Strategic thinking skill is a critical skill every PR professional should have. The Global Communication Report 2017 rates it as the most important skill that PR professionals need in order to succeed in today’s turbulent business environment. Communication Network Research Report of the same year says it is the most valued skill for communication. And CIPR 2018 State of the Profession Report reveals that nine out of ten (88%) recruiters value it as one of the most significant attributes in senior practitioners. But the hard truth is that most PR professionals, including managers treat strategic thinking with levity.
They focus mainly on the technical aspect of the job, which is, developing and disseminating corporate messages to stakeholders at its expense.
The reasons they adopt this approach is simple. Most practitioners do not have enough business knowledge and acumen to appreciate the fine details of strategy, especially the business aspect of it. This explains why strategic thinking is beyond their ken. After all, psychology tells us that we think with our vocabulary. In other words, the number of words you have in your head shapes the way you think. When the word ‘strategy’ and its related concepts are not in your vocabulary, it is impossible for you to think strategically.
This problem has long been recognized in the field. The Commission for Public Relations, an independent body of Public Relations educators and professionals representing 15 professional societies in Public Relations and related fields of communication, recommended, long ago, a complete business coursework for Public Relations majors in universities to bridge the gap. And the Global Capabilities Framework released in 2018 by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management is attempting to solve the problem by calling on PR professionals to “demonstrate business and financial acumen through sound knowledge of organization’s business and core processes.”
You just can’t hide from strategic thinking in Public Relations today. Our professional bodies know it, and you should know it too. This article is meant to be an eye opener. It will shed light on what strategic thinking really is, explain its place and power in Public Relations and suggest some ways to cultivating it.
Strategic Thinking Defined
The term strategic thinking is an offspring of the word “Strategy”. In their work, Strategic Thinking: Lessons for leadership from the Literature, Ken Haycock, Anne Cheadle and Karla Bluestone explain that strategy is a concept with military roots, and the words “Strategia” or Strategike’; meaning, the art or skill of the general is found in Greek antiquities dating back to the second century CE.
If strategy is the art or skill of the general, then Strategic Thinking is the art of thinking like a general who sees in his head beforehand the battles he is to face and all that he’ll need to do to win them in order to win the war ultimately.
In other words, Strategic Thinking is that uncanny human ability to generate unique business insights after spotting the options for success and failure available now and in the future. It is macroscopic thinking; that art of thinking that encompasses the whole of the business environment, capturing the opportunities and pitfalls in it as well as the twists and turns you need to navigate to success now and in the long term.
OECD Competency Framework simplifies the definition of strategic thinking this way: “Strategic Thinking is the ability to develop a broad big picture of the organization and its mission. Competitive advantage and threats, industry trends, emerging opportunities and stakeholder focus – Strategic Thinking is where all these come together.”
Strategic Thinking is that uncanny human ability to generate unique business insights after spotting the options for success and failures available now and in the future.
Napoleon: The Strategic Thinking Warrior
Napoleon Bonaparte, a French statesman and General, is known to have successfully waged wars against various Coalitions of European nations to expand his empire. His biographers trace his successes to his uncanny ability to size up a war situation quickly and take appropriate decisions on how to prosecute it. He could do that so accurately because he understood the enemy landscape and the war technology of his time. He also had great knowledge of war history from where he developed some of his war strategies from similar past situations. His understanding of enemy landscape, war technology and war history were crucial to his ability to respond quickly and successfully to changing situations in the wars he waged. Napoleon succeeded because he was a strategic thinker.
The Questions Strategic PR Thinkers Ask
PR practitioners have a lot to learn from Napoleon Bonaparte. The world of business where they operate is very much the same as war situations. No matter where you are, there is a competitor out there working hard to knock your organization down. In his article, Business as War, published in fastcompany.com, Mark B. Fuller observes that the key objective in competition, whether business or war, is to improve your organization’s performance along these dimensions:
- Generate better information than your rivals do.
