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Gini Dietrich

Six Ways to Be a Strategic Thinker in PR

By: Gini Dietrich | November 19, 2013 | 
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Six Ways to Be a Strategic Thinker in PRBy Gini Dietrich

I remember the review I had when I was up for a promotion from account supervisor to managing supervisor.

I was ready for the promotion, I knew I’d been working in that capacity for a good six months, and I had my business reasons outlined and rehearsed to present to my boss.

The review went swimmingly. Everything was perfect until the very last comment…”you need to be more strategic.”

I was 27 years old. I had all of five years of experience. And suddenly I had to be more strategic if I wanted that promotion.

The reason that has stuck with me all of these years (I mean, the last three years) is no one told me what that meant. My boss just said it and that was that. I don’t think even she knew what that meant, in retrospect. That’s why she couldn’t answer my questions.

Today, as a boss, I never provide that feedback to someone without explaining what it means, providing examples, and giving them a clear path to get there.

And, trust me, this conversation comes up a lot, particularly in the PR industry. As a whole, we tend to be much more tactical than strategic.

Be a PR Strategic Thinker

That’s why, when Clay Morgan sent, “Six Habits of True Strategic Thinkers” to our team yesterday, I was compelled to read, share, and comment.

Giving the author, Paul J.H. Schoemaker, full credit, the six habits he listed are:

  • Anticipate
  • Think critically
  • Interpret
  • Decide
  • Align
  • Learn

Let’s break those down, from a PR perspective.

Anticipate

Yesterday, I wrote here about the big move Visa made by firing their PR agencies and bringing all of that work in-house.

I have no idea if this is a trend other large companies will follow or if it’s a silly mistake that will soon be rectified. But I do know it’s something to anticipate could happen, therefore I’m keeping a careful eye on it.

If it begins to happen with other companies, we’ve already begun thinking about how that could affect our communications firm and have a pivot plan in place to move with the trend.

To be a strategic thinker, watch the trends. Pay attention to the economic signals. Watch the big moves happening in the industry. Anticipate how all of this could affect your career or your business.

Think Critically

Yesterday, while I was walking Jack Bauer, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Critical thinking: The other national deficit.” I thought, “No kidding.”

We tend to take things at face value and don’t use our critical thinking skills to question what’s in front of us.

You see this happen online all the time. My favorite is a photo of Abraham Lincoln with the caption, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet just because there is a picture with a quote next to it.”

We get complacent, we stop questioning, we become less curious…and all of that forces us to lose our competitive edge.

To be a strategic thinker, stop taking things at face value and use that brain of yours.

Interpret

It’s fairly easy to look at the Visa example I used above and dismiss it as one big mistake the company is making. It’s easy to think to yourself, “Next we’ll be hearing news they’ve hired three more PR agencies.”

But if you want to be considered a strategic thinker, you don’t take news like that at face value.

You pay attention to what other large companies are doing, particularly trend-setters such as Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson.

Watch what they do with PR and with their agencies. Find similarities in how they launch new campaigns. And interpret what you think that could mean for your organization or your client’s businesses.

To be a strategic thinker, you must watch trends, pay close attention to industry news, and interpret what it could mean for you.

Decide

Raise your hand if you overanalyze everything (I’m looking at some of you!).

Some people tend to get analysis paralysis and can’t make a decision to save their lives. They get wrapped up in all of the data and trying to interpret what’s there, they paralyze themselves from moving forward.

In Sheryl Sandberg’sLean In,” she describes a poster they have on the wall at work, “It’s better to be finished than to be perfect.”

To be a strategic thinker, you need to be decisive, fast, and finished.

Align

This is one of the hardest ones for me for two reasons: I want everyone to have a voice and I have a need to be liked (I’m working on it).

It is impossible to have complete consensus (anyone who has planned a wedding knows you will never make everyone happy), but a strategic thinker will listen to all sides, assess the risks, bring tough issues out in conversation, and figure out where the balance is.

From a PR perspective, we do this nearly every day. We know how to communicate with different stakeholders and how to turn brand detractors into loyalists.

