Q4 is “Strategic Planning Season” for many companies and organizations in ramp-up to the next calendar year. Comprehending the drivers of relationship-building success starts with differentiating true PR strategy from mere tactics.
Business owners and teams often misinterpret a smattering of tactics as strategy . . . and that confusion wreaks havoc on expectations and budgetary ROI. In this episode, Kelly and Mary Beth peel back the layers of cogent strategic development and how to avoid common missteps in the process.
- In this episode, Kelly Fletcher and Mary Beth West warn against a tactics-centric marketing / PR plan, which generally yields money ill-spent, piecemeal results and little cohesiveness with overarching business goals . . . hardly a formula for success.
Strong, strategic systems of promotional communications and brand reputation-building require marketers, the C-Suite team and boards of directors to engage in a meaningful, data-driven process. Kelly and Mary Beth reveal the critical elements.
- Kelly and Mary Beth explain:
- How Marketing / PR RFPs go wrong with prescriptive tactics seeking a price list, rather than seeking agencies that offer a research-based, strategic approach
- How to avoid misspending marketing dollars
- Ways that social media methodology requires special treatment, given how fast-moving it’s changing
- Why “the process is the product” in strategic communications development
- Timing considerations to bear in mind when seeking to develop a strategy ahead of the necessary execution timeline
- How competitive and situational analyses must factor in and how to engage input from the larger team
- What a strategic mindset looks like through the marketing / PR lens and how it can be cultivated – and making sure the PR / marketing agency delivers the goods strategically with a “fiduciary” level of care for the marketing budget
Announcer: Welcome to Ms. Interpreted, her podcast of public relations and strategic communications demystified by Kelly Fletcher and Fletcher Marketing PR.
Kelly: Welcome listeners to the Ms. Interpreted podcast. I'm Kelly Fletcher, CEO of Fletcher Marketing PR with offices in Knoxville, Tennessee and Atlanta, Georgia. I'm here with my colleague Mary Beth West, senior strategists at Fletcher PR, and our topic today is differentiating true public relations strategy from mere tactics. A lot of aspects about public relations strategy are misinterpreted. Even some very seasoned executives out there will look at a smattering of public relations tactics and think they have a strategy when really what they have is a hodgepodge of tactical communications pieces that may not have a consistent thread of purpose anywhere in sight.
Kelly: Mary Beth, you and I have discussed this matter many times.
Mary Beth: Yes.
Kelly: It's a big problem and a huge budgetary risk when businesses fail to invest the time, thinking and resources into the higher workings of true strategic development and direction when it comes to their brand reputation management.
Mary Beth: Mmhm.
Kelly: So from your standpoint, you know why is this issue important, of understanding the difference between strategy and tactics?
Mary Beth: You know, one of my questions to the world is, why has this issue remained an issue over so many decades, especially as far and as sophisticated as the marketing communications and the public relations functions have evolved over these recent decades and recent years? This is still an issue. This is something we run into all the time working with many prospective clients or different uh companies and organizations that come to us initially wanting help with their direction going forward. They sometimes have a very prescriptive attitude about what is going to constitute success for them, and it's very often they come to us with their little tool box that they have already uh developed with tools in there and it's a very tactical-driven toolkit.
Mary Beth: It's not driven by a really undergirded reason as to why they're doing any of these things, the e-newsletter, the uh Facebook posts, the-
Mary Beth: You know a news release here or there, the you know paid advertising, and a lot of it is very often very disconnected from each other. There is not a really unified and driving vision behind all of it.
Mary Beth: And so I think that's where a lot of this comes in is the fact that uh I think that our profession has to work harder and be more diligent about educating the larger business community about this. And again, a lot of it I think also comes into play with MBA programs and business schools giving such short shrift to public relations as part of their curriculum, and you've got people coming out of business schools with a very limited view of what public relations is and what constitutes sound public relations strategy. So very often, you have a C-suite that is not operating off the same song sheet about what constitutes strategy. So I think that's why part of this conversation is so important is to help push out that education and push out that message
Kelly: I agree.
