Chapter 11: Strategy

The question of audience behaviour is at the heart of strategy: how will the campaign motivate an audience to change or sustain its behaviour such that the campaign will achieve its overarching goal(s)?

With the campaign’s goal(s) in place and the collected research analyzed, a PR practitioner should more or less understand where they need their audience to be at the end of the campaign and have at least some ideas about what would motivate the audience to change or sustain their behaviour.

Strategy explains the conceptual approach that will achieve the desired audience behaviour.

11.1. Setting Strategy

The process of creating a strategy requires high levels of planning and research. Strategies are created with a specific audience(s) in mind and help to ensure that the messages created and deployed motivate the audience to change or sustain their behaviour, as may be desirable to the client/employer. The strategy tells the campaign how to effectively deliver their message(s) to the target audience(s).

There are three key components to setting a clear strategy:

  • Audience selection and analysis
  • Desired behavioural change or continuity
  • Calculated timing

Let’s consider the example of major student union looking to push the cost of post-secondary education lower. The goal of the campaign is clear from that sentence: achieve reduced tuition fees.  So what should the strategy be? There are many potential approaches to that goal; a likely option is to pressure the institutions and governments responsible for assigning funding for post-secondary institutions. How can they apply pressure? Simply asking nicely won’t do the trick. What about this as a strategy?

To pressure the government to increase funding for post-secondary institutions and reduce tuition fees, the campaign will publicize a voter registration drive for people aged 18-24 and a subsequent effort to urge voters aged 18-24 to vote and to vote only for candidates supporting this policy. 

Implicit to this strategy statement is an understanding that the target audience is actually the decision makers in government, not the people aged 18-24. While the tactics of the campaign may be largely directed to that group, the communication to the real target audience—the government decision makers—is that their position as a government could be threatened by this new block of voters who could sway the outcome of an election. That’s evidence of audience selection and analysis. The audience is the person or group of people whose behaviour must change. While motivating young people to vote would be a general societal benefit, the campaign is only a success if the government decision makers reduce tuition fees. The timing is implicit here, too; it will mirror the timing of the election calendar, whenever the next election may be.

11.2. Strategic Analysis

Strategy involves a great deal of thought, planning, and analysis. It does not mean simply designing a clever advertisement or sending a tweet without thinking about its implications. Whatever the campaign’s goal may be, PR practitioners must begin with a well-defined strategy and continue to keep it at the forefront throughout the process of the campaign’s development and implementation.

Strategic communicators use analysis to examine trends, audiences, and campaign design. They also use these skills to manage organizational needs, solve complex problems, conduct research, come up with creative ideas and communication tactics, and conceptualize realistic and effective messaging goals. They also may use metric-driven programs such as Google Analytics or Kissmetrics. Strong analysis is not simply brilliance; it is a systematic approach to gathering information, considering options, and creating a viable approach that leads to a campaign’s success.

11.3. Four Strategic Approaches

While every strategy should be tailored to each specific campaign, audience, and context, there are four broad categories of strategic approaches:

  • Defensive
  • Responsive
  • Assertive
  • Collaborative
Examining the four strategic approaches in the context of being reactive or proactive and in the interest of the communicator or the public interest.

Defensive Approach

The primary form of communication for the defensive approach is planned one-way communication. The defensive approach uses the tools of publicity and public information to disseminate “facts” and “educate” audiences about an organization’s actions or policies in response to criticisms or crises.

Sometimes a defensive approach is the only one that can be used because the organization is falsely accused of certain behaviours or actions; defending itself from such erroneous information is a legitimate and logical recourse.

The defensive approach becomes a necessary response to certain situations and problems, but it is not an ideal approach if used exclusively for all situations. If public relations is relegated to practicing primarily the defensive approach in an organization, then its function is limited to damage control that results in the loss of credibility and trust with valuable audiences. Public relations professionals who are confined to practicing this approach are often representative of communication technicians and have very little power or participation in the decision-making process of an organization.

Responsive Approach

The responsive approach is also used to react to situations, but in this approach an organization acts in a fashion that demonstrates its concerns for society. This approach has become more prominent as organizations have lost the trust and confidence of their stakeholders. Social responsibility has become a rallying cry for consumer and environmental advocates. Some organizations learned that certain crises were better resolved when communication and actions showed remorse and concern toward audiences (and society at large). These organizations would also try to shift into a more proactive mode by identifying actions they were taking to prevent such crises in the future.

The much-documented Tylenol case set the standard for this approach. The introduction of tamper-proof seals revolutionized product packaging. The responsive approach in such cases was—at least, one would argue—more effective than a defensive approach would have been.

Assertive Approach

Bernays’s “Torches of Freedom” publicity stunt in the 1920s is a good example of the assertive approach. Bernays helped George Washington Hill and the American Tobacco Company break down the social taboo that discouraged women from smoking in public by having young debutantes, or paid representations of such figures, walk in the New York Easter parade smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes. Using publicity and Freudian psychology of attitude change, Bernays was able to condition the marketplace to accept female smokers and, thereby, increase the market for Lucky Strike. Bernays played an important role in the development of this asymmetrical approach as he promoted public relations as the “engineering of consent.” Organizations that use this approach see public relations as an asymmetric strategic function that helps control the external environment.

Many corporations have used the assertive approach to shape marketing, social, and regulatory conditions that would favor them. Sometimes the assertive approach is used to the detriment of society’s best interests. An example of an assertive measure that had a negative social impact is the criminal conspiracy by General Motors (GM), with Firestone Tires and Standard Oil of California, to eliminate the electric streetcar system in Los Angeles. Los Angeles had one of the best electric streetcar systems in the country before GM bought it out and converted it to GM buses that used Firestone tires and Standard Oil gasoline. In 1947 the Federal government found GM and its coconspirators guilty of criminal actions and fined them $5,000 (United States v. National City Lines, Inc., et al.). Since then, the city of Los Angeles, with support of federal grants, has spent billions of dollars on building an electric subway system to reduce pollution and public transportation problems. At the same time, there is an abundance of prosocial examples of the assertive approach, such as the civil rights movement and health awareness campaigns to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and lung diseases.

Collaborative Approach

The collaborative approach is, or should be, used by organizations when building consensus and support. Collaboration relies on an organization’s ability to show how its actions will benefit—or at least not harm—its stakeholders. A collaborative approach requires interaction with the audiences that invites participation and involvement along the conditions of honest and genuine dialogue that respects the rights of each side and is non-manipulative in intent or action. Collaboration emphasizes that the audiences who are affected by or who can affect the action of an organization’s decision should participate in the decision-making process. It involves cooperation to develop equilibrium between the interests of the two parties. The collaborative approach uses the coordination motive to negotiate outcomes that will help strengthen relationships with key stakeholders, helping both an organization’s self-interest and relationship maintenance.

11.4. Strategy Versus Tactics

This distinction was noted in Chapter 10, but as a refresher, strategy is the conceptual explanation of how a campaign will motivate their audience to change or sustain their behaviour. An outsider cannot see the strategy; it can only be interpreted.

Tactics are the physical, observable tools the campaign uses to engage audiences. Examples could include television commercials, townhall meetings, op-ed articles in newspapers, or handing out leaflets in a busy public area. Outsiders can see the tactics being used.

The next chapter will deal with public relations tactics.


Parts of this chapter were adapted from Writing for Strategic Communication Industries by Jasmine Roberts, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Parts of this chapter were adapted from Public Relations, published by Andy Schmitz in the 2012 Book Archive, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.


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Public Relations: From Strategy to Action Copyright © 2023 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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