Gini Dietrich

Six Ways to Be a Strategic Thinker in PR

By: Gini Dietrich | November 19, 2013 | 

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

  • If my title is already “Senior Strategist,” do I need to be more strategic? 😉

  • I shared the article because I believe a lot of people have different views on what it means to be strategic. 
    The key here is to think. To ask questions. Don’t just accept what is presented. Question convention. Noodle over the alternatives.
    You may still come to the same conclusion, but at least you’ve thought it through and hopefully can make a compelling argument for your decision.

  • ClayMorgan Love the word, “noodle”. So fitting for this. Or, as a colleague of mine used to say, “let it marinate.” Sometimes, we have to do that to arrive at the right course of action.

  • For me personally, there’s an unresolved tension between being strategic in everything that I do without losing my chops in execution. Looking around me, I see a lot of my peers and colleagues trying to remove themselves from execution and focusing on delivering holistic strategy to clients, and a few of them haven’t quite found their way yet. I haven’t, either. 
    Making informed decisions while being skeptical about the evidence is the key, I think. Keeps us sharp and not married to a single roadmap.

  • Great breakdown, Gini. I think this applies to business in general, not just PR. Analysis paralysis is the WORST! Admittedly, I’ve had it on occasion, but it’s particularly frustrating when clients have it. 
    Sometimes, you just have to DO and ACT. Without that, you’ll never know if the way you interpreted something was right. Yes, you might fail. But, you won’t succeed if you don’t act, either.
    I think the interpret part is also critical. I’m STILL thinking about your article from yesterday, which is why I haven’t commented yet. It’s hard to know for sure what’s happening there, but it’s important to watch and give it consideration.

  • jasonkonopinski Man, I’m with you on this. I’ve been thinking a LOT about this lately. Although I focus a lot on strategy, it’s nothing without execution – which is why I do both. But, sometimes it’s a tough sell. A lot of times, clients just want the “doing” without the “thinking” behind it. And, those are the ones that are not going to be successful.

  • JohnMTrader

    Wonderful post GD. I have always been a fan of failing, but failing forward. It can be so flipping defeating to anticipate, think critically, interpret, decide, align, and then still end up failing. For me, the key is similar to what you said – learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them, and remember to keep your chin high.
    Winston Churchill once said “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Keeping that strategic “spirit” afloat can be a tough crab to crack but following the advice in this post is a great start.

  • “The reason that has stuck with me all of these years (I mean, the last three years)….” BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

  • Brilliant post Gini. Again, with the “I learn something new everyday.” People throw out these buzzwords all the time, and just assume those on the receiving end know what they mean. I mean *really* mean. Because one person’s “strategic thinking” may also differ somewhat from another person’s. Especially in this brave new world of transferrable skills and career crossover – I, for one, grew up in broadcasting (as you know), not the agency world. The jargon, and thought processes are definitely different. Thank GOD I’ve reached a certain *ahem* age where I’m no longer frightened or embarrassed to say “What the HECK does that even MEAN!?” That said, what you’ve laid out here is clear and simple: Real ‘baseline’ knowledge towards improving at strategic thinking. Bookmarked.

  • lauraclick jasonkonopinski Me too – Strategic thinking is a different way of thinking for me and I’m still finding my way. This is a great breakdown and like everyone is saying, the key is to think, ask questions, and be skeptical.

  • JayDolan Yes!

  • Great post. I think one thing business leaders –within and outside of PR/communications –can do to be more strategic is to have a clear set of measurable objectives. WHAT exactly do we want to achieve? What are the benchmarks? What will we achieve and by when? It’s only when those are firmly in place that one can then determine the strategies–HOW will we achieve those objectives? What choices will we make? What is the right road to take? What’s our inner GPS telling us? It’s only then that we can even begin to lay out the tactics that emanate from those strategies. If one doesn’t know what the objectives are, how can one possibly hope to create the strategies to achieve them? Again, not just talking about PR campaigns, but in any situation where one needs to think strategically.

  • jasonkonopinski If I may, your biggest opportunity for growth is under “decide.” You already think very high-level, but it’s more than that. That’s where I would focus some energy in 2014.

  • lauraclick jasonkonopinski We refuse to do work for clients that doesn’t include strategy development. We’ve had clients say, “Oh we have a strategy” and then you get in there and discover they do not.

  • JayDolan Optimum Strategist…?

  • ClayMorgan Interesting. I used to be called “difficult” and “negative” because I questioned everything. Who knew I was actually a pro strategic thinker!!?? 😉

  • ginidietrich That’s the plan, yo.

  • Strategery!

  • An excellent piece, I hope it becomes industry standard advice.

  • stevesonn

    This is a nice framework for being more strategic in public relations. Learning is important, but then also applying what we learn is key. Look at successes as well and determine what made it successful and how it can be replicated, perhaps even in new areas. We definitely need more strategy in PR, followed by great execution.

  • 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 JayDolan Well then. Our overall objective is sound: Position Jay Dolan as a social media thought leader. However, we’ll need to shift strategy and tactics. We’ll use a paid, earned and owned approach to heavy up these next two months, promoting Jay’s content to highly influential PR, marketing and social media influencers. We’ll tie these tactics back to metrics based on web traffic, speaking engagements and as look at a few social metrics to see if the volume of conversation around Jay increases. We’ll do this for the remainder of 2013 and evaluate in 2014 to see how successful this approach is.
    That enough strategy there? 😉

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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…

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

  • Digital_DRK You should also share your #FF with them!