Now take that talent and turn it inward. How can you align the team you lead or the client’s organization or even your executive team?

To be a strategic thinker, stop being fearful and use your communication skills to align your teams.

Learn

One of my favorite sayings is, “It doesn’t matter if you fall, but in how you get up when you do.”

During the Great Recession, I had that taped to my wall and I looked at it every day.

To say I learned a ton in that three year period is putting it mildly.

Because of that (and other mistakes I’ve made), I’m a big believer in failing if you learn something from it.

To be a strategic thinker, you have to fail so you can learn. It’s the only way to do work on the other five habits.

So there you have it…a complete look at the habits you can develop to become a strategic thinker.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

86 comments
Breanne Thomlison
Breanne Thomlison

First time reader (and new subscriber now). Excellent and well thought out post. I look forward to joining this community. Thanks for sharing these insights in a clear, concise manner.

RenaudGagne
RenaudGagne

Great blueprint for strategic thinking. I really enjoyed the read. We must begin with the end in mind.

In business, our ultimate "end" is the perception of our customer and clients. "You can understand someone better when you walk a mile in their shoes." And the world would be doing a lot better if we applied this rule to everything we do.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

I forget if I sent you this link and I know unless there is a photo of Lili my emails go to your bulk/spam folder LOL

http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21588834-strategies-too-often-fail-because-more-expected-them-they-can-deliver-why

I have Strategic in my business name but this got me thinking. And your post reinforces it. We have a combined lack of critical thinking (see my ranty email to you today in your bulk folder) and we also don't convert strategy into actions very well. Then we think the strategy failed.


LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

These are all fantastic, especially the failure one. That's huge for me. I'm pretty sure the only reason I'm good at anything in life is because I failed at least 8 times perfecting my skill. And I keep failing and then I reflect, learn and improve again. Probably my favorite things I've ever written is a post called 'how to be a ridiculously awesome failure', and I go back and re-read it whenever I need to remember that the only way you can reach your potential is if you aren't afraid to fail. 

Failure has not only helped me improve, it helped me realize where my true strengths and interests were, because those things that I really love, I keep relentlessly chasing after, trying 100 different ways to excel and get better and fail just a little bit less. 

Digital_DRK
Digital_DRK

Excellent post indeed. Sharing this one with my #digitaledu class mates.   

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

Wow G great post! Solid steps to thinking strategically in any industry, but I really enjoyed your PR specific examples. Yeah yeah yeah...working on the "align" bit, too. Being an international manager is HARD sometimes. Although clearly I'm not so hung up on being liked... 

Remiliz
Remiliz

Thank you thank you thank you for this, Gini! I have tried many times to have a clear, detailed conversation with several different people on what they mean when they say "strategic thinking," and not one of them has had a specific answer. They can't explain it themselves! Your post should be required reading for everyone, whether they're in PR or not. And it sounds like the book should be, too. 

Harvatin
Harvatin

I strongly believe that your ability to think strategically suffers when a) you are too far removed from the execution and b) your senior leaders (or client) don't allow you to be involved with day to day decisions and management. Environmental scanning is immensely important to doing our jobs well. It is difficult to anticipate, think critically and interpret when you have tunnel vision. I've seen firsthand how organizations suffer when PR is not at the big table and the entire communications team is not fully informed.

livwhit
livwhit

Great tips on being a strategic thinker in PR! All those that commented have made some great points. The critical thinking point stood out to me the most. It is easy to look at what seems to be there and not see what is really there. I agree that curiosity will keep you at a competitive edge over others. Having these communication skills and the social sensitivity will help you better fit into your environments. 

I think critical thinking is important when looking further into what you are reading or the work that you are reviewing. Ask questions and question your own thoughts!

susancellura
susancellura

I love strategy. Love it. Ironically, I think I've only had one boss who truly understood you need to be/have all of the attributes to help the business be successful. And, it's been far more common for companies I've worked for to challenge why a strategy has not been implemented when they don't understand it and have not agreed to it. 