Mary Beth: And to help clients in that respect.
Kelly: If you think about how many times we've been in a client meeting or boardroom where somebody pulls out like a sheet of paper with a list of action items
Mary Beth: Right.
Kelly: And they think that's their strategy, and really it's just a list of tactics.
Mary Beth: Well, and of course, I think our mutual pet peeve, and this is uh, I think this exists widely across the agency spectrum is when you get the RFP that is already very prescriptive as to, "Just give us your pricing for this tactic, this tactic, this tactic," and it just goes down the laundry list. It's like, and you want to ask, and of course it's never evident in the RFP, "What is the strategy that is driving you? You know, why are you here?"
Kelly: Because there never is one.
Mary Beth: Yes, exactly. There's never been any research done. It's like some individuals who I'm sure are very well-meaning of course, and they want to see success for their organizations, they've all gotten around in a boardroom or a workstation table and just come up with this laundry list of what they think ... or very often they'll look at what their competitors are doing, where they feel like they have to be in that space, too.
Kelly: Right. And I also think that with RFPs, which I abhor and rarely respond to anymore, um it's... they should be paying us to give them the strategy and the tactics and then they can take the tactics and run with a lot of the tactics.
Mary Beth: I agree.
Kelly: The tactics are the easy part to execute. The strategy is where the real thinking comes in and the research, the higher level thinking. The tactics, you can hire, you can hire somebody for not that much money to execute.
Mary Beth: Well, and especially for clients that already have in-house
Mary Beth: Communications teams that are you know very competent and very, very able to execute well and can do that as a cohesive team that's all under one roof and it's a very cost-effective
Mary Beth: Means to do that, but maybe they need that outside perspective to help deliver the strategic insight and the kind of eyes from the outside looking in as opposed to this kind of myopic view.
Mary Beth: Yeah.
Kelly: I couldn't agree more. Let's talk about how strategy versus tactics is taught in public relations academic programs of study.
Mary Beth: Right.
Kelly: Um and this is something that goes into the accreditation process, really understanding you know what are goals, objectives and tactics and what's the difference between a goal, objective and a tactic.
Mary Beth: Yeah. I mean, I think that when you have an overarching public relations strategy and action plan, this is I know how when we talk to clients, we really try to paint the full picture, the full soup to nuts, this is how we're going to develop this campaign in a larger scale program for you and not only is it going to be underpinned with true strategy, but it's also going to be measurable, and it's, we're also going to have an eye for results and making sure that the measurable factors of this are... are accounted for fully within the program.
Mary Beth: So yeah, defining all of those elements, making sure that you have developed a goal that everyone agrees upon, and very often the goal is very tied to mission, vision
Mary Beth: For the organization, you know making sure that it is tied to what the aspirational aim long term is. And then of course, the objectives tied to marketing communications need to be focused on you know what the results are of communications and relationship-driven efforts are among all of the different diverse stakeholder groups that are inherent to business or organizational financial success. So you're, you're really having to hit on all cylinders just in establishing what the objectives are even going to be.
Mary Beth: And of course, you want those to be measurable. As I mentioned earlier, they need to be timeline-driven, and they need to fit within what the resources are that the company or organization can bring to this project. I mean, predicating a public relations strategy on pie in the sky ideas that are in no way accomplishable based on what the budget is going to be or how many arms and legs are going to be able to execute to that, I mean, I think that's where a lot of organizations too, they end up painting themselves in the corner. They have very big aspirational goals, but they don't have the resources to bring to it.
Mary Beth: And then of course, the tactics too, I think it's a matter of hitting your marks. It's a matter of making sure that the nuts and bolts of what the consumer audience or the B2B audience, whoever the stakeholders are, what they're actually going to see manifested from the strategy is consistent, it's recognizable, it is on point with not only really what the messaging is that the company or organization wants to see, but it needs to be true to what the stakeholder experience is when they engage or interact with the brand.
