Strategic and methodical pr planning. The data-based creation of a communication concept. Nanette Besson

Strategic communication planning has been systematized in PR since the late 1980s. Just as PR as a profession and science has developed out of practice, strategic planning has also been scientifically adapted and continued on the basis of established, successful processes. In general, strategic planning can be found as early as 1927 in Bernays, the master of manipulation through conscious communication. Since then, the strategic planning of PR has become established and in PR science, strategy is a buzzword - and not just since the beginnings of integrated marketing communication. PR claims to be a management function. To achieve this, it is essential to work systematically. Strategy encompasses the planning, implementation and control of communication. This book explains how this planning is carried out in a data-based, systematic and (in practice) efficient manner. The core contents are summarized here.

The creation of a communication concept consists of an analytical phase, a block of strategic decisions and detailed tactical planning. The organization of the concept creation is considered as a meta-level, including the preparation of the presentation, group dynamic processes and the integration of creativity and management techniques.

FIG: The creation of a communication concept


The process usually begins with a briefing. This communication between client and client clarifies the communicative situation and the challenge. The exchange of information should be prepared with the help of a discussion guide. The meeting is documented and evaluated by the PR team. The content is the core of the briefing - attention must be paid to misunderstandings regarding terminology or descriptions. The relationship level reveals a great deal about the attitude, expectations, preferences and character of the commissioning party. It is particularly important to shed light on the non-verbal level: What was communicated without words? Which points were - perhaps deliberately - not mentioned or kept very brief? In line with psychological communication models, every aspect of communication should be examined: What is the communicator revealing about himself (self-disclosure)? What appeal is he (or she) making to the other person?


After the briefing, all the necessary information is collected: The research provides the breeding ground for a customized, creative strategy. It is important to look at the bigger picture and at the same time work out the uniqueness of the object or situation. Research is conducted from "inside" to "outside": The first focus is on the organization and its identity. Characteristics, history and structure are some of the factors that are of interest. Sources of information come from any self-portrayal of the company - an internal source can provide further insights that may not be "written down", e.g. on culture or processes. In the second step, the "Stakeholder" research sphere, the reference groups are examined and scrutinized. This involves characteristics, preferences and habits, attitudes, media behavior and more. 
Corresponding data can be found in representative surveys. The topic and the industry represent the third research sphere. The focus here is on the special nature of the topic: How topical is it, which media report on it and how? Which players are involved in this area? Industry key figures are also used here. The last research sphere, society, is concerned with collecting information on general trends and events. This allows the current communicative task to be embedded in the wider context.

The research data is collected by the researcher (primary research) or existing data and analyses are used (secondary research). Empirical methods are available for primary data collection: observation, interviews and content analysis. Artificial Intelligence can be used to raise efficiency – although the quality of data collection and analysis needs to be controlled closely wit AI.
A social media or media resonance analysis is a standardized content analysis. The data comes from monitoring services or is collected by the company itself. There are many restrictions for social media analyses, as hardly any online social networks allow an open interface. Automated insights are not transparent and quite limited. Data is analyzed with the help of pivot tables, a spreadsheet function. They are practical and flexible tools that can be used to automatically create tables and graphs. 
The survey technique is used to collect opinions and attitudes. The employee survey, for example, is a widely used source of information. Data can also be obtained from observations. Obtaining log files or social media access figures is the digital form of observation. Analog observation takes place with the help of checklists or logs: Movement patterns and activity profiles provide insights into stakeholder behavior at events. 
Many public data sources are available as secondary sources, e.g. from the Federal Statistical Office, associations or public institutions. Management consultancies, market and opinion research institutes and large companies also collect data and often publish white papers or entire studies free of charge. Attention must always be paid to the quality of the data. Sound data literacy is a key skill in the digital world. Paid data and analyses are available from monitoring services, market research companies and trend research institutes. 
Research must be planned so that no resources are wasted. To this end, a research plan is drawn up in which the research object, source, description, objective of the search, relevance, timeline and costs are recorded. 
ABB: The search plan


You collect all the information that you found in your research. Now you need to organize and prioritize these information. So you think about the most important aspect for you and your campaign. That could be costs, time, public relevance, practicability, authenticity or else.
If you choose sustainability and public resonance as your most important aspects for the campaign you are planning, then you set up your portfolio for these two dimensions. The upper right corner would mean that these ideas or information are transporting a maximum of sustainability and arouse a very high public interest and resonance. So with these ideas you get everything that is important to you ("High value information"). The facts that are highly sustainable but don´t expect to be of high public interest, would be in the lower right section ("authentic information"). This is true, but not easily to be used to get high resonance. Information or facts that have little to do with sustainability but are of high public interest, go into the upper left section. You can use them, but is is no very effective for communicating sustainability. All facts that you found that do not deal with sustainability and do not cause any public interest are "no value information" for this project, so you can neglect them.
ABB Evaluation matrix

This evaluation results in the analysis phase of the conceptual design technique. In the analysis phase, strengths and weaknesses are worked out. Properties and information are weighted and prioritized. In this way, it becomes clear where the communication strategy can be applied. Various techniques can be used for the analysis in order to gain different perspectives.


