PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Public relations planning:
Strategic planning steps
© 1998; 2020 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations About the author

Public relations practitioners who have a clear idea of the mission and goals of the organization for whom they are working and who further understand how public relations fits into that mission can construct a basic strategic public relations plan by sequentially answering the ten following questions.

This part of the strategic planning process is best recorded and reported by filling in a planning grid.

Audience and goal identification: Steps 1-3

The first questions that need to be addressed--e.g. With whom does the organization need to have relationships? and What does it want these people to think about the organization?--can be answered after a little introspection and discussion with top management. Keep in mind that these are ultimately top management's decisions, not the public relations practitioners'. While the public relations people should speak out and try to influence who is included and who is excluded from this list, in most organizations they will not have the authority to make the final decisions.

Probably the most effective way to seek answers for these first four questions is for the public relations staff to develop a preliminary list of target audiences and relationships and then meet with key managers to review and discuss them.

1. Who are the organization's key target audiences?

Depending upon the nature of the audiences, these listings may be as short and simple as the names of key people, organizations, and communities or as long and complex as psychodemographic profiles of prospective buyers of a particular product. For most organizations the list will include a mix of short and long identifications. That's fine. Consistency isn't the goal; useful information is. Long audience identifications, if they include unique characteristics, appeals that are particularly effective with this audience, or the best ways of reaching the audience, can be very useful.

NOTE: Each of the remaining questions, 2-10, must be answered for each audience identified in the first step.

2. Why is this audience important to the organization?

No matter how obvious it seems, each audience should be evaluated in terms of its relevance and importance to the organization. Data about the audience's abstract or general importance - e.g., how big it is, how politically influential it is, or how rich its members are - is not enough. It can, in fact, be misleading. What's needed is information about how and why this audience affects the organization. What does it, or could it do, to help or hinder the organization in reaching its goals?

Padding an audience list with people or organizations who have little or no direct bearing on the organization is a waste of time. It serves little purpose, no matter how prestigious these audiences may be. It might even interfere with or delay meaningful planning. There is, however, a tendency among some public relations people who are enchanted by various elite media to treat them as a part of their media relations audience simply because of their prestige.

  • Media relations specialists all over the world, for instance, dream of getting coverage in The New York Times, not because their constituents read or would be influenced by The New York Times but simply because it is The Times and reaching it is a pinnacle of journalistic success.
  • Similarly, some promoters for local festivals and special events spend hundreds of dollars and countless hours of time trying to get Willard Scott to mention their event on The Today Show on the morning it takes place.
    • A number of years ago, a southeastern city's special events coordinator who spoke to one of my public relations classes admitted that getting mentioned on The Today Show had been his number one media relations goal for two years before he finally succeeded. And, even after that, it remained one of his primary goals. He would beam with pride each time he talked about Willard Scott referring to his special event on The Today Show, even though he also admitted that it didn't have any effect at all on attendance at the event. "After all," he sighed, "how could it? -- More than 99 percent of the people who watched The Today Show that morning lived too far away from here to have even thought of attending the event."

3. What view does the organization want this audience to have of it?

Another way of asking this question is: what kind of relationship does the organization want to have with this audience?

Both versions boil down to the same thing: an indication of what the organization hopes to accomplish by interacting with this audience. It may be having them purchase products or services, or voting for specific political candidates, or supporting new legislation, or any number of other things, depending upon the organization and the audience.

The more clearly and concretely the answer is expressed, the more helpful it will be for planning and for relationship building. Statements like "We want them to think of us as an asset to the community." are practically worthless for planning purposes.

Return to planning overview


Reporting research findings: Steps 4-6

Once the target audiences and desired relationships are nailed down, the next step is to explore the existing relationship the organization has with each of those audiences and decide whether it needs any adjustment. This calls for more than internal discussion with your organization's management team. Simply letting the public relations staff and/or organizational managers speculate will never yield reliable information.

