Strategic Planning for Public Relations

Four Phases, Nine Steps

From Smith R.D. (2016). Strategic Planning for Public Relations (5th ed.). Routledge / Taylor & Francis.



The Process of Strategic Planning

for Public Relations and Marketing Communication



Step 1: Analyzing the Situation

Step 2: Analyzing the Organization

Step 3: Analyzing the Publics



Step 4: Establishing Goals and Objectives

Step 5: Formulating Action and Response Strategies

Step 6: Developing the Message Strategy


Phase Three: TACTICS

Step 7: Selecting Communication Tactics

Step 8: Implemeneting the Strategic Plan



Step 9: Evaluating the Strategic Plan




Strategic Public Relations


Most textbooks dealing with public relations encourage a four-phase process. Some use the RACE acronym (research, action, communication, evaluation) articulated by John Marston (1963) in The Nature of Public Relations. In Public Relations Cases, Jerry Hendrix and Darrell Hayes (2012) use the acronym ROPE (research, objectives, programming, evaluation). In Public Relations Campaign Strategies, Robert Kendall (1997) offers the RAISE formula (research, adaptation, implementation strategy, evaluation). Kathleen Kelly (2001) posits ROPES (research, objectives, program, evaluation, stewardship). Sheila Crifasi (2000) has come up with ROSIE (research, objectives, strategy, implementation, evaluation).


Most comprehensive public relations textbooks, including this one, simply refer to a four-stage process without constraining it to an acronym. While acronyms can be useful mnemonic devices, they sometimes are too confining.


Marketing communication books also present a step-by-step process, but with less consistency about the number of steps involved. In their crossover text on social marketing, Philip Kotler, Ned Roberto, and Nancy Lee (2002) identify sight steps in four general stages that focus on analysis of the environment, identification of audiences and objectives, development of a strategic approach and development of the implementation plan.


Strategic Planning for Public Relations offers a model that is meant to be both logical and easy to follow. The steps are grouped into four phases that are both descriptive and accurate, but their names don’t lend themselves to an acronym. So without a great deal of fanfare, this model is called, simply, the Nine Steps of Strategic Public Relations.


The process of these steps is deliberate, and they must be taken in sequence. After identifying a problem, our tendency too often is to skip ahead to seeking solutions, leaping over research and analysis. This can result in unwarranted assumptions that later prove to be costly, counterproductive, and embarrassing. Careful planning leads to programs that are proactive and preventive rather than to activities that are reactive and remedial. At the same time, the steps in this process are flexible enough to allow for constant monitoring, testing, and adjusting as needed.


If you ask experienced communication managers you may find that they don’t necessarily articulate their planning specifically along the lines of these nine steps. But talk with them about their work and you are likely to find that they go through a process pretty much like the one being presented here, whether they identify “steps” or not.


A few practitioners may admit (somewhat guiltily) that they don’t do much planning. If they are being honest, they’ll tell you they know they’ve been lucky so far with their hunches. Perhaps they don’t do formal planning because they don’t have the time or because the environment is so unstable that all they can do is react. Some practitioners may tell you their bosses and clients want action rather than planning (though such shortsighted bosses and clients often don’t remain in business very long).


If you could observe how professionals work, however, you’d probably find that effective communication managers do plan, and plan well. The good ones have learned how to build the research and planning components into their work, imbedding it in their service to clients and bosses. Increasingly, public relations organizations are using their websites to set the stage for such a four-stage planning process.



Phase 1: Formative Research


During the first of the four phases, the focus is on the preliminary work of communication planning, which is the need to gather information and analyze the situation. In three steps, the planner draws on existing information available to the organization and, at the same time, creates a research program for gaining additional information needed to drive the decisions that will come later in the planning process.


Step 1: Analyzing the Situation. Your analysis of the situation is the crucial beginning to the process. It is imperative that all involved—planner, clients, supervisors, key colleagues, and the ultimate decision makers are in solid agreement about the nature of the opportunity or obstacle to be addressed in this program. It’s also important to learn what researchers have discovered about the relevant issue and to note pertinent case studies.


Step 2: Analyzing the Organization. This step involves a careful and candid look at three aspects of the organization: (1) its internal environment (mission, performance, and resources), (2) its public perception (reputation), and (3) its external environment (competitors and opponents, as well as supporters).


Step 3: Analyzing the Publics. In this step you identify and analyze your key publics—the various groups of people who interact with your organization on the issue at hand. Strategic Planning for Public Relations provides an objective technique for setting priorities among the various publics, helping you select those most important on the particular issue being dealt with. This step includes an analysis of each public in terms of its wants, needs, and expectations about the issue; its relationship to the organization; its involvement in communication and with various media; and a variety of social, economic, political, cultural, and technological trends that may affect it.