Once the data has been collected and evaluated, the strategy development begins, the "spanning of the strategy net": defining the stakeholders or target groups, formulating the language and stories (storytelling and messages) and selecting core communication areas and measures allow key performance indicators (KPIs) to be defined in the final step. These four aspects of the strategy are mutually dependent. It makes sense to start planning with the stakeholders, as they determine what is to be communicated and how, and in which channels. The KPIs should be defined last.


Stakeholder information is presented in a contemporary way as a persona, an exemplary profile of an individual person. This is very descriptive, but can mean an extreme simplification of the target group - especially in times when diversity is part of the general policy of cooperation. It is therefore advisable to create at least several personae or to describe the target group in majorities. A plan should also be drawn up for the target group showing what an exemplary daily or annual routine might look like. This preparation facilitates the creation of an individual "stakeholder journey" in the tactical planning of measures and channels.


The language and content for communication are based on the company or product and the target group: What language does the target group speak? Language is very powerful and can have a major impact on the perception and evaluation of an issue. Framing is the psychological term for systematically linking descriptions (as a framework of meaning) to an overall context. Priming refers to the classical conditioning of terms, e.g. "tempo" is primed as a term for a handkerchief. The importance of language can be seen in current developments in overarching gendering. When it is obvious how rarely a feminine form is used, it becomes clear that there is an imbalance. At the same time, something is only "true" when it is written or spoken - without having any claim to truth. The repetition of contexts creates an effect of "recognition" in the recipient - increasing the likelihood that this context will be stored. Stories with dramaturgy and emotion (storytelling) generate a higher recall among recipients. Linking messages to contexts that are stored in images is therefore a very effective way of communicating content. 


In addition to the deliberately chosen language and message, the strategy also determines the general communication channel: What type of communication is recommended for the target group? Which channels and instruments are seen, heard or used by these people? Communication areas are very diverse, as the boundaries between PR and other corporate communication disciplines are becoming increasingly blurred. All existing channels are used by all areas. 
FIG: Areas of communication, instruments and channels
The distinction is made in the area of objectives and the use of resources: Is the communication directly sales-promoting and is it paid for? Digitalization has led to a rapid increase in "owned" media: Every company can use the new channels themselves and communicate directly with the public themselves. The "paid" area of media offers very transparent target group planning - even if this often means relying on data from private companies (e.g. Facebook Analytics). The distinction between owned media and paid or earned media is hardly recognized by stakeholders anymore. Paid collaborations must be labeled in online social networks. As influencers predominantly report in this form, the distinction between paid advertising and voluntary recommendations is no longer relevant for the recipient. The "social" component of the PESO model (paid/earned/social/owned) can be found in viral posts and shitstorms. This area is almost impossible to control, but has a potentially high degree of effectiveness. In the classic understanding, PR aims to achieve success in the area of earned media: unpaid publicity that has been deliberately initiated. Traditional press/media work is still relevant. When planning communication, it is important to ensure that the respective target group consumes these media. Daily newspapers in Germany have been losing circulation for years, while magazines have gained some reach due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to official sources.
In addition to differentiating between communication areas (e.g. media relations, influencer marketing or events) or the PESO model, communication can also be divided into digital and analog. After a great deal of communication was digitalized during the coronavirus pandemic, trend researchers believe that the "renaissance" of analogue communication lies ahead of us. A digital world cannot match the experience with all the senses - touching, smelling, tasting, experiencing. It is therefore advisable to incorporate real, analog touchpoints into communication planning. 
FIG: Analog versus digital communication


