Tactics comply with strategy
If a campaign uses tactics that are inconsistent with the strategy, the campaign can no longer be seen as strategic.
As an example, consider a campaign that sets a goal of achieving a specific legislative change. In looking at the audience, the research indicates that policymakers may be willing to make that legislative change, but they don’t want to be seen as beholden to any industry or the company that the PR practitioners is working for.
Therefore, the strategy involves quickly and quietly engaging policymakers behind the scenes (a.k.a. lobbying) and making sure such legislative changes are not attributed to the industry or the client/employer. If that’s the strategy, publicity-oriented tactics cannot be used, such as public events, news releases, or public speeches. The campaign will use less obvious tactics, such as arranging meetings with policymakers, producing research that supports their desired policy change, and possibly funding allied organizations that are willing to promote compatible messages to the voters in electoral districts that key politicians represent.
12.1. Tactics are Measurable
Tactics can be clearly linked to campaign objectives and the use of those tactics can be evaluated in relation to their success in achieving those objectives.
For example, with the above-noted campaign, the PR practitioner(s) will use the tactic of holding private meetings with politicians. Believing that more meetings with more politicians will increase the likelihood of success, the campaign may set an objective of meeting with 75% of the politicians elected to the legislature. After conducting those meetings, they can count whether they hit their objective and they can observe whether the politicians they met with voted in favour of the legislative changes they wanted.
Can the campaign know for sure that a meeting with a politician resulted in a favourable vote in the legislature or not meeting with a politician resulted in an unfavourable vote? No, they cannot. However, they can make such measurements and interpret them to the best of their ability.
This is true of many objectives and returns to a point made previously. A campaign can achieve its overarching goal without hitting any of its objectives or a campaign can hit all of its objectives and not achieve its overarching goal.
In another example, if a campaign wanted to motivate young adults to vote, they use the tactic of targeted social media engagement and set an objective for a certain number of likes, followers, shares, and so on.
When campaigns design their tactical plans, those plans are linked to objectives that follow a “SMART” model; they are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-sensitive. The tactics and objectives are often displayed in a table that shows the tactic to be used, how it will be used, a timeline of when it will be used, and an objective that shows how the successful (or unsuccessful) use of the tactic will be evaluated.
12.2. Categories of PR Tactics
Tactics can be divided into four simple categories, based on the level of control and cost associated with each:
- Earned media
- Unearned media (advertising)
- Controlled media
- Shared media (mostly social media)
For most PR practitioners, earned media is the biggest “bang” for the least “buck.” Earned media refers to news coverage in newspapers, magazines, television programs, radio broadcasts, and other (usually) mainstream media for which no money was paid. The client/employer does something newsworthy and the mainstream media provides coverage for the interest of its readers/listeners/viewers; thus, the media coverage has been earned.
Despite the explosion and popularity of social media, strong coverage in mainstream media is still extremely important. Indeed, strong mainstream media coverage will result in those video clips and articles being shared through social media, amplifying the message.
Earned media is based on journalistic interest in whatever the client/employer has said, done, not done, had done to it, or had said about it. There are a few traits to one of these actions or statements that makes it newsworthy:
Not surprisingly, news media love something controversial. Conflict helps to tell a story and helps to crystalize the issues for media consumers (i.e., readers, listeners, and viewers). Conflict also generates emotional investment, not only for media consumers, but for the opinion leaders and stakeholders involved, which amplifies the level of interest for all.
The more people who are impacted by a story, the more coverage it will (or should) receive. People care about what’s happening to them, their neighbourhood, their city/town, their region, their province, and their country (often in that order). Students of PR may note that whenever a plane crashes abroad, the news media always note how many passengers were from the local country or area. This is a way of showing local impact on the story (though one may ponder the ethical implications of why media consumers have such tribal interpretations of the value of the lives lost in the same plane crash).
It’s in the name: news. Old news isn’t news unless there’s something significant to update. News that has not yet been reported by any mainstream media outlet is much more exciting, as news media crave the opportunity to “break” a story by being the first to publish it. News media often credit the agency that broke a story, so media want to be the agency being credited, not the agency giving credit to a competitor.
Again, this is associated with being new, but it is also something rare. For example, new technologies, previously unperformed feats of human athleticism or creativity, and never-before-seen discoveries of science are of heightened interest to news media.
