As their application expands, technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, 5G mobile networks, artificial intelligence, automation and blockchain are making headlines. What once seemed like science fiction now feels as ubiquitous as pumpkin spice flavors in fall.
These accelerating trends affect how companies do business and how we live our daily lives. But while the future feels more present than ever, people still crave authentic experiences in their interactions. And as the tools and tactics of public relations evolve, strategic planning remains the backbone for communication professionals. Many PR pros have spent the last months of 2018 planning how to take next year to the next level.
Persuading the C-suite
In every kind of organization, PR professionals need to connect communications to core strategies — whether the goal is to increase sales or donations, drive market share or attendance or promote a brand. To receive support for our efforts, we have to be at the table talking with leadership throughout the year, and particularly during the annual business-planning process.
“Ask to be part of the team responsible for accomplishing strategic goals and initiatives,” says Elaine Armstrong, vice president of marketing for Goodwill North Georgia. Explain how your involvement will advance the business in ways that no other department can, she says.
Tim Whitehead, vice president, marketing communications and physician outreach at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, says he asks executives questions to show them the value of PR planning: What do you want an audience to think, feel or do? What are the business risks involved? He uses a six-step model that clarifies business objectives, communications objectives, audience profiles, messages, tactics and measures.
To keep conversations with leadership flowing, speak their language, recommends Deisha Barnett, chief brand and communications officer at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. To start such discussions, she focuses on data supported by research, and then talks about audience insights and the impact of storytelling. Citing research helps “people understand the value of strategic communications and marketing,” she says.
Kristie Swink Benson, APR, director of communications for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, makes sure “course correction” is built into the strategic-planning process. “We think about how to connect the dots so the message is consistent,” she says. “I also set SMART measurable objectives and report regularly on our progress. We use design-thinking in many of our approaches so we can course-correct fast if something isn’t working.”
During the annual business-planning process, most PR pros would like to have more time to plan campaigns, programs and resources such as staffs and budgets. But flexibility and buy-in are the most important things to ask of leadership. To help show the value of the organization’s investment, PR practitioners must be experts in strategic-communication planning, writing and execution.
Moreover, “We have to be innovative and stay ahead of trends in our industry,” Whitehead says. “We prepare the organization in advance of any anticipated activity by having processes, messages and other materials nailed down.”
Barnett agrees that public relations must play a strong role in any organization, but says leadership should serve as a counterbalance. “My team’s job is to be a center of excellence and help everyone tell the most impactful story,” she says, “but I look to our leaders to also challenge our thinking. It gives us an opportunity to step back and avoid a cookie-cutter approach, which makes us better and leads to innovative strategies.”
Collaborating with colleagues in other areas of the business can also help PR pros enrich their communication.
“If you’ve been invited to the planning table and given time to plan, you’re going to need your colleagues and business partners to help you execute those plans,” Armstrong says. “Set up regular, recurring planning meetings with key partners, and establish ground rules about how you’ll work together.”
Making those connections also means looking beyond your organization and even your current role, Benson says.
“In the nonprofit tourism industry, we are constantly looking at the connection between local and national media coverage,” she says. “And while I’m still learning the industry, I’m also bringing some new expectations to the role based on my work and experience in other industries.”
To buttress your annual strategic planning, engage a variety of internal and external stakeholders. Understand how national or even global forces can affect your business, and make use of technology that supports your goals — without getting waylaid by its constant evolution.
Looking to next year and beyond
Putting your strategic plan into action means leveraging changes across the communications spectrum in 2019 and beyond. For Whitehead, this long-term view requires adjusting existing practices and “shifting to a deeper strategy around content marketing that will affect marketing, advertising, public relations, social media and service lines dramatically and equally.”
For communications pros working to effect and measure behavioral changes in audiences, data-based strategies figure prominently for 2019. Communication is “not just about awareness, but action,” Benson says. It’s important that she can justify her communications approaches, and measurable changes in audience and customer behavior provide that validation, she says.
Barnett is working on a tool that will use data to track the reputation of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. “While it’s important for communications and marketing, [data] also supports public policy and development and how that shapes the perspective of the region as a place to do business,” she says.
Finding ways to develop less experienced PR professionals also ranks high on the list of strategies for 2019. For Armstrong, coaching is important. “I’m nothing without my team, so I plan to focus on how I can support them even more in the upcoming year,” she says.
Many communications professionals will turn to PRSA for that support, through local Chapter meetings, national seminars, webinars and events. Informally, those relationships and ad hoc sounding boards — and the new skills members can develop by participating and volunteering — will help both new and seasoned professionals grow. In turn, they can bring their curiosity, confidence and authenticity to the clients and communities they serve, now and in the future.
By Marci Davis
This article appears in the December 2018 issues of PRSA Strategies and Tactics