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College of Information and Communications


PR Prose: Strategy for strategic communications? Why it matters

Posted May 31, 2017
By Dr. Shannon Bowen, professor in the public relations sequence
Reprinted with permission from PRWeek


As a public relations professional, you engage in strategic communication every day. You can no longer afford to be simply tactical. You may try to be strategic in terms of being proactive, basing decision on data, being persuasive toward a set goal, or finding innovative ways to work toward changing demands for your organization or clients. That’s no longer enough; there are many new strategic elements missing.

At the upcoming International Communication Association conference, more than 50 top scholars from around the globe will present papers on the topic. The session, named "Future directions of strategic communication: Towards the second decade of an emerging field," is meant to be thought leadership in defining our field, and each person participating has earned a spot through deep thought and study on some aspect of the subject — most have written books on it. In other words, it’s the Super Bowl of public relations professors.

Redefining our role as a strategic management function is extremely important, yet we have to grapple not only with access to the top of our organizations (or those of clients) to engage in strategy, but with the ongoing debates in defining strategy itself.

What is strategy? I tell my students that it is basing decisions on research and thinking logically and systematically about how to enhance the effectiveness of an organization. Strategy is not manipulative, and it is based on fair competition, efficacy, and logic. But what is strategic communication? Does strategy drive strategic communication, or does strategic communication with stakeholders drive strategy? That is the sticky wicket. Complicate the matter further by looking at the business management discipline of strategy itself: they examine many questions quantitatively, all with specifically measured results on organizational outputs and goals. And not once do they ever consider the "soft skill" of communication as a part of strategy. It is simply not studied.

In public relations, we talk about strategy as building relationships with stakeholders and publics through research and dialogue. In the ICA session, Betteke Van Ruler’s research adds, "Looking from a communication perspective at this contemporary idea of strategy as emergent and continuous testing of assumptions, I see strategy as an amalgam of continuous communication processes in the context of strategy building and rebuilding."

Diverging from the norm and heavily schooled in strategy literature, Michael Etter and Peter Winkler argue that strategy should be a narrative and ongoing discourse, changing moment to moment rather than as the goal-oriented states usually set out as strategy. They view strategic communication as always an "emergent" practice. Another novel view was offered by Amy O’Connor and Michelle Shumate, who argue that strategic communication consists of the building of various networks. They wrote, "We contend that multidimensional network approach provides both integration and addresses the boundary-less nature of modern organizations." Yet their framework does not include the intra-organizational network of arguably the most importance: the CEO and PR counsel link. Without a strong relationship with the head of PR, the CEO will often move to strategize without a second thought toward communication.

Perhaps most problematically, ethics is not included in the new and future conceptualizations of strategy as strategic communication for our field. The 83-page conference session list of abstracts does not include a single mention of ethics a topic for strategy. But what could be more important in strategy than ethics? Ethical counsel helps to avoid damaging relationships, missteps in culture or governance, crises, and all sorts of behaviors that draw criticisms of stakeholders and publics. In essence, ethics is the basis of trusting relationships that allow organizations to exist and should be concern number one in strategy. Plus, every PR pro makes these decisions and has some influence on the ethics of strategic communication, even when it is not at the top level of an organization. Often ethical matters start small before they grow to Wells Fargo levels of malfeasance.

As the burgeoning promise of strategy engulfs the PR field, forward-thinking PR pros will need to add a few more core competencies in addition to ethical and social concerns. So what are some of these implications of more strategy?

  1. Ethics: analysis, advising, and counseling on dilemmas and best strategies;
  2. Adaptive flexibility;
  3. Pre-need relationships with stakeholders and publics;
  4. Issues management KSAs;
  5. Data: Lots of it. Big data and situation specific data, as well as analytics;
  6. Public affairs and governmental relations KSAs;
  7. Cultural awareness – again, an ethical concern.

The above few issues are, of course, not intended to be exhaustive but are listed just to give you an idea of some of the points for development as our field becomes more strategic. Many organizations will need to develop unique approaches to strategy and will need wise ethical analyses on acceptable uses of both strategy and strategic communication.