In some situations, none of the above may apply and, yet, the news media will cover it (such as every sneeze or utterance of major celebrities). People love to indulge in “palace intrigue” stories, especially of the British royal family, but not only them and not only literal royals. The shuffling of personnel in the Whitehouse draws media attention, even when those changes have no impact on the general public, have no novelty, are not really controversial (hard as media may try to make it so), and not really timely. However, there is no building more politically prominent than the Whitehouse and no family more prominent than the British royal family.
Yes, fluffy animals—and colourful animals and cetaceans and any animal that is rare or at least not found locally. News media love a story about a pregnant whale in an aquarium or a pregnant elephant at a zoo. (The news story in Anchorman about a pregnant koala at the zoo being a top story is only oh-so-slightly an exaggeration.)
If sheep are being transported around a region as part of a new biodynamic farming method, the news media will show up to capture video and tell the story. They don’t want every story on the evening news to be about politicians and crime; they need something uplifting or adorable once in a while.
In short, unearned media is advertising. News media will not provide this content because of news interest; campaigns must pay to have the content displayed, which increases the amount of control over the content, but decreases the level of interest the audience takes in it.
Audiences are typically wary of advertisements and often tune them out (and often deliberately at that). However, audiences tune in for earned media.
The craft of advertising merits an entire post-secondary course and its own textbook, so this chapter will not attempt to explain the world of advertising here. However, advertising can be bought in a wide variety of media, such as mainstream media (television, radio, newspapers, magazines), billboards, bus stops, sports arenas, the internet, and social media channels. This option is expensive, but effective (as hard as audiences may try to tune it out).
Also known as “owned media,” this refers to media that an organization directly controls, such as its own website, the audio in its businesses (such as the advertisements companies play for themselves between songs in their retail locations), or the walls of its facilities. The content may come from within, such as testimonials from employees about how much the like working for the organization or may even come from external sources, such as product reviews provided by customers.
This category is mostly social media, but also includes partnerships, such as sponsoring an event hosted by a local charity, where the organization has some control over how their brand and message are communicated, but not total control. They entrust, in this case, the local charity with pushing the message forward to the target audience (much as what happens in social media).
Again, how to use social media to communicate with target audiences could be an entire course—in fact, a course this author teaches—so there isn’t space to do the topic justice here. However, an enormous amount of information is available to PR practitioners about which audiences are using which social media platforms and how. The decision to pick between TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or Snapchat should come down to which audience is using which medium and how, as well as the nature of the PR campaign. PR practitioners should have a strong understanding of social media engagement, both earned and unearned, but also need to acknowledge that this is a specialization area where dedicated social media communicators may need to be hired in order to ensure success in these media.
12.3. Tactical Laundry List
There are so many tactics. This chapter does not attempt to be exhaustive, as truly no book could ever achieve that, but this is a long list of PR tactics, along with a short explanation of each.
Media Relations Tactics
News release: tell the news media what they should write about your client/employer.
Media advisory: tell the news media to come film/photograph/interview your client/employer and/or their event.
Media kit: tell the news what they should know about your client/employer before they write about them.
Op-ed article: write an interesting article for the news media to publish, giving credit to you or your client/employer.
News conference: invite the news media to record your client/employer making an announcement or statement, giving them a chance to ask questions. (This is preceded by a media advisory.)
Interview: invite the news media to ask a spokesperson questions to help inform an article they will write or a clip they will produce.
Exclusive: invite one news media to have exclusive coverage of your story, forgoing the rest, at least until the story has been published.
Media tour: invite the news media to see something your client/employer does really well or has started doing recently. Examples include touring a new facility or letting them participate in the production process in an existing facility.
Sample: send your client/employer’s product to the news media so they can write about it; this is popular with edible products, books, and new novelty products.
Publicity stunt: be careful! These can go sideways quickly and have disastrous effects. Plan meticulously, consider Murphy’s Law, and practice every step of the stunt privately before trying it publicly. Good luck!
Editorial board visit: if the client/employer is noteworthy enough, a newspaper’s editorial board may agree to meet with them to have a conversation that leads to media coverage, often an opinion piece, but not necessarily.
Knock on doors: nothing stimulates a better conversation with the audience than a one-on-one conversation, right at their home.
Be present: when major events are happening, set up a booth with information, treats, novel giveaways, and fun activities. Typical major events include national and regional holidays, social and political events, such as Pride parades, or themed events, such as Labour Day or a Santa Claus parade.
Go where they go: if your client/employer’s audience loves monster trucks, look to connect at monster truck shows. If they like art, connect with them outside the art gallery. This could involve setting up a booth, buying exposure, handing out information or fun giveaways, or other similar actions.
