PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Public relations planning:
Strategic planning steps
© 1998 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations About the author

A public relations person who has a clear idea of the mission and goals of an organization and who understands how public relations fits into that mission can construct a strategic public relations plan by sequentially answering the ten following questions. This part of the overall planning process is often best recorded and reported using a grid format.

Audience and goal identification

The first questions that need to be addressed--e.g. With whom does the organization need to have relationships? and What does it want these people to think about the organization?--can be answered after a little introspection and discussion with top management. Keep in mind that these are ultimately top management's decisions, not the public relations practitioners'.The public relations people should speak out and try to influence who is included and who is excluded from this list, but they rarely make the final decision.

Probably the most effective way of dealing with these first four questions is for the public relations staff to develop a preliminary list of target audiences and relationships and then meet with key managers to review and discuss them.

1. Who are the organization's key target audiences?

Depending upon the nature of the audiences, these listings may be as short and simple as the names of key people, organizations, and communities or as long and complex as psychodemographic profiles of prospective buyers of a particular product. For most organizations the list will include a mix of short and long identifications. That's fine. Consistency isn't the goal; useful information is. Long audience identifications, if they include unique characteristics, appeals that are particularly effective with this audience, or the best ways of reaching the audience, can be very useful.

2. Why is this audience important to the organization?

No matter how obvious it seems, each audience should be evaluated in terms of its relevance and importance to the organization. Data about the audience's abstract or general importance--e.g., how big it is, how politically influential it is, or how rich its members are--is not enough and can, in fact, be very misleading. The critical information needed is how and why this audience affects the organization. What does it, or could it do, to help, or to hinder, the organization in reaching its goals?

Padding an audience list with people or organizations who have little or no direct bearing on the organization is a waste of time. It serves little purpose, no matter how prestigious these audiences may be. It might even interfere with or delay meaningful planning.

Be aware, however, that there is a tendency among some public relations people to become enchanted by various elite media and to make them a regular part of their media relations audience simply because of their prestige.

3. What view does the organization want this audience to have of it?

Or, what kind of relationship does the organization want to have with this audience? Both of these questions boil down to essentially the same thing, a reflection of what the organization hopes to accomplish by interacting with this audience. It may be having them purchase products or services, or voting for specific political candidates, or supporting new legislation, or any number of other things, depending upon the organization and the audience.

The more clearly and concretely this view is expressed, the more helpful it will be for future planning and relationship building. Statements like "We want this audience to think of us as an asset to the community." are practically worthless for planning purposes.

Return to planning overview

Reporting research findings

Once the target audiences and desired relationships have been nailed down, the next step is to explore the existing relationship the organization has with each of those audiences and to decide whether it needs any adjustment. This calls for more than internal discussion. Simply letting the public relations staff and/or organizational managers speculate will never yield reliable information.

You need to check with people who actually know--actual members of the target audiences. Carefully conducted research, whether it's done by the public relations staff or by hired research consultants, is the only way to get vital and meaningful information about the audiences you need to reach. It's critical to successful planning that such research be done, and that its findings then be incorporated into the plan as it's being developed.

4. What is this audience's current view of our organization?

Or, what is the organization's current relationship with this audience? The exact phrasing should correspond to question 3 so the answers can be juxtaposed, showing where the relationship is now compared to where the organization wants it to be.

This is not something to be guessed at. This question, more than any other part of the strategic planning process, requires accurate, non-ambiguous answers. Virtually all the rest of the planning process, including the setting of specific objectives and the measurement of success, is based on the information gathered at this step.

5. What issues and appeals are important to this audience?

6. Which media does this audience use and trust the most?

Some bare-bones planners consider these to be extraneous questions, and at one level they may be. They are not absolutely essential for properly assessing the organization's current relationships or for determining what can be done to improve them, but the information they provide can be extremely helpful later, during tactical planning and while carrying out a public relations campaign.

Answering these two questions helps ensure that only the most effective and efficient media for reaching the target audiences are used and that the messages the organization sends via these channels will include the best possible themes and concepts for garnering a response from the audience.

If these questions are included in the planning process, they should be asked in the broadest possible ways. Responses about preferred media or channels of communication should not be limited to the major mass media, but should also take narrower and more selective communication techniques -- everything from interpersonal conversations to public speeches to telephone calls to direct mail to the Internet -- into account. And the list of important or appealing issues should not be restricted only to issues which are directly related to the organization and its mission.

Return to planning overview

Assessment and plan development

This third stage of the planning process integrates the first two stages with a series of questions that build upon and further explore the responses to the earlier questions.

7. How does this audience's current view of the organization differ from the desired one?

Or, how does the organization's current relationship with this audience compare with what the organization wants it to be? Arriving at this answer obviously calls for comparing what the organization's managers said about the desired relationship (question 3) with the audience's responses to question 4.

This comparison lets the organization know which of its relationships are moving along on track and which are most in need of adjustment. A frequent outcome of this planning step is a prioritized list of relationships which need immediate attention.

8. What message themes will have the greatest impact on this audience?

In some instances, especially when an organization is closely tied to an issue that has a strong emotional context for its audiences, the responses to this question end up being identical to the responses to question 5. In other cases, when the issues audiences feel strongly about (question 5) have no connection with the organization, there may be little correlation.

However, something that has become increasingly common in recent years as organizations seek more and more ways to establish additional linkages to their constituents is that the perceived strength of an audience's feeling about a particular topic will "inspire" the organization to take a similar public stance on that issue even though it has no direct bearing on the organization and would otherwise have gone unnoticed by its management.

9. What are the best ways of reaching this audience?

As with question 8, there are some instances in which responses to this item are nearly identical to the media preferences identified for the audience in question 6. At other times, the audience's stated preferences may not be suitable or affordable for the organization to use.

The means of reaching the audience which are identified here need to be appropriate, available, and affordable. In many instances, it may be most effective to list several different means of communicating with each audience, specifying which means and medium is most appropriate for various types of situations.

10. Who will serve as the organization's primary contact for working with this audience?

Even though public relations is concerned with all of an organization's relationships, the public relations practitioners themselves are not always the most appropriate "point persons" for working with every audience.

Consequently, primary audience contacts can include a mix of public relations people, management executives, technical specialists, and others, all of whom are chosen for their rapport with a particular audience rather than their job titles.

Table of contents Return to
Developing a PR plan
Further reading on
Planning formats
Further reading on
Tactical planning steps
Practicing Public Relations
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22 Sept 2013