- Analyze that information and make sound choices
- Make those choices quickly
- Convert strategic choices into decisive action
The PR practitioner who qualifies as a strategic thinker is one who has a broad awareness and understanding of the organization he serves, and who knows what its competitors are doing. He is able to see the patterns in his organization’s complex problems and can recognize the opportunities and the threats to its strategic objectives. In other words, he understands his organization and its competitors enough to pave the way for his organization to lead in the games. Sun Tsu rightly notes in his book, The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”
What this implies is that the work of the strategic PR thinker goes far beyond helping an organization to communicate with its stakeholders. He must help it to understand and manage stakeholders’ issues that could impact the organization negatively. There’s also need to keep tabs on developments in its industry with one eye on the competition. He needs to have a clear picture of what is happening within the organization and in the external environment in order to help the organization put its best foot forward and position itself for growth now and in the long term. This very broad level of awareness required of a strategic PR thinker comes from asking the right questions. The more macroscopic and varied the questions you ask, the more information you get.
Here are some typical questions to ask:
- What are the key political issues that can impact my organization at the moment? What risks and opportunities do they bring?
- What does the current state of the economy portend for my client/organization? How does it affect the realization of corporate objectives? What PR strategies can remedy the situation?
- What are the dominant and sub-cultures in my client’s/organization’s operating environment? How do I frame corporate behavior and craft PR messages that resonate with the people? What changes are imminent? How can I help my client/organization prepare for the change(s)?
- What’s the nature of my client’s or organization’s physical environment? Are there security concerns? Or is it prone to natural disasters? What best way can we prepare to cushion the effects on the organization’s fortunes?
- What laws and regulations apply in my client’s/organization’s industry? Does my client/organization comply with them? What is the likelihood of changes to these laws and regulations in the foreseeable future? How prepared is my client/organization for these changes?
- Do I understand my client’s/organization’s business, its capabilities and objectives? What about its industry trends?
- Who are its stakeholders and key influencers? What are their attitudes, opinions and behaviours toward the organization? And what are their immediate and likely future issues?
- Who are my client’s/organization’s competitors? What are their market positions? Where are they doing better than my client/organization, and why? And what are they doing differently?
The ability to ask the right questions, find the answers and use the insights gained to develop and implement PR strategies that help to position an organization ahead of its competition is what differentiates a strategic PR thinker from the tactical player in the field.
Elements of Strategic Thinking
Perhaps, one way to deepen your understanding of strategic thinking is knowing what differentiates it from other forms of thinking. In her 1998 article, Strategic Thinking: Can It Be Taught?, an American Strategist, Jeanne Liedtka identified five key elements or identifiable characteristics of Strategic Thinking namely:
- System Perspective
This emphasizes holistic thinking, the kind of thinking that sees a problem or an opportunity as part of the whole system or situation; one that visualizes the whole process of value creation from beginning to the end. An understanding of the interdependencies within a process and how each unit contributes to the whole is also emphasized.
- Intent-focused and intent-driven
The strategic intent of an organization is the mission and vision of the organization. To be intent-focused and intent-driven in your thinking, you should pay sedulous attention to, and be motivated by, every idea that can help you realize the vision and mission of your organization. In PR, it means that the mission and vision of your organization are the pivots around which your PR strategies and programmes are developed and implemented. In other words, you are using your PR programmes to support the realization of your organization’s, or your client’s, strategic objectives.
- Thinking in Time
This element of Strategic Thinking emphasizes the fact that the future comes from the past and the present. So, when you leverage on both an organization’s memories and the present realities to create a desirable and secure future, you are thinking in time. In other words, thinking in time is about learning from the past, assessing the gap between the present and the desired future, and generating ideas to bridge it.
- Intelligent Opportunism
This implies openness to new experiences and knowledge such that you don’t fail to take advantage of new ideas that emerge in our rapidly changing business environment. It’s about being constant on the watch for new trends and capitalizing on the opportunities that emerge to push your organization to new heights.
- Hypothesis Driven
According to Liedtka, “Strategic Thinking mirrors the scientific method”. It embraces the generation and testing of hypothesis as the core of its activities. It is an iterative process of formulating a hypothesis, testing it, then refining and proposing new premises until a solution to a business problem is found.
You have found Strategic Thinking at work when thinking involves a holistic view of a situation or problem, when it is centered on realizing the mission and vision of an organization, when it is future oriented and keeps an eye on opportunities, and when it employs the scientific approach to discover and solve an organization’s problems. A PR professional who can approach a problem in such a manner will generate uncommon strategic insights that will help to position his clients or his organization ahead of their competitors.
