Five Tips to Think Strategy First: The Lost Art of Thinking Before Doing

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Strategy, that dreaded s-word. If it doesn’t elicit an eyes-glazed-over response, it will likely prompt you to hearken back to Will Ferrell’s portrayal of US President, George W. Bush, and his indefatigable articulation of strategery. Strategery, while useful for comic timing, is not strategy.

One of the critiques I hear most often from those who are strategically opposed — and yes, these people do exist — is that strategy is time consuming and that it gets in the way of doing. As opposed to being cumbersome, strategy actually helps you be nimble and adaptive, not just in public relations. It doesn’t just apply to your communications/public relations needs, but across the full spectrum of your business. It just takes a bit of planning and discipline.

If I made $1 for every time I’ve heard a client or department reference that they don’t need a plan, just a viral video, I would have lots of $1 dollars. It’s the strategy underpinning the video that makes it viral.

The ingredients for successful strategy (public relations or otherwise) shared below are incredibly easy to consider and deploy in any organization. You can literally write them down on the back of a napkin. But, with a strategy in place your odds of success improve exponentially. Think of good strategy as a roadmap that will help you get to your destination.

1. Scan your environment

Context matters. A quick scan of your environment can yield important information around what you should and shouldn’t do. It’s my advice that you take the time to do it. These types of scans can be SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) or PEST (political, economic, social, and technological) or whatever format works for you. The important consideration here is that you gain intelligence on internal and external factors that will impact you and your organization. A well-defined environmental scan will let you fine-tune your public relations goals and objectives, and ultimately achieve your expected outcomes.

 2. Know your what and your why – the goals you’re trying to achieve

In our faster, quicker, must have things now quest for all things immediate, we tend to skip some important steps in strategy. Taking a bit of extra time to focus on what you want to achieve and why will pay dividends. Simon Sinek’s Start with Why? How great leaders inspire action  is a must watch/read in this space. By spending time to focus on what you want to achieve and why, you give purpose to your action and clarity on how you’ll achieve your goals, the tactics. Without this clarity of purpose, you’re simply throwing Jell-O at the wall and hoping it sticks. I’ll give you an example.

With the rise, and continued presence, of COVID-19 there is much public discussion around the use of masks, importance of social distancing, and testing. While all very important tactics to help limit the spread of the virus, the goal is ultimately to limit the spread of the virus and keep populations healthy, until a vaccine is available. It’s important to not lose sight of the goal while deploying the tools and resources needed to help achieve it. Having clarity on your organizational goals (public relations or otherwise) helps in creating a unity of purpose with your stakeholders. It gives you something to believe in.

3. Audiences matter – know their likes, dislikes and how to reach them

Having the coolest product, latest and greatest idea, or killer creative doesn’t mean a whole helluva lot unless you know who wants/needs to hear about it, and how to reach them. This doesn’t have to be fancy. You don’t need algorithms or Gantt charts. Start by simply listing who you want to reach, inform or engage. It sometimes helps to list both internal and external audiences, as this ensures that you don’t miss your employees and other important internal stakeholders.

Let’s take COVID-19 as our example again. While many places in Canada are seeing a decline in new positive cases, in those areas seeing a resurgence in numbers, it is younger Canadians (under 40) that are disproportionately getting sick. In this case, those under 40 are a specific target audience that public health authorities would want to reach. Once you know who your audiences you can determine how best to reach them.

 4. Once your why is clear, focus on the how – the tactics

I suspect it’s self-evident now, that once you’ve defined what your objectives are (goals) and who you want to reach (audience) you can go about framing how you can reach them (the tactics). You can finally talk about that viral video you want. Actually, please don’t. Public relations professionals cringe when viral videos or jazzing up a creative concept are mentioned.

Tactics are the engine of your strategy. They bring your goals to life and are how you connect with target audiences. Consider tactics the tools in your toolbox. Various tools can be used in certain circumstances, but not all tools are needed at once. Tactics can range from email communication, to web copy, advertising, and social media campaigns. Just like your goals and target audiences, mapping your tactics can be as simple as listing the best vehicles to reach the people you’d like. There are ways to segment tactics by audience and fancy things like demographic trend analysis, but we’ll save fancy for another day.

 5. Tracking results and outcomes – the lost art of the follow-up

We didn’t come all this way to cross our fingers and simply hope that we’ve achieved our goals with our target audiences using carefully curated tactics. Of course not.

It’s important to define some metrics for success. You wouldn’t run a marathon without knowing the distance you’ve run and your time to complete it, so similarly with strategies it’s important to know if you reached your destination.

Again, this isn’t labour intensive. Pick some metrics that you think align with the tools you’ve used. With media relations that could be the number of positive media mentions or national pick-up by outlet. With social media it could be engagement metrics or total audience reach. And, with web traffic, it could be page views, click-throughs or time per page. Find what works for you. Not all metrics are created equal.

Take a look at that napkin. Quite a strategic framework you’ve built out in following the steps above. I’m hoping the s-word that you think of with strategy now is simple. It really is this simple. No dread required.

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