PR strategy vs PR tactics is the secret of communication success

Sun Tzu quote for PR strategy vs PR tactics

PR strategy and communication strategy are two terms often bandied about by PR and communications practitioners as buzz words to make them sound like they understand the language of the boardroom or C-suite. But how often do the people talking about strategy and tactics really understand what they are talking about? Or are we just getting tied up in semantic knots trying to define them as surely all that matters is if it works or not.

That’s exactly why understanding the difference between public relations strategy and PR tactics matters. Because often it’s the difference between success and failure.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Unless you are clear about the differences between objectives, strategy and tactics then you risk failure.

Your objective is what you want to achieve.

I want to celebrate my 40th birthday next year with a house party for friends and family.

Your strategy is how you want to achieve it.

Rent a house big enough to host all the guests

Your tactics are how you implement your strategy.

Research possible houses, book the house, research train options, book time off work, invite friends and family etc.

If a big enough house isn’t available on the right dates you can change the tactics by taking over a small hotel, changing the dates or the number of guests. If affordable train tickets aren’t available you could compare it with the cost of flying or renting a coach etc.

Your tactics should always be as flexible as possible. If one doesn’t work then stop and try something else. If you’re prevented from doing one, then do another. A single tactic shouldn’t be a failure point in your strategy.

What is your PR strategy?

One of the services I provide as a PR consultant is to review and improve public relations and communications strategy. Unfortunately, it’s a service I rarely provide. I get paid to do it, but I don’t do it.

The reason I don’t do it is I’m rarely given a communication or PR strategy to review. I’m usually presented with plans, calendars of activities, budgets and reports. A communications plan with a list of tactics is not the same as a communications strategy.

This means that what I actually do isn’t review and improve PR strategy, but help clients to clarify their objectives and identify their strategy.

One of the main reasons PR and communication practitioners jump straight into brainstorming ideas about what to do is because tactics are actual things you can see and touch whereas strategy is invisible.

All the men can see the tactics I use to conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which great victory is evolved

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Another mistake is that people often think that strategy is long-term and tactics are short-term. While this is often true, it is an incomplete explanation and therefore wrong. If your objective is to win an election in two months time, then the strategy you choose to win is short-term. Equally, using tactics (which can change) in the four-year run-up to an election would be long-term.

Tactics often fail but that doesn’t matter as tactics are expendable. If a tactic fails you can abandon it.

If one tactic fails or isn’t as successful as you hoped then try another. What you shouldn’t do is abandon your strategy. If you’ve set the right strategy then you shouldn’t need to change it, unless there are fundamental changes in the environment you operate in.

In my 10 actionable PR tips for communication success in 2020, my top tip was ‘review your PR and communication strategy‘.

Ask yourself do you have a communication or PR strategy to review or do you just have lots of PR tactics?

You can also watch my video about this blog post where I explain PR strategy vs. PR tactics.

If you’d prefer you can also listen to the audio of the video on my PR Futurist podcast.

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