The Value of Strategic Thinking in Public Relations
The true worth of an idea or concept to any occupation or profession lies not only in its utility, but also in its capability to make the work more appreciated by the professionals’ clients and the general public; and thereby bring more profit to the professionals.
When PR professionals are able to employ strategic thinking skills in their work for their organizations and, or, their clients, these are the benefits accruable to Public Relations and its practitioners:
- Respect and Recognition of top management
PR gains the respect and recognition of the top Management when its practitioners are able to provide strategic intelligence and counsel to its executives on hot button issues, such as: stakeholder activism, increased public cynicism, communication landscape and wicked societal problems, which are immanent in today’s turbulent business environment. This could translate into more money for Public Relations programmes, and easy buy-in of top management to such programmes.
- Membership of the dominant coalition
The dominant coalition is an informal group of managers who oversee and control the decision-making process of an organization.
One major obstacle to its membership identified by James Grunig in his book, Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, is the perception by coalition members that the skills, education and/or experience of the PR practitioner are not at the level that can provide adequate counsel on business decisions. Strategic Thinking skills realign this negative perception in favour of PR professionals and makes access to the coalition easy.
What’s more? PR gets more strategic information to work with through such access. Balancing the interests of the organization with those of stakeholders becomes easy largely because PR executives can make inputs into corporate decisions.
- Effective PR Campaigns
The difference between a PR campaign that registers extra-ordinary success and one with an average score is the extent to which they are wetted with strategic thinking and insights at their development and execution stages.
Extraordinary PR campaigns do much more than create awareness for an organization and its products or services. It doesn’t stop at changing stakeholders’ opinions, attitudes and behaviours in favour of an organization. The PR outcomes must impact the achievements of the organizations positively as a whole, especially in areas of market penetration, market share, sales and profitability.
This is not an easy task. It takes Strategic Thinking to come up with a PR programme that links the intended PR outcomes seamlessly with the goals and aspirations of an organization.
- A secure future for PR professionals
With the ability to think strategically, PR professionals can read the patterns of changes in the industry, spot new trends as they emerge and improve their skills to cope with the future demands of the job.
- Better decisions for PR’s works
Strategic thinking promotes quick, creative and insightful decisions that make it easy to out-maneuver competitors.
Cultivating Your Strategic Thinking Skills
Strategic thinking is not rocket science. It is not a skill exclusive to those at the top hierarchy of organizations alone. Anyone can cultivate it. You can do it too.
Here are a few ways to cultivate your strategic thinking skills:
- Seek first to understand the concept of strategy
You can’t think strategically if you don’t understand what strategy means. You may need to do an extensive reading on the subject. You could also take a course in Strategic Management. Doing such will expand your intellectual horizon on the subject, develop the strategic muscles of your mind and prepare you to think strategically.
- Study cases in Strategic Public Relations
Case-based studies of this nature expose you to how complex strategic PR problems were solved. You are brought face to face with situations you would never have imagined. They provide you a buffet of ideas from where you can draw insights to solve problems in the future.
- Develop your skills in environmental scanning
It is with them that you can monitor and spot trends effectively in your organization’s internal and external business environment, and be able to establish the implications they may have on your organization and its future.
- Learn to use your head and heart at the same time
Strategic Thinking is a whole-brain activity. With your head, you assess your organization’s internal and external environment, collect then evaluate the information obtained. And with your heart, you employ synthesis, use intuition and creativity to bring together the pieces of information gathered in order to form an integrated perspective and a clear insight or vision of what direction is right for your organization.
- Become a live long learner
Read wide and interact with people from diverse backgrounds. Develop new skills and remain a walking question mark. Continuous learning is the fee you pay for strategic thinking abilities.
Strategic Thinking promotes quick, creative and insightful decisions that make it easy to maneuver competitors
Strategic Thinking separates a performing PR professional from the rest and positions him far ahead of his peers. And Public Relations efforts nourished with Strategic Thinking command the right mix of insights and creative juices to differentiate an organization from its competitors. Several studies are pointing to Strategic Thinking as the key to success in PR in today’s turbulent business environment. Therefore, cultivating Strategic Thinking abilities is not a matter of choice but a must have. It is a mandate for every PR professional.