A topic that commonly confuses public relations students and sometimes clients is the difference between strategy and tactics. Confusing these concepts can lead to major misunderstandings between team members and other stakeholders. There are many ways to explain the concepts, and I will give you a breakdown of the differences.
What is a Strategy?
Simply stated a strategy is an overall plan of action to achieve a particular goal or objective. Think of strategy as the “what” element of the equation. Paul Smith, author of Great Answers to Tough Marketing Questions, suggests that a strategy “…summarizes how to achieve objectives in general terms – the big picture”. It’s not the same as goals or objectives. Strategy is built on a number of factors including research and theory.
For example, environmental scanning is a strategy to acquire information from the external environment to use in issues management and crisis communication.
What is Tactic?
On the other hand, a tactic is a specific procedure, method, or activity for implementing a strategy. If strategy is the “Big Picture” then tactics can be considered the smaller details. In a sense tactics are the ability and available resources to accomplish the strategy. Tactics should only be planned after a strategy is created. Keep in mind a tactic is not an outcome. A PR professional does not write a media release simply to write a media release, instead the media release is one specific tactic (activity) to help achieve the big picture.
A tactic in implementing environmental scanning would be to set-up a keyword alert system to inform PR professionals about potential issues and threats.
Why the Confusion?
In PR education, students are often overly focused on the tactics because they are the most visual part of a public relations campaign and students can easily relate to real world examples. In the same line of thinking clients are often more focused on tactics because they are thinking in turns of public perception. On another level creating strategy requires a considerable amount of critical thinking, as a strategy is abstract compared to concrete tactics.
There are two great ways to help solidify the differences between strategy and tactics. First, analyze great public relations campaigns, such as PRSA Silver Anvil Award winners. Copies of the winning campaigns can be found on the PRSA website and are available for PRSA and PRSSA member to download. Secondly, find a PR situation (opportunity or problem) in the media and develop a series of strategies and tactics to resolve the situation.
Or course this may involve a little time and critical thinking, but the knowledge you will gain is well worth the effort.