From France to the UK: What my travels have taught me about strategic planning

For AMEC’s measurement month this year, I teamed up with the CIPR East Anglia group to organise a webinar on the topic of strategic planning.

It was my second time organising an event for the CIPR. Because we had to do this on Zoom, it meant that we could reach out to a wider audience this time. A global audience, even (ah, the wonders of technology).   

As I started working on my slides, I realised that a little explanation about my accent would serve as an introduction for those who didn’t know me – after all: how was a French person speaking on behalf of the CIPR East Anglia group?

So I wanted to touch on my travels to explain what’s brought me to where I am today and introduce the need for strategic planning.

From the South of France…

I come from a city in the South of France called Toulouse, where I did my Bachelors degree in Journalism. Quickly, I moved to Paris in 2012 to pursue my dreams to become journalist, since everything was happening in Paris.

I did end up working as a freelance journalist, for various publications. For the print and online media, for a monthly magazine and other daily news outlets.

As you’d expect, I was very much in the instantaneity of the news: interviewing people, attending press events, cinema premieres…

But I could see that a lot was going on behind the scenes to try and shape the news.

… to the North of Scotland

I then decided to move to Scotland and do a master’s degree in corporate communications and public affairs. There, I had the amazing opportunity to do an internship for Scotland’s largest PR agency: the BIG Partnership.

There, I worked on my first press release, attended interviews, photoshoots, calls with clients giving their briefs… It was also there that I collected press clippings for the first time (the beginning of my measurement career!).

All in all, it was a great experience and I got to do some of the day-to-day PR work.

A few days after my graduation, a media measurement company based in Oxford called PRIME Research hired me. I had the amazing opportunity to strengthen my knowledge of measurement, evaluation, research, and of course planning.

Interestingly enough, it was only then that I finally got the time to research why organisations were doing what we were doing, in the way that they were doing it. The nature of the work was a lot more strategic: we were using media data to better inform the future decisions of our clients.

The prevalence of tactics

My observations from this entire journey from France to UK were that the comms industry can be really focused, sometimes too focused, on doing stuff: launching campaigns, organising events, reaching out to people, trying to get coverage across.

Richard Bagnall, the Chairman of AMEC, also has a strong background in PR and noticed that strategic planning can be a fundamental weakness: “In the PR industry, strategic planning can be a fundamental weakness. Everything tends to be focused on activity, not objectives and outcomes. Without clearly understanding these and establishing a plan for how to achieve them, how can be measure in a meaningful way?”

And I tend to agree with his point of view.

So, when communicators are so busy organising events and launching campaigns… why should we think about planning? Why measure?

And more importantly, why should we even allocate budget to measurement?

There are several answers to this question.

The first one is that we live in an age of accountability, where information can travel at the speed of light to positively or negatively impact your organisation, and its reputation.

People are also less and less tolerant. All can all access significant amounts of information about any organisation at the tip of our fingers, instantly, so it is generally harder for organisations to say they “were unaware” or that the situation was “unprecedented”. Why? Because the public will hold you accountable for your actions. Publics will tell you that “you should know better.”

This accountability means that you should plan for every possibility and leave as little as possible to chance.

Another obvious reason I have found as to why planning and measurement matter is because resources are limited. We very often do not have an unlimited budget to work with, (if you do you are very lucky), but generally speaking, we have to be efficient and cannot afford to be seen as a cost centre.

PR strategy VS. PR tactics

The distinction between the two can be overlooked, but it is an important notion.

If you haven’t listened to it already, I recommend the “Art of War” by Sun Tzu. Here is the link to the full audiobook available on YouTube. I highly recommend it.

Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and military strategist, said that “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, but also, and more importantly, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”. What does this mean? It means that both the strategy and the tactics should work hand in hand.

So, if we were to think about this in a business environment, an organisational objective should be what you are trying to achieve and a strategy should inform on how we are going to meet this objective or this goal. Finally, the tactics should lay out how to we will implement the strategy.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that the connection between objectives, strategy and tactics is crucial.

Now, how can I prove that I am not just a cost centre to my organisation/client and that I am delivering value?

Proving value is about measuring the effectiveness of what we do against the objectives and the strategy of your organisation.