You need to check with people who actually know - i.e., actual members of the target audiences. Carefully conducted research, whether it's done by the public relations staff or by hired research consultants, is the only way to get vital and meaningful information about the audiences you need to reach. It's critical to successful planning that such research be done, and that its findings be incorporated into the plan that's being developed.

4. What is this audience's current view of our organization?

Another way of asking is: what is our organization's current relationship with this audience? The phrasing you use should correspond to question 3 so the answers can be juxtaposed, showing where this relationship is now compared to where your organization wants it to be.

This is not something to be guessed at. More than any other part of the strategic planning process, it requires accurate, non-ambiguous answers. The rest of the planning process, including the setting of specific objectives and the measurement of success, will be based on whatever information you report for this step.

5. What issues and appeals are important to this audience?

6. Which media does this audience use and trust the most?

Some bare-bones planners consider questions 5 and 6 extraneous and, at one level, they may be. They are not essential for assessing the organization's current relationships or for determining what can be done to improve them, but the information they provide can be extremely helpful later, during tactical planning and when actually trying to implement your public relations campaign.

Answering these questions helps ensure that the most effective and efficient media for reaching the target audiences are used and that the messages sent through these channels will feature the best possible themes and concepts for generating a response from the audience.

If you include these questions in your planning, ask them in the broadest possible way. Responses about preferred media or channels of communication should not be limited to the major mass media; they should also take into account narrow and more selective communication techniques - everything from interpersonal conversations to public speeches to telephone calls to direct mail to the Internet. And, the list of important or appealing issues should not be restricted only to issues which are directly related to your organization and its mission.

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Assessment and plan development: Steps 7-10

This stage of the planning process integrates the first two stages with a series of questions that build upon and further explore the responses than have been gathered by the earlier questions.

7. How does this audience's current view of our organization differ from what we want it to be?

Or, how does our organization's current relationship with this audience compare with what we want it to be? Regardless of the specific language of the question, answering it is simply a matter of comparing what our organization's managers said in response to question 3 with what we've already ascertained about the target audience from question 4.

From this our organization will be able to see which of its relationships are moving along on track and which are most in need of adjustment. A frequent outcome of this planning step is a prioritized list of relationships that need immediate attention.

8. Which message themes will have the greatest impact on this audience?

In some instances, especially when an organization is closely tied to an issue that has a strong emotional context for its audiences, the responses to this question end up being identical to the responses to question 5. In other cases, when the issues audiences feel strongly about (answers to question 5) have no connection with the organization, there may initially be little correlation.

However, what has increasingly been happening in recent years is that organizations that feel it is in their best interest to establish additional linkages to their constituents seem to become "inspired by" the perceived strength of an audience's feeling about a particular topic and adopt a similar public stance on that issue even though it has no direct bearing on the organization and would otherwise have been ignored.

9. What are the best ways of reaching this audience?

As with question 8, there are some instances in which responses to this item are nearly identical to the media preferences identified for the audience in question 6. And, sometimes, the audience's stated media preferences may not be suitable or affordable for the organization to use. In these cases, alternative strategies may need to be found.

Whatever means of reaching the target audience are identified here, they must be appropriate, available, and affordable for your organization and for the particular circumstances. Thus, it may be most effective to list several different means of communicating with each audience and then specify which of those media are most appropriate for different types of messages and/or situations.

10. Who will serve as the organization's primary contact for working with this audience?

Even though public relations is concerned with all of an organization's relationships, the public relations practitioners themselves are not necessarily the most appropriate "point persons" for dealing with every audience or every situation.

  • Prestigious, high-profile audiences - political figures, major business executives, etc. - may not be satisfied with messages they receive from public relations staff members. They may expect and warrant the personal attention of the CEO or the chairman of the board.
  • Other audiences may be so involved in highly technical issues that they should be dealt with by subject matter specialists and technical experts instead of spokespersons.
  • Still others may not care who talks to them or sends messages just so someone from the organization pays attention to them.

Consequently, your list of primary audience contacts may include a mix of public relations people, management executives, technical specialists, and others, each of whom should be chosen for this role because of their apparent rapport with a particular audience rather than their job titles.

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