(Part of an occasional series on public relations strategy.)
Public relations strategy is a term often reserved for discussions about a significant announcement or in response to a brand crisis. “What’s our PR strategy?” Executives will lean in eagerly to hear what their communications pros advise as the best course of action to get attention or clean up a mess.
In actual fact, PR pros know that strategy is — and should be — embedded in everything we do. However, it might not always be called strategy when we do it. Good PR people think on their feet, and they always ask why. Great PR people go a step further. They question everything. They explain the why behind every single decision they make.
Strategy Is About the Whys—and the Why Nots
But what is strategy exactly? The concept of strategy can sometimes seem elusive, but at its core, it’s really all about choice. It’s not a complex matrix of ideas or a series of fancy PowerPoint slides. It’s about making tough choices and having the discipline to stick with those choices. It’s as much about what you won’t do as it is about what you will do.
Many years ago, a former colleague of mine was offered an opportunity to open a new office in a new market for a large, global PR agency. After working with her new manager for about a week, her boss told her, “I really like how every time you talk to the client you tell them what you will do, and then you explain very clearly why you will do it that way.” My colleague thought this was an odd observation; didn't everyone do it that way? Over time she realized that it was actually rare to be so clear and direct in the agency world. Too many people don't provide a thoughtful rationale for their decisions, or are loathe to take responsibility for those decisions.
This colleague later gravitated to an approach called the Strategy Selection Outline (SSO) process. Its premise was simple: tell people what methods you rejected in addition to the method you recommended pursuing.
Hitting the PR Strategy Bullseye
Think of the SSO as a process of painting a bullseye for your public relations strategy. You want to aim for the sweet spot in the center. Some strategies may come close, but are not a bullseye. Other strategies may sound great on the surface, but fall apart once you do a comprehensive evaluation. Out of this process, you will find the best message, which you should use in all of your communications efforts.
Today, we teach the Idea Grove team what my former colleague learned: tell clients what we are doing and why, while also sharing the choices we didn't make. This builds trust with our clients, and often leads to more opportunities to do work for them down the road.
So the next time you set out to create a public relations strategy for a new project or task, take a few steps back and remember not only to explain the rationale behind why you selected that strategy, but also talk a little about other paths you could have taken. Your client or organization will thank you, and you'll have even more confidence that your strategy is the right one.
Scott Baradell is CEO of the unified PR and marketing agency Idea Grove, one of the top 25 technology PR firms in the United States. His first book,
Trust Signals, is scheduled for publication in 2021.