Mary Beth: So for example, if you have a bank out there, a financial institution that's putting forth one message that states, "This is who we are," kind of message but then when a customer goes into a branch and has a completely different experience that is devoid of what has been promised in the branding message, clearly, you have a strategy problem and you have ... well, actually, you have an operational problem, um and so you've got to be able to marry those two together.
Mary Beth: Um you know one thing that is very interesting to me is how often when we're called in to develop a strategic communications campaign and a program for a client, we do have to ask those operational questions. We have to be sure and for, on their own behalf to, that the message that they are ultimately going to be touting in the marketplace is going to hold true and be credibility-driven.
Kelly: Well, I couldn't agree with that more. And that brings me to a point that I'm sure other agency owners or agency new business development people have experienced, when you go in and a client says, "Can you guarantee results and what kind of results can you guarantee -
Mary Beth: Mmhm.
Kelly: And would you take a percentage of our sales increase instead of being paid?" And the answer is always no. And the reason is because we can't control what happens when it gets to the experiential part where your people on the ground are interacting with the consumers,
Mary Beth: Mmhm.
Kelly: Or we can't predict what your customer service is going to be. We can't predict if you have a great shipping experience and a great return program. So no, I mean, we can get you three quarters of the way there, but you and your operations and your internal management teams have got to take it from the 75 yard line to the finish line.
Mary Beth: That's right. And that's uh, that's also part of the education process I think with clients and with the larger business community is talking about, we're only part of this ecosystem that you have to have as a-
Kelly: Sometimes we take all the blame when something goes wrong.
Mary Beth: Well, you know marketing is a cost center and so you've got the CEO and the finance folks and the you know everyone who's controlling the purse strings. I mean, everyone is and deservedly so, they're wringing their hands about how much money is going to be spent on this endeavor. And certainly all of us should be, you know have our eye on the dollars and cents aspect of this at all times without question. But very often, there's sort of a blame game that goes around as to what's going to work and what isn't and why. And uh, you have to have ... This is another thing that we touch on so much in working with new clients is culture,
Kelly: Oh yes.
Mary Beth: Inside their organizations to be sure that when we're talking about the ecosystem and how everyone has to be working well together. This has to be a team effort. You can't have a marketing effort out there that is not interwoven with the other team members within the full scope of the company to help make it successful.
Kelly: Right. We had a client once who was in a service-based industry that was direct-to-consumer and we literally in the course of about six months, we increased their lead generation 400%,
Mary Beth: Mmhm.
Kelly: Um but they couldn't convert because of their internal processes and culture
Mary Beth: Yeah.
Kelly: And resistance to change and resistance to new methodologies when it came down to how are we going to manage all these leads.
Mary Beth: Mmhm.
Kelly: And so you know we ended up parting ways because we could never get them to the next phase of,
Mary Beth: Right.
Kelly: "Okay, we've delivered what we promised, but you can't judge us if you don't get the new customers that you need because we're giving you the leads."
Mary Beth: Yeah, we're taking the ball down the field.
Mary Beth: Ultimately, somebody has to be there for the handoff, though, too. Yeah.
Kelly: Right. Since it is football season, let's just get in a few more football analogies.
Mary Beth: Exactly, yeah. SEC, SEC.
Kelly: My dad coached high school football for 35 years. So...
Mary Beth: Well no, you're absolutely right. And I think that that is uh another part of the conversation that we so often try to bring to clients when we're talking about undertaking a new effort, especially if it's a brand new client for us, is talking about the internal rollout for a campaign before the external rollout.
Kelly: It can never be underestimated.
Mary Beth: I mean, I've got to tell you, I mean, if I had a nickel for every time what you just described to me has happened and I've seen that play out even after we have given very strong counsel to the client about conducting internal education with all internal stakeholder audiences, especially those that are in any way front-facing to the client, customer you know the customer service department, those who are you know handling phone lines or those who are just the sales arms and legs of that, um certainly the retail front line,
Mary Beth: If that's the context of the business. So you know if they are unaware of what is going on in the background with a public-facing message that's going to be going out and they have no idea what to expect as to the tsunami of consumer response that our good creative strategies may be able to generate for them-
Kelly: And we're so proud of.
