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

Although some people try to do tactical or project planning without first having a strategic plan, it's rarely successful since good tactical planning is essentially an extension of strategic planning. That's why the steps described here are numbered as a continuation of the strategic planning process and frequently refer back to previous steps described in the reading Strategic Planning Steps.

Selecting and setting objectives: Step 11

Tactical public relations objectives are developed by analyzing the organization's strategic plan, particularly responses to question 7 which reveal how each audiences' current view of the organization differs from what the organization would like it to be. In addition to identifying which relationships are most in need of attention, this analysis allows the organization to identify common threads among its various relationships and its audiences' perceptions of it. Specifically, you should try to determine:

  • What does each target audience think your organization does well?
  • What do they think it does poorly?
  • What do they like about the organization?
  • What do they dislike about it?
  • What would they like to have changed?

These findings then become the basis for developing a prioritized list of objectives- i.e., specific, short-term goals - that often include or can be linked to a project, publication, special event, or other task whose achievement can be readily measured. The assumption and intent is that successfully completing these objectives will, over time, ultimately lead to the realization of the organization's long-term goals.

11. What short-term objectives will lead to the goals of the strategic plan?

There are any number of potentially useful ways public relations objectives can be identified, organized, and prioritized. Two of the most common are described below.

    Project-oriented objectives focus on specific work products (e.g., news releases, publications, etc.) or tasks (e.g., holding an open house, testifying before a legislative sub-committee, etc.) that end up on a giant "to do list" of projects that will enhance the organization's public relations. These can be either new initiatives or a continuation of current activities.

      Usually the first consideration in trying to prioritize such a list is predicting how many people will be affected. The more people it will impact, the higher its priority is likely to be, although some consideration is also given to cost, ease of completion, and precedent. If it's relative cheap, easy to do, and is something the organization has been doing for a long time - e.g., publishing a monthly employee newsletter - continuing to do it may rise to the top of priority list regardless of how many people are actually affected by it.

    Relationship-oriented objectives focus on the organization's various publics and the quality of its relationships with each of them. Recognizing that the ideal of having a perfect relationship with each and every public is rarely attained and that it's almost impossible to devote equal time and attention to every separate audience, this approach tries to list the organization's relationships in the order in which they should be given attention.

      The priority given to any particular relationship is based on a combination of that public's importance to the organization and an assessment of how far from ideal its current relationship with the organization is. The more important the public is and the further from ideal its relationship is, the higher its priority becomes.

Generally speaking, performance or production oriented planners, especially public relations practitioners who are using a first or second phase approach to public relations, are likely to prefer the first approach and to emphasize task-oriented planning. Third-phase public relations practitioners and relationship-builders are more likely to use the second approach.

Regardless of which approach is used, the end result of this step in tactical planning is a list of objectives the organization will attempt to achieve. However, given the wide variety of tasks/relationships that may be included in this list and the differing degrees of complexity that they're likely to have, a grid format is no longer well-suited for further developing and reporting on the plan. It would probably be far more effective to use a page by page planning format in which each objective is placed on a separate page and questions 12-15 are answered in whatever length and detail is required without worrying about the fact that the plans for meeting some objectives will be longer than others.

Return to planning overview.

Actions needed to reach these objectives: Steps 12-15

NOTE: Regardless of apparent redundancy, steps 12-15 should be individually applied to each objective identified in step 11.

12. What specific actions or messages will lead to achieving this objective?

This is a deceptively short and simple question that actually requires multiple answers and will certainly involve getting input from many more members of your organization's management team than the public relations staff alone. This will be especially true if any of the proposals involve activities that go beyond communication, require large expenditures of time and/or money, or require changes in established organizational policies and procedures.

Planning the communication aspects alone can be an enormous task. It requires that media choices and formats be specified down to the level of identifying a spokesperson, selecting styles, tones, themes, and linked appeals, as well as developing message content. And, each of these decisions needs to take into account all available information about the target audience's media preferences, special interests, and current issues or appeals that are of particular concern to them, information which you will have gathered from their responses to questions 5 and 6 in the strategic planning process.

13. What resources will be needed for these tasks?

This is another deceptively simple question that may take a lot more time and effort than you expect. However, honest and realistic estimates of the personnel, time, equipment, and out-of-pocket expenses required to achieve each objective will let you as a planner - and, more importantly, the management team - compare the expected effort and expense of completing each project with its likely outcome, essentially, a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis. It also helps with scheduling and work assignments when/if the project is actually undertaken. For both reasons it's important to estimate the necessary resources as accurately as possible.

Resource estimates need to include routine staff time and effort plus everyday office expenses such as postage and copying in addition to obvious and extraordinary expenses such as hiring freelancers, purchasing materials, contracting for outside services, and renting special equipment or a particular venue. When appropriate, estimates should be reported on both a per instance basis and as a total cost over the life of the plan.

    For instance, a weekly employee newsletter that appears to be a bargain when described on a per issue basis as costing $1,200 for printing and 75 hours of staff time may look very different to management when it's annual printing costs are reported as $62,400 and it's staff-time is described as 3900 person-hours per year, essentially the entire work time of two full-time employees. It will appear even more costly when the salaries of the two relatively low-level pubic relations staff members (say $80,000 each plus fringe benefits) and other incidentals are included. This so-called "bargain" newsletter is actually costing more than $223,000 per year.

14. When should it be done?

In some instances, this answer is a specific day, date, or time or perhaps a recurring, periodic response, e.g., once a year, once a month, or each pay day. In other cases, the answer may outline a contingency that may, or may not ever, occur, e.g., when the company's stock price drops below 15 times earnings or if a high level executive is indicted.

15. How will success in achieving each objective be evaluated?

In selecting or setting up evaluation mechanisms, public relations people need to keep a sharp eye on what it is they really need/want to measure so they're don't inadvertently end up measuring something easy to measure but irrelevant. Not everything measurable is meaningful in all contexts.

  • The number of people who attend an open house, for instance, is easy to count. But, in and of itself, it doesn't indicate how these people feel about the organization or if their tour of its facilities changed their opinions in any way. To find this out, you have to ask them, and that's much more difficult than doing a headcount. However, it's also much more likely to provide you with meaningful information.
  • Similarly, some media relations people measure their success by the number or percentage of their news releases that are used by the media or by the number of inches or minutes of coverage their stories receive. Still others have a complex formula that assigns a dollar value to their each story that's run based on audience size and amount of coverage. While these measures may gauge the amount of media coverage an organization receives, and perhaps its success in placing stories in the media, they don't necessarily measure the organization's success in building relationships with its key audiences. That's because they don't show how much attention people paid to these stories or what kind of impact this coverage had on their opinions about your organization. They often don't even indicate whether the people who saw/read that coverage were actually the kinds of people the organization needs to reach.

Keep in mind that the ultimate goal of public relations is helping an organization maximize the benefits of its relationships with all its various publics. It's goal is not necessarily getting news coverage or publishing employee publications or having a large turn out for an open house or ... You get the idea. Whatever evaluation methods are used must focus on how well the organization's relationships are being handled, not how quickly or how well a to do list is completed.

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