competencies are not available to the company

And now, a second surprise! As I was preparing to post this, one my favourite American columnists, William Safire, in the Agust 5 New York Times Sunday Magazine approaches a similar issue under the title ‘Strategist Rising’. Safire specifically refers to political communication and states that today the term ‘campaign manager’ is losing its puissance and whereas that of ‘strategist’ has gained much power.
Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, tells Safire: Strategist is a grander title, conjuring up the image of Karl Rove, James Carville and other political Houdini’s… Advisers advise but strategists direct. The former have influence. But the latter have power.
We should be very careful and watch our language.
A highly relevant (strategic?…) indicator of credibility and trust. Opinions?

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10 Replies to “Strategic? Careful! Words are essential… at least for us! We should not abuse….

  1. Hi Brad

    You are quite right—values have (unintentionally) been omitted. It should have read: “Deliberate PR strategy is formulated in the context of the organization’s vision, mission, values, corporate strategies, policies and strategic goals”. If you look on the model in the file that was attached at the end of my post titled “Benita Steyn on Strategy and PR” (Excerpt- Excellence-book.pdf), you will see that ‘values’ do form part of the internal environment for strategy formulation. (Please note that on Fig 8.2 the differentiation between deliberate and emergent strategy is not yet made).

    As you said, communication significantly contributes as to how well corporate values are understood and applied. In this respect, I would regard the communication of values to both internal and external stakeholders to be part of ‘deliberate’ strategy formulation, where communication is used as a strategic opportunity in organizational goal achievement, namely to make values understandable and entrench them. The communication of values would or should be a key organisational priority. When this is not done sufficiently, i.e. values are not understood and applied by employees or there is no values alignment with external stakeholders, this will manifest as problems in the relationship between organisation and stakeholders. Hopefully this will be picked up in the environmental scanning process, show up as an issue, and be managed as part of ‘emergent’ strategy by setting emergent PR goals to rectify the situation.

  2. This conversation about strategy is fascinating and many of the points that Benita makes should be more integrated into our industry’s vocabulary and notions of strategy.

    If I could add something to the conversation that glaringly absent (probably not intentional, but nonetheless its omission is noted), it is the inclusion of values. Although strategy, whether deliberate or emergent, is often focused on goals of the organizations, the values of the organizations often influence how one goes about reaching those goals. The combination of the goals and values provides the true vision of the organization. I believe communication significantly contributes as to how well corporate values are understood and applied, and it is a “strategic” role for PR that goes beyond the implementational strategies that Benita so clearly argues are keeping the PR industry locked into the technician role and out of the boardroom.

    Values also help our key publics, or stakeholders if you will, identify and align themselves with the goals and vision of the organization. Through values alignment, we are able to create more meaningful and long-lasting relationships with these publics. And, we are more likely to avoid the trappings of traditional strategic approaches that treat our publics as means to corporate ends, or as objects rather than rationally autonomous beings.

    In this sense, I believe that strategic communication becomes more closely aligned with authentic communication.


  3. 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 attached 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 attached excerpt.


  4. Joao,
    may I suggest that while other readers expand here and quickly on other methodologies which they alternatively or exclusively use (although I very much doubt a one fit for all..)and this can be picked up and appropriately expanded on in a separate post, you instead concentrate your efforts in separate post dedicated to your last question, which is very relevant and you are possibly one of the few scholars who have specific views on the analysis of publics. You might also wish to ask our friend brad rawlins from brigham young to contribute to this with specific reference to how public relations programs (are you sure you want to call them strategies…???)fit into organizational strategies according to how one segments one’s influential publics analysis??? What do you say?

  5. A little something to add up to this:

    How do PR professionals prepare themselves to present/develop strategies? What kind of methodologies they use? Is it the traditional SWOT (a method to assess an organisation’s strengths and weaknesses compared to the market to determine opportunities and threats), is it the model of the 5 competitive strengths proposed by Michael Porter or any other kind of model, is it the mere analysis of the organisation’s mission, vision and values and how they are incorporated into policies? What role does the specific analysis of publics and the state of relationships play in the design of PR strategies?

    I guess these are tough questions that might deserve a more detailed look and perhaps the development of new industry standards.

  6. I found it refreshing recently to help judge entries in a regional contest sponsored by a professional communications association. Many of the submitted “project plans” were lacking basic information that should have been part of a strategic approach to the opportunity or challenge addressed by the entry. In particular, many entries failed to receive high marks because their “goals and objectives” were not well-defined, and were not measurable.

    In my “day job,” I constantly struggle to develop, submit and implement strategic communication plans when my superiors require tactical solutions to “problems” whose roots lay in a lack of a wider corporate strategic planning process. The old quotation, “Lack of planning on your part does not make an emergency on my part,” constantly runs through my head here. I see too much reactive activity, rather than calmer proactive activity.

  7. Eric, I agree with you …and this should well make us aware that the tactical and implementational phases of our activity is not only what clients and employers more often require… but, in parallel to (and not instead of..) attempting to explore new grounds of theory, we should also concentrate our attention to new grounds of practice.
    In no way, however, should this mean that our blog is to replicate what most other blogs indulge in (how to do something similar, but more effectively).
    But I certainly would welcome more examples, practical experiences, tactical tools which could show us how to things differently.

  8. I think the overuse of “strategic” is a natural result of the constant refrain that tactics are for peons, while strategy development is for the real players. Not all of us can quickly move from tactician to strategist in our organizations, so we instead change the way we describe what we do.

  9. M. Valin asks two questions, “…Is it our fault? Maybe we have misused or overused the term strategy … .”

    Who is “our” and who is “we”?

    The big misuse of “strategy” in my world — Canadian business, mostly — is by people in marketing departments, and in advertising agencies, and often with MNA degrees, which with rare exception I consider a menance.Mr friend the former soldier thinks of strategy as deciding to kill the enemy with violence, or just to isolate them until they give up or strave. Then tactics gets down to airplane bombs vs. cannons.

    Right now, I’m thinking that strategy relates to deciding what is the actual purpose of the magazine a client wants to create. i.e. strategy A/ are we creating a magazine to provide information to people across the country and internationally, in regard to a specific subject. Or, strategy B/ are we trying to finance a project by creating a profitable magazine and using the profits to support the overall project?

    Interesting to be encouraged to think about shareholders’ expectation. Are our stakeholders excpeting us (my cleint) to take its expertise out fo the room, so to speak, and spread it wider, in this case by use of a magazine.

    Thanks for getting me thinking.


  10. Toni,
    I have observed that there are an awful lot of people- young and old- who do not have a clue what a strategy is. They immediately jump to a tactical discussion or activity without expressing an ounce of strategy. I personally use it as a lithmus test to determine if my interlocutor is credible. It is I think a good measure of one’s grasp not only on communication but on business or organisational,political issues. In other words can they enunciate a strategy which has a set of tactical activity and a clear relevant message?

    When communicators say ” I do strategic communication” I cringe because it is often a sign they may not know the difference between a communication strategy and a relevant, coherence message that is ‘on target’and well executed in an appropriate tactic. A further conversation is needed to determine if they know what they are saying.
    Is it our fault? Maybe we have misused or overused the term strategy to the extent that it has lost its meaning.

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