Mary Beth: Yes. I mean, the ball is going to get dropped all over creation. So you know you really want to avoid that situation because the last thing you want is great strategic communications and a great campaign to end up creating a veritable crisis for the company because it was so dad gum successful.
Kelly: Right, yeah.
Mary Beth: I mean, it's a grand irony,
Kelly: It is grand irony.
Mary Beth: But it does happen, and um, and so that is a very big consideration.
Kelly: What do you think is the worst thing that can happen when an organization mistakes tactics for strategy?
Mary Beth: Uh they spend a whole lot of money for not a lot of result, if any result. I think that we always want to safeguard our clients. And when I say our, I mean, I'm not just talking yours and mine. I'm talking about as a profession.
Mary Beth: We need to safeguard our clients and our employers from misspending money.
Mary Beth: And there's no quicker way to misspend money than to take just the tactical approach that is not undergirded with research that is not cohesively driven with strategy. And so it's really just a dollars and cents consideration. It's, I mean, you have all these other issues that can be in the periphery, but I mean, who wants to waste money? Absolutely no one in business.
Kelly: Well, I see this, and at the risk of going down a rabbit hole, um I see this mostly when it comes to social media.
Mary Beth: Oh, absolutely.
Kelly: That companies think that posting on social media is a strategy um and they have no social media strategy and then they don't understand when nothing is happening and when their social efforts are producing absolutely no fruit. And so we spend a lot of time talking to clients about how social media strategy and getting all of that um figured out and the research done and the positioning and the brand voice and what your look and feel is going to be and what your goals are.
Mary Beth: Mmhm.
Kelly: You know what are you trying to achieve with social media? I mean, it may be different if you're a B2B company versus retail obviously,
Mary Beth: Mmhm.
Kelly: But so, and it's hard. Social media strategy is one of the hardest parts of what we do, I think.
Mary Beth: Well, the goal post is always moving, and of course, social media as a platform across the board, I mean, it is constantly changing as to you know which methods are going to be effective.
Kelly: It's a moving target.
Mary Beth: To you know whatever you know the audience is or whatever the objectives are. But it speaks to situational analysis and the fact that you do have to have that part of the planning process. I have a good friend in Nashville who is a creative director, Sharp Emmons, who I went to college with and is a good friend, and he one time said something that really resonated with me. He said, "The process is the product in what we do."
Mary Beth: And when you, when you mentioned earlier about um clients who have trepidation about uh the work that we do relative to, you know is it successful or is it not and how do you assign success or blame if it doesn't work um or will you take just a share of whatever the ... basically work on commission,
Mary Beth: You know, uh the process is the product and the process is the work that we are doing. We are developing very often for clients, a process for them that is cohesive and cogent, whereas they didn't have a process before. It was throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. So to the extent that we are helping clients shift away from that MO, I think that that is a huge part of the value of what really public relations strategists deliver.
Kelly: Well, and intellectual capital. I think that the intellectual capital of public relations professionals is vastly underestimated. I mean, people call me a lot of times and ask for advice and I'll try to give it, but sometimes I just want to say, "Well, you know I really need my house painted, so maybe you could come paint my house if I give you some PR advice." But um...
Mary Beth: Little trade-a-roo there.
Kelly: Yeah. Let's talk about timing because um we are entering Q4,
Mary Beth: Mmhm.
Kelly: And um Q4 is a great time to be thinking about strategy for next year. I mean, it's too late to be thinking about it in January, especially if your fiscal year begins in January. So you know what do you think about strategy development during Q4 and how to go about that process and um you know what impacts it will have for the larger organizational team?
Mary Beth: Right, and and of course, that's particularly relevant for companies that are on a January 1 fiscal. I mean, whatever your fiscal year is, you do need to be planning X many months out ahead to be sure that uh you're developing a strategic planning process that uh runs alongside that and is going to be ready and up and running when your fiscal year starts or when you know you're really trying to turn the page of something new and something exciting from a marketing standpoint. But of course, you know strategy too needs to be an evergreen topic with it. You can't just focus on strategy several months before a new fiscal year starts, so it has to be something that's ongoing.