I once took the proverbial "bull by the horns" and began implementing some basic social media tools and tactics. I came back with analytics, etc., and they went "cool". And then moved on to the next topic at the meeting. Despite the proof that it was working as part of the overall strategy and creating more recognition for the company's services and brand - in an industry that is B2B, they couldn't see how it fit into the marketing strategy. Ads, trade shows and launches, baby.

Strategy is looking at the "now" and at the future. Where are you now and where do you want to be? What do your customers want? How will each piece affect us in achieving the objectives this year, three years, and five years out?

KateFinley
KateFinley

Great post ... I think being strategic is like working a major muscle group, especially when you're first trying to do it. You have to make yourself think, "How does this apply to me, my industry, my clients? What's the big picture impact? What can/should I do with this information?" It can be hard to do but it gets easier. 

Word Ninja
Word Ninja

Good exercise for everyone to apply to their own experience as you did here. Decide and Learn remind me of the Sir Ken Robinson quote I have tacked to my wall. "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." In deciding, we can also be paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong decision.

JRHalloran
JRHalloran

It's always hard being the person who executes. Sometimes people just want to disappear in the background and not take any responsibility for the risks they take. PR people need to be the bold ones. If you don't grow a backbone for defending your decisions, you honestly don't belong in PR. 

 That's why I love that quote you shared -  “Critical thinking: The other national deficit.”If you can't defend your decisions, you're not critically thinking.

However, I agree that it's hard to make decisions, especially if you don't understand the data you're given, but it's not an excuse for not executing your plans. Listening to all sides (especially if they conflict) should certainly help one feel confident that their decision is sound. 


Anyway, thanks for the great post! It's basically PR 101.

danielleserrano
danielleserrano

I really found this framework to be educating.  In my classes, my professors hit upon a few of these but they have never broken these down as the strategic framework. I had one professor that would get so annoyed because the class always jumped to the tactics before they thought about the strategy; I feel that PR practitioners are so creative that they automatically think of creative pieces or new ways that things can be done before they even think about the strategy at hand.  I feel that this framework could be very useful to make sure that individuals are staying on task. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@RenaudGagne When I worked for FH, they insisted you spend time in the field with the client's sales team, on the manufacturing floor, and as a customer. It was very expensive for the clients (they had to pay time and travel), but it made us MUCH better counselors.

Digital_DRK
Digital_DRK

@LauraPetrolino  Laura, that was one winning  comment! 

 I failed at rolling my kayak, over and over and over. I have pictures of wicked bruises on my hips from trying. Wanted it more and more, and began to fail less and less...until...bingo....

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

@Digital_DRK Ohhh you'll have to teach me how! But you know it's interesting because I attribute most of my fearlessness when it comes to failing to my background as a athlete. I was both a competitive gymnast and ice skater. Two sports where you are not only pushed to take risks and fail (and fall) over and over, but doing so is painful and you know it will be, but you keep trying anyway. And when you do nail that jump or flip and feel what it's like to have perfect execution, something clicks in your brain and a new pathway is made. Now this doesn't mean you won't fail at that same move many times more, but you've now (often painfully) created a the spot in your brain that knows how to succeed! 

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

@ginidietrich @KateFinley And that is the key that most people miss- this isn't by accident usually, it is a cultivated skill. My first few years of selling, I would prep endless lists of high gains questions to anticipate any possible wrinkle in the conversation. Now I can access that list very easily from my old brain bank. I can only imagine Kate does a wonderful job at this- our first meeting at dinner, she came prepared with a bunch of really thoughtful questions to spark conversation. A natural sales person. I've made it all about selling again. It's budget time. 

danielleserrano
danielleserrano

@ginidietrich @danielleserrano Definitely! At my internship I even saw individuals jumping directly to the tactics instead of the strategy.  I don't think it hurts though to have people who are so creative that their mind automatically jumps to the what instead of the how.

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

@belllindsay @ginidietrich @LauraPetrolino Well I actually said "Ugh!" and cringed at the word marriage, so that's where I am with that analogy...

But yes, absolutely- my sales training says ask high gains questions that get the customer to imagine their dream resource/lesson/syllabus. Once I know their fantasies, I can frame their reality. 

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