So, what does an organisational objective look like? Objectives should use active verbs like improve, increase, decrease, create, reduce, save, retain… Because you’re essentially trying to get people to do something.

After all, let’s remember that the ultimate goal of PR should be to communicate the right message to the right people in order to achieve an objective (or drive an action).

This is precisely the reason why it is absolutely vital to move beyond the measurement of just the content or the media presence that we generate, especially in this age of accountability that we live in.

A good PR or comms strategy is linked in every aspect to an organisational objective, or a business objective.

This is what should matter at the end of the day, not how many articles featured your client or how many likes a post received or how much media space you generated.

Precisely because we need to make this difference between tactics and strategy.

How to design/review a PR strategy

There are four key phases to review or come up with a strategy.

1. The insight phase. Or the information gathering phase, if you like. This is when we need to begin with the initial goals and objective of the organisation that we serve.

Start with your organisation and think about the broader picture, the overall strategy.

Try and do an environmental/situational analysis as well, so you get a sense of the environment you are operating in.

Then, think about how your PR/communications teams can serve this strategy.

Important questions:

  • As a business, what we are trying to achieve?
  • How do we define success?
  • What are we trying to get people to do and think?
  • Whom are we competing against?
  • What are our competitors doing/offering?
  • What is the community I am trying to reach out to?

2. The analysis phase. (My favourite phase, because this is when we begin to analyse an organisation at a reputational level). You want to be able to review your stakeholders and map them out clearly. Already, you want to identify potential risks or issues that could constitute a threat to your organisation.

Important questions:

  • How are my competitors perceived?
  • How is my organisation perceived?
  • Is there a gap between how my organisation is perceived against how we want to be perceived?
  • Are there any reputational risks that we should be aware of?
  • Are there any future opportunities that we could use or benefit from?

3. The creative phase. This is when you’ll decide on your communication: the message, the audience and the medium. Ideally, this needs to be research-based. So you want to make sure that your creative decisions are tested in focus groups or reviewed by peers, or supported by research.

Important questions:

  • What should we communicate?
  • What do we want people to remember?
  • How are we going to reach out to our audience? By which means?
  • Is our communication integrated across all Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned channels (PESO)?

4. The execution and implementation phase. This is when you are going to implement your strategy, define success and think about the resources and the teams you have to execute your plan.

Important questions:

  • How are we going to execute our plans?
  • How are we going to measure the effectiveness of our communication?
  • What does success look like?
  • What KPIs matter to us?
  • What are the data points that we need to review?

Now, when you do this work, it is important to understand that research and planning should not be a linear process, with a beginning and an end.

Rather, it should be an ongoing activity whereby the results are fed back into the planning process.

So, why planning matters?

First, it matters because the success (or failure) of a campaign can be determined before it even happens.

Of course, you can be lucky one day with a great campaign and go viral without much thinking or planning. But if you do this, you also expose yourself to great risks.

Great campaigns are usually the ones that are supported by great strategy, research and planning.

Secondly, planning matters because the results that we will garner for your research can be used to inform future decisions and shape future strategies. Remember: the planning process should be an ongoing activity and not a linear process.

You should always try and measure to refine and optimise your future strategy. And do better.

Finally, planning is more important than ever because we need to be able to demonstrate our value beyond the mere outputs metrics, and counting the stuff that’s easy to count.

The industry is taking important steps towards to power of actions. We need to demonstrate the impact of PR and comms, but we also need to demonstrate the impact of our organisations in society.

Richard Edelman, CEO of the communications marketing firm Edelman expressed his wish to see more advocacy in the future of comms: Today, I want to propose a further evolution of strategy for our sector – action communications […]. Our new mantra is ‘do, say, advocate’.”

And the industry has already started doing this: turning problems into solutions, with organisations and businesses defining their own purpose and making purposeful partnerships to create businesses that do social good.

In the same way that I left my country to pursue bigger dreams in PR and dive into the research, planning and strategic work that was being done by organisations, I would like you now to undertake this journey too.

Go beyond the mere tactical stage of comms, wonder what your organisation is trying to achieve and how the PR/comms team can serve that goal, explore what the bigger picture looks like and decide whether you are actually researching and measuring the things that matter.

I hope that it’ll be a very inspiring journey, as much as it’s been for me.

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