When we talk about strategy, what do we actually mean? It can be an ambiguous term, often overused, but I believe Richard Brett, the Group MD of Pulse Communications, has hit the nail on the head.
He sums it up as, the “how” in answering a communications problem. By that he means, ultimately, public relations professionals should align their communications problem to a business problem. Therefore, Brett believes it is our job as PR professionals to take businesses we work with on a journey via strategy, to create a communications solution that answers a core business problem.
Brett featured as a panelist on Firebrand Talent’s latest industry panel recently. He sat shoulder to shoulder with Vannessa Liell, Managing Partner of N2N Communications; Jenna Orme, General Manager of FleishmanHillard; and Ian Pope, Group Managing Director of Edelman. These four exceptional PR professionals discussed the meaning and role of strategy in PR.
Contrast Brett’s view, with that of FleishmannHillard and Edelman, where strategy is considered a taboo word. Both of those representatives consider that defining strategy, is a key challenge currently faced by the PR industry. It is a recurring theme, repeated by Pope, who thinks that truly being able to articulate the business problem, and identifying how to address it, is what we need to do to overcome this challenge.
The panel agreed on two points. First, that one of the best strategies to address this challenge was for universities to teach strategy and, second, we must hire talent that possesses strategic thinking. Where the panelists were divided, was on whether strategic thinking could be taught.
Liell was adamant strategic thinking was something learnt through experience, while Brett felt it could be both taught and intuitive – “strategic thinking can be taught, yet there are people who have the ability to join the dots, to have strategic thought, and think outside the challenge.” Pope thought everyone needs to be trained to think strategically, and that society needs to get better at teaching us to do so. Further, he says, having time to think is also key.
When it came to putting strategic thinking to practice, our panelists were willing to admit that it doesn’t always go to plan, although they didn’t reveal failures! However, what was revealed was advice to learn from their mistakes.
Liell simply said “strategy is not worth the paper it’s written on”, meaning no matter how much work you put into the written strategy, its execution is where it counts and where it can fall flat. Pope reminded us that we need to be hyper-aware of what’s going on in the world around us, to understand the challenges for our industry and beyond, and think about how this impacts our clients and work.
Brett’s advice was perhaps the most tactical – “if you get the ‘problem’ wrong, you will fail; make sure you think deeply about what your consumers want.”
According to Pope, what consumers want is to believe in corporations again. Trust has been lost between consumers and the corporate world, and vice versa, and PR has the capacity to rekindle the relationship and fix problems. He believes we just need to be less lazy as an industry.
Brett ended the panel on a warm note, saying that fundamentally, strategy is about genuine understanding and empathy. By believing that humans are inherently good and want to connect, PR has the capacity to overcome its challenges and achieve this connection, thereby addressing business problems and maintaining its relevance in society and business.