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Creating an effective PR strategy

Scott Beagrie

Creating an effective PR strategy

In a series for senior managers, Edge looks at the key issues facing leaders. In this masterclass, Scott Beagrie reveals the secret to crafting a successful PR strategy

An organisation’s public image is currently under more scrutiny than ever before. As some have found to their cost, a good reputation built over many years can be erased with a single Tweet.

Companies need to know how to use the media and ensure they have mechanisms in place to respond to a crisis.

A PR strategy is not just about ensuring the organisation gets its share of column inches in the press every month.

To be truly strategic, PR must link to the company’s wider business goals and aspirations, and be robust enough to cope with the challenges of social as well as professional media.

A PR strategy needs to be thoroughly considered and meticulously planned, and whether you assign a PR consultancy or have an in-house PR or communications team, the plan must be owned by senior management.

“They should be active participants in the same way as they are involved in financial or HR strategies.

That is, they must understand the PR strategy and its implications, and then completely buy into it,” says Professor Anne Gregory, director of the Centre for Public Relations Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University.

“We are talking here about the reputation of a company at the end of the day. No reputation, no ‘licence to operate’ – no company.”

01: Mission and vision

Senior management and the executive board must decide who will implement and execute the strategy and whether it will be conducted in-house or via an external consultancy or agency.

Whichever route you take, the PR practitioners appointed need to work closely with senior management and be party to discussions regarding company strategy and significant decisions, says Jon White, fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, who runs the professional body’s Planning and Managing PR Campaigns workshop.

Whichever route you take, the PR practitioners appointed need to work closely with senior management and be party to discussions regarding company strategy and significant decisions, says Jon White, fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, who runs the professional body’s Planning and Managing PR Campaigns workshop.

He adds: “They should also be managed by a senior manager who is able to concentrate on the PR requirements totally, not by a manager for whom PR is only a part-time responsibility.”

The next step is to ensure that those who will implement the strategy fully understand the organisation’s business objectives.

If using an external provider, be extremely vigilant when it comes to ensuring the agency is conversant with all aspects of the organisation, how you operate, your culture and values.

To ensure the strategy is firmly rooted in the business, Professor Gregory recommends asking certain questions that look “back, around and forward”.

She cites examples of these:

“What is your history (warts and all) and what is the story people have in their minds about you? Where are you in relation to the big issues and players in your industry? What is the current state of your reputation and relationships with key stakeholders? Where would you like to be and what investment do you need to achieve that?”

02: Anatomy of the strategy

The PR practitioners will devise the component parts of the PR strategy, which Professor Gregory says typically will involve analysing the current situation (which also sets a benchmark for success) and setting realistic PR objectives that align with those of the business.

She also stresses the importance of the practitioner understanding and engaging with all stakeholders, putting appropriate tactical communication activities in place.

The key is ensuring the practitioner is “absolutely tuned in” to what is happening externally and internally and being able to interpret this.

“[It’s about] being able to spot and manage any issues that may arise from that interpretation,” she says.

“[They must also] have the capability to advise CEOs and other senior managers on the implications of their decisions. They must listen more than ‘talk’, and then act and advise with integrity.”

While the strategy must be structured, it must also remain adaptable to change. According to White, the best PR practitioners are “capable and realistic analysts” and should be able to respond to any given situation. “PR strategy must allow for flexibility of response,” he says.

“It is helpful to plan in a number of potential approaches, allowing for the reactions of the groups regarded as most important by the organisation.”

03: Align what you think, say and do

An organisation can have the best PR strategy ever created, but if its conduct doesn’t match, it will not only fail but could seriously damage organisational reputation.

It is still not fully appreciated that corporate spin can now be seen through in a moment.

The era of corporate spin may be on the wane, but due to its prevalence in recent years, the audience begins with a “well-developed scepticism”, suggests White.

“It is still not fully appreciated that corporate spin can now be seen through in a moment,” he says, stressing the importance of being authentic and demonstrating through actions.

“This means following through on promises, using language that is clear and does not allow for ‘wriggle room’, where later it can be denied.”

Professor Gregory adds that it is also good practice to ensure the strategy is in place before communicating it, but she acknowledges that this isn’t always possible, particularly if you are rectifying a wrong or looking ahead.

“The issue here is that you build a reputation for practicing what you preach – and that is tested by the actions of everyone in the organisation,” she says.

04: Embrace social media

Channels of communication such as Facebook and Twitter mean that businesses and their bosses can be held accountable before an audience of millions.

The PR strategy must have robust mechanisms in place to deal with any negative PR deriving from social media, but it must also find ways to maximise these new important channels.

Developing relationships has always been a fundamental aspect of PR, but Professor Gregory says it is the “speed, reach and interconnectedness” of social media that has made the difference.

“A danger is that sometimes social media becomes the focus of communication effort,” she adds. “It is one way to communicate, but there are dozens of others that should not be neglected.”

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