Gini Dietrich

The Six Habits that Lead to Being a Strategic Thinker in PR

By: Gini Dietrich | January 30, 2020 | 
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PR Strategic ThinkerI still remember the review I had when I was up for a promotion from managing supervisor to vice president.

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

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

I was 27 years old. I had all of five years of experience. And if I wanted to be a vice president (and I really wanted that promotion), I had to be more strategic.

OK! I could do that, but how?

No one could tell me how. My boss and her boss couldn’t answer my questions. There wasn’t professional development to teach me.

It was just out there. I had to be more strategic.

My boss just said it and that was that. In retrospect, I don’t think even she knew what that meant. 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.

What Does It Mean to Be More Strategic?

In a nutshell, being more strategic is the ability to look at the bigger picture.

I’ll give you an example: during our team meeting last week, we had a conversation about a client’s email marketing.

We used to post their full newsletter on the website, for anyone to read (and for SEO purpose).

But we stopped doing that more than 18 months ago, and there is no longer a way to subscribe to the newsletter.

A colleague wondered why.

I couldn’t remember. Was it because the CEO didn’t want to build the list? Maybe.

Or was it because it got lost in the new site design? Maybe.

Maybe it was because we didn’t want to give the full newsletter away like that anymore.

There may have been a real reason…or it could have just gotten lost in the redesign.

But with today’s communications plan—and the CEO’s renewed interest in building their email list—it makes strategic sense to have a way for people to subscribe on the website.

Had the client’s team lead not been a PR strategic thinker, we may have left that very basic and easy thing on the table.

How to Be a PR Strategic Thinker

To be a PR strategic thinker, you always have to look at how what you’re going to do fits into the bigger picture.

And there are six habits you can accumulate to be able to do just that.

I’ve always loved Paul J.H. Shoemaker’s breakdown of the “Six Habits of True Strategic Thinkers.

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

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

Anticipate

There have been lots of rumblings about another recession. To boot, today’s media is obsessed with the impeachment trial. Once that dies down, they’ll be obsessed with the presidential election.

We talked a bit earlier this week at what that might look like for communicators, but it’s something you should consider, plan for, and anticipate.

The more prepared you are, the less you’ll have to worry.

Plus, this is like having insurance—if you have it, you won’t need it.

To be a PR strategic thinker, watch the trends. Pay attention to the economic signals. Watch the big moves happening in the industry. Understand how global and national changes can change your carefully crafted plans.

Anticipate how all of this could affect your career or your business.

Think Critically

Our neighbor has a bumper sticker on his car that reads, “Critical thinking: The other national deficit.”

I thought, “No kidding.”

And it seems to have gotten worse since the U.S. presidential election.

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.”

It’s why fake news exists.

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

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

Interpret

I am the stereotypical entrepreneur. When you look up entrepreneur, it likely has my photo next to it. I’m the reason the stereotype exists.

Crafting process and structure befuddles me. I don’t want to take the time. I just want to go—and see what happens.

Recently, we had a new colleague join the team who doesn’t really ambiguity as much as some of us on the team.

Every conversation we have with her is, “OK, let’s slow down and think about this for a minute.”

You’d think that would annoy the crap out of me, but we’d all be wrong!

I love it!

She takes information and data points from each of us and THEN she develops a viewpoint.

Ambiguity is unsettling. Faced with it, you are tempted to reach for a fast (potentially wrongheaded) solution. A good strategic leader holds steady, synthesizing information from many sources before developing a viewpoint.

To get good at this, you have to:

  • Seek patterns in multiple sources of data
  • Encourage others to do the same
  • Question prevailing assumptions and test multiple hypotheses simultaneously

If you do those three things, you’ll be able to accurately interpret how internal and external forces will change what you’re doing.

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 in 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.”

It’s really challenging to do. Most of us are perfectionists, which is why we do what we do.

So the idea that we’d produce something that isn’t perfect is mind-boggling.

If you can change your mindset around that, your decisiveness will also increase.

To be a PR 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 strong, innate need to be liked.

It is impossible to have complete consensus (anyone who has planned an event knows you will never make everyone happy), but a PR 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 PR 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 PR strategic thinker, you have to fail so you can learn. It’s the only way to do work on the other five habits.

How Do You Work on Being a PR Strategic Thinker?

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

Now it’s your turn.

What habits do you have that lead to your being a strategic thinker?

How can you help others who are told they need to be more strategic, but have no idea what that means?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She also has run, built, and grown an agency for the past 14 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.