Phase 2: Strategy


The second phase of the planning process deals with the heart of planning—making decisions dealing with the expected impact of the communication, as well as the nature of the communication itself.


Step 4: Establishing Goals and Objectives. Step 4 focuses on the ultimate position sought for the organization and for the product or service. This step helps you develop clear, specific, and measurable objectives that identify the organization’s hoped-for impact on the awareness, acceptance, and action of each key public. A good deal of attention is given to objectives dealing with acceptance of the message, because this is the most crucial area for public relations and marketing communication strategists.


Step 5: Formulating Action and Response Strategies. A range of possible actions is available to the organization, and in this step you consider what you might do in various situations. This section includes typologies of public relations initiatives and responses. No strategic campaign would include every possible option, but a well-planned campaign would consider each in light of its goals and objectives.


Step 6: Developing the Message Strategy. This step deals with the various decisions about the message, such as the person or entity who will present the message to the key publics, the content of the message, its tone and style, verbal and nonverbal cues, and related issues. Lessons from research about persuasive communication and dialogue will be applied for the ultimate purpose of designing a message that reflects the information gained through Step 3 focusing on key publics.


Phase 3: Tactics


During the third phase, various communication tools are considered and the visible elements of the communication plan are created.


Step 7: Selecting Communication Tactics. This inventory deals with the various communication options. Specifically, the planner considers four categories: (1) face-to-face communication and opportunities for personal involvement; (2) organizational media (sometimes called controlled media); (3) news media (uncontrolled media); and (4) advertising and promotional media (another form of controlled media). While all of these tools can be used by any organization, not every tool is appropriate for each issue.


Step 8: Implementing the Strategic Plan. This step turns the raw ingredients identified in the previous step into a recipe for successful public relations and marketing communication. In Step 8, planners package the tactics identified in the menu review of the previous step into a cohesive communication program. Here planners also develop budgets and schedules, and otherwise prepare to implement the communication program.


Phase 4: Evaluative Research


                        The final phase of strategic planning deals with evaluation and assessment. It enables you to determine the degree to which the stated objectives have been met and thus to modify or continue the communication activities.


Step 9: Evaluating the Strategic Plan. This is the final planning element, indicating specific methods for measuring the effectiveness of each recommended tactic in meeting the stated objectives.



Attributes of Strategic Communication


An effective communication program includes the following attributes, which apply equally to corporations and nonprofit organizations, as well as to large and small endeavors.


Spurred both by regulation and customer demand, organizations must be accountable to their publics. Most publics increasingly expect quality performance and open communication. Long-term success comes to organizations with high performance, delivering quality products and services. All organizations operate in a competitive environment. Publics besought by rivals will remain loyal to organizations that earn loyalty consistently and continuously.


Effective communication involves cooperation and integration between public relations and marketing. Just as each knight was an equal participant at the round table in King Arthur’s court, so too should both disciplines have effective and equal voices.


The consumer philosophy has taken hold of all aspects of society, and organizations must answer with a customer-driven response, focusing on benefits for their publics. People support organizations that serve their interests and needs. Organizations, in turn, must be open to adaptation to new environments and changing needs of their publics and markets.


Organizational communication adheres to high ethical standards of honesty, accuracy, decency, truth, public interest, and mutual good.

Growing numbers of organizations have developed clear credos or codes of ethics.


Mergers, downsizing, and restructuring have led both businesses and nonprofits to seek ways to operate with lean resources, and the duplication and counterproductive actions that exist amid the isolation of marketing from public relations often is too great a price for organizations to pay.


Strategic communication is part of an organization’s management role and decision-making process. It is rooted in the organization’s mission as lived out through its bottom line. This bottom line goes beyond money earned or raised; it focuses on the organization’s fundamental purpose or mission. Strategists plot courses, set objectives, and measure results.


Many media changes are affecting the way organizations communicate. The “mass media” have fragmented to the point that none rules supreme any more. Lines have blurred between news and entertainment. Meanwhile, increasing advertising costs and tighter promotional budgets have led organizations to look at the more cost-effective communication and promotional tools from the public relations side of the house.


Strategic communication uses multiple tools, drawing from all communication-related disciplines to talk with various groups of people. New technologies make it easier to supplement general media with more personal and interactive targeted communication vehicles.


The strategy of choice in a competitive environment is proactive and two-way communication, in which organizations plan for and initiate relationships with the people important to their success. This approach emphasizes dialogue over monologue.


Organizations are successful to the extent they enjoy a strong reputation, which results from neither luck nor accident. Strategic planning can identify and evaluate an organization’s visibility and reputation. No organization can afford to be a best-kept secret among a relatively small number of supporters.


All kinds of organizations are realizing more keenly the need for long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between the organization and its various publics and market segments. Public relations practitioners long have recognized this, and marketing more recently has been discussing the need for relationship marketing.



© Ronald D. Smith APR