OP-ED: Strategic and tactical behavior shouldn't be confused

In years past, some characterized public relations as a "below-the-line" service. This always bothered me. Since entering this business, I've held a strong belief that PR is a measurable and powerful tool in the marketing arsenal.

In years past, some characterized public relations as a "below-the-line" service. This always bothered me. Since entering this business, I've held a strong belief that PR is a measurable and powerful tool in the marketing arsenal.

In fact, we're witnessing the dawn of an exciting era, with PR claiming its rightful place above the line as a legitimate first-string player in the marketing mix - securing a lead role with other disciplines to draw new customers and keep existing ones from wandering. It's a heady opportunity for us to realize a new and vital responsibility in the building of strong brands. But are we ready for the disciplines and skill sets that this will require? I'd venture to say yes in some cases and no in others. The words "strategic thinking" and "planning" have been thrown together for some time in our field. And I would argue that, in some instances, the users do not know the difference between strategic and tactical behavior. To illustrate, years ago I worked for a Seattle-based division of Ogilvy & Mather called Cole & Weber. Back then, C&W was a great regional powerhouse, a dominant player that counted many of the local blue-chip companies on its roster, from Boeing to Westin Hotels. Even in the late 1970s, cross-disciplinary integration was present within the agency's two principal companies: an ad agency and a PR firm. Both were separate entities and leaders in their respective marketplaces. There was, however, a distinct difference in the processes and skills practiced by each side of the house. The PR agency successfully sold its services and capabilities, and executed programs with great effect and creativity. The ad side, on the other hand, carried a sacrosanct devotion to research and business analysis that preceded any attempt to generate a plan. The approach was not only to study a client's products and brand values, but also to understand the vagaries of how the business operated from the factory floor up through the channels of distribution. From there, significant assets were deployed for research in order to get beneath the skin of consumers and understand their lifestyle interests, media habits, and purchase behaviors and motivators. The ultimate answer was always some sort of ad, but the effort up front was far deeper and demanding than the somewhat cursory overviews we developed in the "situation analysis" sections of our PR plans. While much has certainly changed since those days, time and again in the PR business we've witnessed - perhaps out of expediency or a lack of training - a tendency to fall back on our tactical roots and bypass much of the account planning discipline by leaping over substantive business and audience analysis and heading straight for the creative. Let me posit that this won't fly anymore. Senior management is demanding accountability from virtually all areas of marketing. "If the revenue needle isn't moving, then why are we doing it?" Gone are the days when we could operate in relative comfort under the softer metrics of "awareness" and image. At no other time has public relations been given such a clear opportunity to sit at the table with those who shepherd the growth of great brand reputations - ones that can drive business results and reward the faith of shareholders. Why? Because the strategic paradigm is shifting, due to the seismic change in how consumers consume information and make decisions of brand choice. Pundits are extolling the virtues of media-neutral thinking and the cultivation of word of mouth. Similarly, the buzz-speak lexicon of brand managers is adjusting to recognize that effective solutions are built on a foundation of ideas that offer up authentic, credible communication to the target audience. Does all this mean we just show up for dinner and the rewards are served on the dessert tray? No. The requirements here are significant. If PR is to play at the branding table, then the ability to understand and execute brand-profile studies and other forms of ethnology and consumer anthropology must take root. We must also stop looking at our role as executing PR - that, at its core, is tactical thinking. Rather, a more holistic approach of diagnosis without presumption of cure will lead us toward the right mix of ideas that take brands from point A to B successfully. Said more simply, we need to halt the practice of repackaging essentially the same solution for every problem and answer the call to think differently about how we reach out and persuade. If we're successful in this transition, our industry is going to grow exponentially.
  • Bob Wheatley is CEO of Wheatley & Timmons.

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