A Conversation with Behavioral PR Specialist Stacey Smith on How to Make Your PR Practice Truly Strategic and Effective
By Christopher Biddle
Wait. Don’t tell me. I’ve got it. I really do.
PR is only effective if it’s strategic.
As PR practitioners, we strive to write strategic communications plans that are in sync with our clients’ bottom-line goals … identify and research the target audiences we need to influence or move to action …. send carefully crafted messages to those audiences by print, email and social media …. and measure outcomes to the best of our ability.
We strive to do all of this, yes, but how often do we actually do it?
Not often, says Stacey Smith, an expert and author on the topic of behavioral PR research.
“The truth of it is there are a lot of great practitioners out there who want to think strategically,” says Smith, a partner with Jackson Jackson & Wagner in New Hampshire. “But most of the time we go straight out to the tactics: Let’s make a video. Let’s hold an event. Let’s print a brochure.”
The reasons are many. Lack of training. Lack of time. Clients who want that brochure yesterday! Multiple deadlines. Chaotic work environment. Bosses/clients who don’t understand or value a strategic approach.
Even when we take the time to identify our target audiences, says Smith, do we really know who they are? Do we know how they think or what motivates them? Do we know what barriers stand in the way of them doing what we want them to do?
Most of the time, the answer is no.
That’s why Smith is in demand as an author and speaker on the topic of strategic public relations. She and her colleagues have identified two essential ingredients that are often missing:
- An in-depth understanding of target audiences, obtained through a variety of methods
- Understanding and applying well-tested theories about human behavior and motivation
Without real audience understanding, Smith says: “(For the client) it’s like walking into the doctor’s office saying: ‘I’m in pain,’ and he hands you an aspirin without examining you.” And understand your audience has little value if you don’t understand the basics about what motivates people. Here are three basics, courtesy of Smith:
- Participation: “People want a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. That’s a huge piece.”
- Connection: “The human connection is critical. You cannot have a relationship on a computer screen. Somewhere along the line, you have to meet face to face.”
- Understanding: “You have to speak in a language that they understand, that means something to them because you know who they are.”
“If we don’t understand what’s driving them, we’re just going to throw information at them. It’s been shown again and again that information doesn’t move behavior,” says Smith, adding: “So much of the problem is barriers. If stakeholders are so caught up in just trying to survive, are you going to ask them to act on a more enlightened level?”
This brings us to an interesting fact about Stacey. Her understanding of the importance of research and understanding human motivation came from her early years in the theatre.
“In theatre, you have to understand why characters behave and what motivates them—in their heart and gut, and life experience—to behave the way they do.” If actors and their scripts don’t convey this back story, their audiences will be lost.
Bottom line: To be effective as PR practitioners, we must research our audiences (whom Smith calls “stakeholders”) and understand them at a gut level.
“You say you don’t have the staff, time or money?” says Smith. “Well, consider the time and money that will be wasted if you simply throw information at poorly understood or misunderstood audiences.”
Smith’s approach does take time, client education, and some money, but it doesn’t have to be a heavy lift.
Says Smith: “We’re a small firm. It doesn’t take oodles of money and manpower to start to understand your audiences, but it does require some time, secondary research and listening skills.
“You can’t talk to everybody, but there are opinion leaders in your stakeholder groups. These are the people you need to talk to and listen to. So often, we hide behind our desks instead of getting out there.”
Smith and her colleagues at Jackson Jackson & Wagner can produce dozens of case studies demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach. Of course, each case study is different.
“There is no plug and play or one-size-fits-all PR strategy,” she says. “Each stakeholder group is different, and different triggers will work for different people.”
“There are the people we need. These are the behaviors we need from them. This is what’s driving them, and these are the barriers. Understanding this is what drives strategy.”
Christopher Biddle is president of Biddle Communications & Public Relations in Moorestown, NJ, and vice president of the PRSANJ Board of Directors.