At this point in the strategy, the target group has been defined and the content and linguistic orientation has been outlined. The communication area is described and differentiated in instruments according to PESO or the digital/analog system. The channels are then selected - also in digital and analog form. These details determine the choice of key performance indicators (KPIs). 
KPIs are measurable goals: Criteria that have a measurable value at a fixed point in time. The scale of evaluation plays an important role here: what is "good", what is "insufficient"? Comparative values from previous periods or comparative campaigns can be used as a benchmark. Expert judgments evaluate achievements, e.g. in competitions such as the PR Prize. Conversion into monetary values is still carried out in PR using the advertising equivalence value - even though this has been "indexed" by the industry since 2010 (Barcelona Principles). In practice, no fixed value is usually set in pilot projects as there is no empirical data. Realistic targets should be set for a repeated campaign at the latest.
The KPIs should be determined for different communication process phases: If possible, there should be KPIs for both the planning phase and the implementation phase. KPIs are usually understood as target figures for output, outcome and impact. What is relevant here is not the name, but the scope of the indicator. Output is directly observable data, whether digital or analog. Movement data (e.g. heat maps) or tally lists are just as much observation data as impressions. In the next step, outcome can then describe everything that is stored in people's minds: knowledge/awareness, opinion, image, attitude. Attitude is a borderline term, as it already includes behavior. Behavior would be a KPI of impact. The impact can be seen as a phase of all sustainable changes, including economic effects. Whether economic effects can be demonstrated in the planned communication depends very much on the specific communication plan. We must warn against simply creating causal relationships - in times of crisis, they have not proven to be controllable. If PR can be measured by KPIs, e.g. sales, in which PR only has a very indirect influence as one of many factors, then this is pleasant in good times. In times of economic crisis, this can mean that PR is judged to have failed because the KPI was not achieved - even though the communication work may have saved trust and prevented worse things from happening during this time thanks to good relationships with stakeholders. KPIs should be chosen with care so that they are truly controllable indicators. The quality criteria of validity, objectivity and reliability apply to this data just as they do to purely scientific correlations. 
The Balanced Scorecard 1992 already integrated prospective KPIs into the KPI set for future orientation. The integration of trends into PR is currently developing into a new challenge. "Prospect" KPIs are derived from megatrends such as sustainability or digitalization. Typologies can be created in this way. Typologies such as the Sinus milieus or LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) point in this direction.  Stakeholders' values, behaviours and wishes are then linked to the organization and its goals and standardized into prospective KPIs. At the same time, as early as the 1990s, the Balanced Scorecard called for groundbreaking qualitative indicators so that not only figures serve as an assessment, but also evaluations.
Strategic planning is completed with the definition of objectives. In the course of continuous improvement of the program, however, it is always possible that individual research is subsequently carried out or details of the strategic planning are changed. 


Tactical planning covers all the details: each individual measure is formulated and the overall planning for schedules, resource deployment and personnel planning must be drawn up. The stakeholder perspective is prioritized in this context: measures and channels must be combined into a "stakeholder journey" according to the habits of the stakeholders - so that the target group has regular, cross-media touchpoints with the campaign.


The classic project management technique is recommended for tactical planning in order to break down all activities into work packages. Milestones are added to the schedule. Agile project management leaves room for formats that are suitable for daily communication, e.g. short morning meetings to set daily goals. A combination of agile working methods, which deliver results quickly, and classic project management, which is results-oriented, can drive the project forward efficiently and effectively.


Evaluation should also be integrated into tactical planning and milestones. Objectives should be defined for each measure. At the same time, KPIs have already been defined in the strategy, which are to be collected and monitored with the help of evaluation instruments. Parallel, strategic evaluation management can be implemented in the form of an evaluation manager who acts like a quality officer. This also satisfies quality management. And the evaluation is in independent hands - as poor results are still feared in the sector. An evaluation manager can also take on the meta-level of resource and time control and also oversee cooperation within the team and externally. This is because the quality of the work results is directly related to a functioning division of labor. Agreements and deadlines should be adhered to and used sensibly. And the topic of bullying is also relevant in this context, as such processes also affect the results. 


Last but not least, creativity is a success-relevant factor in concept planning: every activity and every decision must be questioned creatively. Breaking out of a regular process generates a creative leap that unleashes new connections, inspiration and a great deal of motivation. Creativity techniques are the icing on the cake of the PR concept. 
Once the concept has been finalized, it's all about staging and selling the good ideas. The pitch presentation is staged like an event, like a play, there is a dramaturgy. This is tailored to the audience. And the "actors" should also feel comfortable in their roles: being forced into a strange dress code will not help anyone to make an impressive appearance. 

All in all, it's like an orchestral interplay.

The German version of this text (an abstract of my book "Unternehmenskommunikation und PR konzipieren") is available online: 

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