Mary Beth: Now, I would say for any company that is say in the fourth quarter, they're gearing up for the next calendar year and the next fiscal year, is to really uh make sure you have your metrics in order of you know what have you been doing in this past year, how are you measuring that and what's working. Do an assessment. That's part of the situational analysis piece that is so very important to set the stage so you understand the larger context and it's not just a self-awareness analysis that needs to be done.
Mary Beth: You really also need to be getting into a competitive analysis as well, looking at your competitors, seeing you know where you stand you know neck-to-neck with them and uh just the larger industry peer group that you're with, and you know make sure that you're understanding what they're doing well, what they're not doing well. Have any of them had a crisis in the past year that represents some type of competitive opportunity for you to be able to differentiate yourself in a compelling way? There are just all these different pieces of data, and I would also speak to data and to market research. Uh make sure that you have been able to invest in some type of market research effort. Even if it's at a low budget level, you know being able to go out just into the public domain to gather insights can be helpful even if you can't afford proprietary research.
Kelly: So you know there are operational considerations versus the messaging considerations in strategic development. And how many businesses have we seen fall into the trap of developing these overly aspirational messages that their own operations can't fulfill? Um one good one is when marketing writes checks that operations can't cash.
Mary Beth: Exactly. Well, and that goes back to the authenticity factor and the credibility factor. There is nothing that is going to force a company to shoot itself in the foot quite like you know developing marketing messages that it's just not able to deliver. And it kind of goes back to that point we made.
Kelly: Definitely. So as we wrap up here, Mary Beth, if you had to just narrow this down into one takeaway um when it comes to developing a strategy for 2020, what would it be? What would the main takeaway be?
Mary Beth: Well, I think that developing the strategic mindset is the first order of business on the list. Understanding, and for different companies and organizations, that's going to maybe look a bit different, I mean, depending upon your industry, but there are some core fundamentals to it, and that's you know number one, I think always keeping your eye focused on what are the overarching financial objectives of the business or organization. Um you cannot have a marketing communications program that is not um very intricately tied to those outcomes and still-
Kelly: Organizational goals.
Mary Beth: Exactly, and expect to be able to get traction and to have professional credibility when you're sitting at the boardroom table or in the C-suite with these other executive functions. Um everything has to be tied in in that respect. Um and if you're going to be enlisting outside support from an agency, a PR firm or you know whomever your counsel is going to be, be sure that they are bringing a strategic mindset and not a tactical mindset. They need to be coming to the table, helping to educate you, telling you something you don't already know. I mean and that means developing a relationship with a team that um you know really brings not only the experience to the table, but also a real care and concern for really a fiduciary, almost, uh approach to safeguarding the best interests of the client, not letting you spend money that you don't need to spend and wanting to see discernible results and not being afraid of being measured.
Kelly: Right, absolutely. So one of the things that I always say is working with an agency shouldn't be that hard because so many times I hear from clients, "Oh, well, I worked with an agency and I tried that and it was a disaster." And I think working with an agency shouldn't be so hard. I mean, we should be making your life easier.
Kelly: Well, Mary Beth, I've loved chatting with you on this subject as always. Strategy versus tactics. It's something every strategic communications leader must ask within their own leadership team. Knowing the difference is essential if your marketing communications effort is going to be meaningful or will just simply be a blip on the screen. Please follow Fletcher Marketing PR at Twitter handle @FletcherPR, and feel free to follow Mary Beth West at Twitter handle @MaryBethWest.
Mary Beth: And let us know your questions and comments. We will respond, so please post them using the hashtag #MsInterPReted, and that's hashtag M-S InterPReted. And for visibility's sake, don't forget to capitalize the PR. Everyone, thanks for joining us. See you next time.
Announcer: Thanks for joining us on Ms. Interpreted: Public Relations Demystified. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at FletcherMarketingPR.com and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We'll see you next time.