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PRSA Tactics Magazine/October 2013*

Ann Willets
President and CEO of Utopia Communications, Inc.

Q. People in the PR business like to talk about their strategic ability, but it seems to me that everything moves so fast today that everything happens on the fly and there really isn’t much strategy behind it. Is strategic planning dead?

A. Hmm. Need to quickly come up with an answer off the top of my head so I don’t fall behind on stuff.

See what I did there?

All right, that is actually a great question. It does seem we’re in an age when strategic thinking, such that it is, changes on a dime to try to keep up with the way information moves. You’ve got a new product or an announcement? You could have tweeted that 15 seconds ago. What are you waiting for?

And because tactics can be executed so quickly, a lot of people think nothing of changing tactical plans at the drop of a hat because hey, you can. So do we really do strategic planning at all anymore? Or do we just sort of storyboard it and then start running?

Some of my friends in the industry offered some thoughts.

Bob Reed, partner and co-founder of Cary, Illinois-based Element-R Partners LLC, agrees that the environment makes it hard to do strategic planning because many clients just want “stuff,” whether that comes in the form of old-school clips or modern-day likes and followers.

But even though clients are reluctant to invest in up-front planning, PR pros shouldn’t skip the most important part.

“To my mind, the upfront planning discipline delivers a more complete understanding of who clients are trying to reach – where they are, how they access information and what they’re looking for in a possible solution,” Ross said. “It’s about taking an amorphous information blob and molding it into executable and measurable sphere your marketing and sales teams can get their hands around.”

Annette Borger, CEO of Toronto-based Integral Communications, believes strategic planning may have changed forms but it is far from dead.

“Strategic planning is alive, and most if not all businesses adopt some form of strategy, planning, year ahead outlooks, forecasts, etc.,” Borger said. “It is a cornerstone of a solid business to have some game plan outlined so as to meet goals and objectives. In today's business climate, there seems to be a need for businesses to respond in rapid succession to the ephemeral whims of target audiences.  Failing to do so means a competitor might be there to fill the void.”

That doesn’t mean it’s OK to skip the strategy, Borger emphasizes. Rather, it means it’s more important than ever to ensure the strategy is solid.

“Businesses are under pressure to act, and this means we are seeing a lot more last-minute calls to marketing and PR firms to assist in building programs to achieve target awareness,” Borger said. “More and more, I'm fielding last-minute calls to develop programs for companies – something in the past that usually was the sole domain of ‘crisis’ response. PR professionals need to be ready to act, but the first question to the client should be, ‘What is your strategy?" and then, ‘What do I do to support strategy short term or long term?’”

The good news, Borger says, is that PR agencies are getting calls. But timelines for planning and implementation are greatly condensed, and PR pros have to understand that their tactics are not strategies.

Courtenay M. Higgins, senior partner with Newark-based Winning Strategies, believes strategy has to happen constantly as tactics are being deployed.

“The speed of communications today has clients flying down the rails of the next and best digital strategies,” Higgins said. “But just getting people to get on your train is not enough anymore.  Planning strategic stops along the way, attracting only the riders you want – and who want you – and enticing people to ride again are elements that will create broader and longer-term gains. Although time-consuming and sometimes counterintuitive, it has never been more important to hit the brakes and consider strategic direction.”

And how do you get clients on board with that?

“Clients who are open to this ‘cause for pause’ and the careful weaving together of earned, owned, and shared media have an edge – and they are building more meaningful relationships with their audiences,” Higgins said.

Sounds like a winning argument to me.

*Reprinted with the permission of Tactics Magazine

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