Make allies: work with local charities, service clubs, or other groups to help connect with mutually sympathetic audiences. A lot of good public relations work happens at charity fundraisers, chambers of commerce, union halls, and service clubs (such as the Rotary Club).
Host an open house: invite you client/employer’s audience to their business or place of operations. Give them a chance to begin the conversations they want to have and engage responsively.
Phone them: people hate phone calls—at first. Once they understand that there’s a real person on the other end of the phone who isn’t trying to scam them, they sometimes become interested in meaningful conversations. Sometimes not.
Deploy a friend tree: once you have somebody who feels strongly positive about your message—sometimes known as a “brand evangelist”—have them engage people they know directly or invite those people to an event your client/employer is hosting.
Write to them: if you know where the audience lives, send them a letter. This often works well with neighbourhood-based engagement, but can work with any audience, so long as you can make sure the right letter gets to the right reader.
Give something away: publicize that you’ll give something away for free, perhaps in exchange for showing up at a particular time and place or providing a mailing address, email address, and/or phone number (to allow the conversation to be continued later).
Alternative Media Tactics
Billboards: for the right audience (motorists), these can be very effective, if expensive.
Human billboards: yes, you can pay a person to attach a billboard or costume to their body and move it about. This is an expensive gimmick that looks cheap.
Burma Shave: a misnomer to most, this tactic refers to standing by the side of a major road waving signs at traffic, sometimes in a staggered fashion with multiple messages for motorists as they move past the line of sign wavers.
Rallies: gather an enthusiastic group to a very public place (often a court house or city hall) to hear a few speeches and cheer in favour of something.
Protests: gather an angry group to a very public place (often a court house or city hall) to hear a few speeches and cheer against something.
Vandalism: okay, this tactic is illegal and you definitely shouldn’t do it. However, if one were to consider such a tactic, they should know that it typically works best for political and social causes, not corporate clients, and it needs to be either very clever, very poignant, or very shocking. But, yeah, this author definitely does not recommend vandalism.
Newsjacking: this is when somebody tries to insert themselves into a news story that has little or nothing to do with them in an effort to promote their own separate (or minimally related) issue. This one can backfire, so be careful.
Guerilla publicity: there are all sorts of creative options here. One example this author especially admired was a non-profit organization that drew chalk outlines of people who had died in the streets from exposure and added the names, ages, and information about their cause of death to highlight the human impact of inadequate social services and to shame the audience into realizing their own indifference to these tragic deaths.
Confrontation: publicly challenge or attack a competitor. Some politicians will even crash a rival’s event to challenge the narrative being given, drum up attention for themselves, and create conflict (which is newsworthy, as noted earlier).
Social Media Tactics
Ride hashtags: when a hashtag is trending, if appropriate, latch on to it and insert the client/employer’s brand into the conversation.
Latch onto influencers: connect with influencers (often by sending them something for free or paying them) and push into their channel to connect with a mutual target audience.
Push content: though this seems obvious, PR practitioners should push their client/employer’s content into social media channels in a way that captures the attention of the target audience and is easily shareable.
Be conversational: social media campaigns that are strictly one way and stop as soon as the campaign hits “send” are less engaging. When somebody takes the time to engage with a campaign, have that conversation.
Recruit brand ambassadors: work with somebody prominent to become a spokesperson or de facto spokesperson for the campaign’s cause.
Blog: tell the world interesting stories about your client/employer, their products/services, their operations, the people who rely on them, the people who help out, or anything else that might create some human interest and “feel good” vibes. Make the blog easy to share.
Vlog: give people useful advice for free. Go online and tell people how to do what your client/employer does; share a few “tricks of the trade” and make your client/employer a respected authority on the matter.
Show up when it counts (and record it): if something problematic is happening in your client/employer’s sector, make sure the client/employer is part of the solution and showing up to help. Capture that effort on film and push it into social media, connecting it with relevant hashtags and influencer accounts.
Create unique content: if there’s a content gap out there, fill it with interesting, useful, and unique content. (For a stunning example, study the Kony 2012 campaign.)
In wrapping up this section, remember that creating a social media account is free, but using it effectively can be very expensive. Also remember that this list is helpful, but far from exhaustive. There are myriad tactics; some work well and some are risky. Each campaign must choose the best tactics—tactics that are congruent with their strategy—to achieve their objectives and overall campaign goal.
The tiniest sliver of this chapter was adapted from The Evolving World of Public Relations by NSCC and Rosemary Martinelli, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.