  • RebeccaTodd When I am teaching strategy to younger professionals (particularly women), I’ll say, “What does your dream wedding look like?” They can describe it perfectly – who’s there, what they’ll do, etc. Then I ask them to do that with a client project we’re working on. Suddenly the lights go on.

  • Remiliz Hey sweets! How are you?? 
    I think our industry, in general, gets mired down in tactics and we *think* we’re providing strategy. But you’re right…no one knows how to describe it so we keep chasing our tails.

  • Harvatin Amen! I always find client situations don’t work so well when they stop showing up for weekly meetings because they’re too busy and want you to just do your job. How you describe the tunnel vision is exactly how we need to explain this in the future.

  • livwhit I’m with you – the critical thinking is so important and not many people do it. Of the two times I’ve really gotten into trouble because of something I’ve written, once was because I was in hurry and took something for face value. It didn’t turn out so well.

  • KateFinley I had a boss very early in my career who I would watch in meetings and think, “How does she do that?” It was because she did exactly what you describe – she practiced every day.

  • Word Ninja I love that quote! I’m going to post that to my wall right now.

  • JRHalloran I really love the listening to all sides thinking. Sometimes when I get defensive or feel a wall going up about something someone says, I say to myself, “Why are you reacting this way?” It helps me keep a more open mind.

  • danielleserrano You’ll find in your career this happens a lot, too. Particularly on the agency side, you’ll be in brainstorms and find everyone immediately jumps to the tactics. Because you’re thinking about strategy, you can be the sole voice in the room who asks, “What are we trying to achieve?”

  • stevesonn I think our industry, as a whole, is great at the execution. Now we just need to figure out why we’re doing it.

  • wabbitoid Thank you, kind sir!

  • jonmikelbailey Thanks George Bush.

  • KensViews Yes, but that comes out of the strategy. You can’t have measurable objectives without first knowing what you want to achieve. For instance, I had NO idea what I wanted Arment Dietrich to do in the PR space for many years. We had what we wanted to achieve, but we didn’t answer the “to what end?” question.

  • belllindsay LOL!! Thank you for noticing that. Ha!

  • belllindsay I told Jason I wrote this for our team so I’m glad it resonated!

  • JohnMTrader I’m adding that Churchill quote to my wall!

  • lauraclick I’m a perfectionist so it’s really hard for me to finish something just to be done with it. But sometimes that leads to paralysis, too.

  • ClayMorgan I think you also have to work inside an organization that allows you do that. To belllindsay’s point, if you question things, some will think you’re being difficult.

  • JayDolan YOU WIN!

  • susancellura Ah yes…the “social doesn’t work in B2B” argument. Clearly no one has had any success using the Interwebz.

  • ginidietrich Digital_DRK  Martin and Eden were kind enough to share my #FF in our LinkedIn group.

  • ginidietrich RebeccaTodd I can’t describe my dream wedding at all! Once again I fail as a girl! Crap!

  • ginidietrich RebeccaTodd Ew. My first wedding was in a pub. My second – a backyard. My third…..who knows?? LOL

  • ginidietrich Word Ninja I’m often wrong. LOL But always original!!

  • 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.

  • ginidietrich I look at it somewhat differently. You set one or more  over-arching goals. Your objectives are the milestones along the way. How will you achieve them? And something I left out of my earlier comment, what are the roadblocks to achieving them? What are the hurdles you must overcome? Strategic thinking helps you remove the roadblocks, and overcome the hurdles to achieve the objectives.  Some go right from objectives to tactics…but they don’t succeed.

  • LauraPetrolino So how do you feel about failing?

  • LauraPetrolino I totally fail at being a girl, too. I would never ask you this question.

  • belllindsay Notice I said I ask the YOUNG professionals on our team.

  • 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….

  • ginidietrich Yup, I’m a perfectionist too. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s what makes me so detailed and thorough, but yes, it can cause some serious hang ups.

  • ginidietrich jasonkonopinski I’ve definitely been moving that way. It’s hard to say no sometimes to businesses that just want execution….but, I keep reminding myself that it can lead to problems if I take it on without doing the strategy first.

  • Suze Carragher

    Love it!

  • ginidietrich verdict is still out 😉

  • 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!

  • ginidietrich BOOM!!!

  • 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
    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.

  • ginidietrich This is the TED Talk I pulled his quote from. How schools kill creativity…one of my favorite Ttalks.

  • belllindsay ginidietrich I’m putting THAT quote on my wall. 🙂

  • Word Ninja ginidietrich One of my favourite TEDs too! Love Sir Ken.

  • Howie Goldfarb Ummm…why don’t I get ranty emails to my bulk folder? I am missing out.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • belllindsay ginidietrich RebeccaTodd HA! my first was in a church with the only guests my brother and future sister in law. Second was in the backyard, too!

  • RebeccaTodd ginidietrich Just finished listening to him AGAIN…

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Howie Goldfarb They do not! I just want to spend time reading the stuff you send me and it’s not always right when you send them to me. Jeez.

  • Word Ninja belllindsay ginidietrich RebeccaTodd For the record, my wedding was magical. I wish you all could have been there. Our guests STILL talk about it being the wedding of the century.

  • City Hall…over 19 years ago 🙂

  • 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.

  • Breanne Thomlison   Welcome Breanne  🙂

  • Digital_DRK Breanne Thomlison Indeed I second that! Welcome! And don’t be shy to jump in to the comments- we are crazy but friendly!

  • Breanne Thomlison Hey Breanne! Welcome!!

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