PR has gone through more makeovers than Madonna. It's switched from
publicity to PR. In an effort to distance itself from the perceived
negativity of "PR," it's often called "communications" or "public
affairs." And it's been rebranded as "perception management" and
"reputation management." But there's a new buzzword that's crept into
the vocabulary of agency PR. And the word is "strategic."
It's appearing everywhere. There are 25 PR agencies who use the word
"strategic" in their names. Several more have the word "strategic" in
their marketing straplines and taglines. And one hears countless
references to "strategic" counsel; and "strategic" consulting.
In our feature ("Selling Strategic," p. 19), we look at what "strategic
PR" is and how it's seeped into the popular PR lexicon. But we think the
development of a "strategic" distinction is extraordinary. What is the
alternative being offered? It's a sad indictment on the standard of PR
agency work in general because it implies that the majority are offering
and receiving "unstrategic" advice. And who could possibly want
Of course, it's not all the fault of agencies. There are some clients
who want implementation only: they figure that they know what they want,
and they need lots of warm bodies to execute their plans. But why should
a client want to cut themselves off from other viewpoints? Can a client
seriously run their operations well if their peremptory manner does not
allow their plans to be subject to question?
At the same time, you've got to ask why so many agencies are happy to
pay lip service to client instructions. As journalists, we see it in
micro form in the slavish "chase" calls that follow up press releases,
accompanied by an apologetic shrug. "The client asked us to do it. We're
only doing our job." When people are doing things that they don't even
believe in, it's not a happy state of affairs.
There's a danger that the word "strategic" is being overused and
undermined by people who don't know its true meaning. But the far more
serious concern is that not enough people are evidently practicing
"strategic" PR. It's time to go back to school.
Media clippings still have a role
One of the 10 telltale signs that you're being "tactical" rather than
"strategic" is if the only measure of your PR program's success is
determined by media clippings. While we wouldn't disagree, the conundrum
over media clippings is worth further comment.
As everyone who exists in the real world knows, there are a myriad of
factors that can affect share prices, product launches, brand
recognition, sales performance and other indicators. So the idea of
setting up a program that is measured by, say, "share price" is not only
risky; it's naive (and that won't come across as very strategic). PR
exists for the most part in a complex mix. Only in rare (and usually
award-winning) cases can the exact effect of the PR element be isolated.
This doesn't mean that PR should comfortably fall back on clippings
books, but it doesn't mean that clippings books should be ignored
altogether either. Other measures and tools should be investigated and
used; but the old-fashioned clippings book - particularly when subjected
to relative evaluation - is still a "strategic" device.