Differentiating Between Strategies and Tactics

July 2020
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It’s one of the age-old questions in the PR profession: What’s the difference between strategies and tactics?

It shouldn’t be that difficult, but the explanation may be due to human nature. Strategies are concepts, tactics are actions. People can tend to bypass larger ideas and gravitate to specific things they need to do, or not do, that come to define the communications process.

I posted this question in the MyPRSA Open Forum recently, and received a rich response from members. Afterward, I reached out to some who commented and asked them to elaborate.

Sheri Singer, president of Singer Communications in Arlington, Va., frames the issue simply: “Strategies are themes or categories that help you achieve your objective,” she said, while “tactics are the specific activities you conduct to reach the objective.”

Anne-Marie McLeod, an independent practitioner from Charlotte, N.C., said, “Strategies are the core directional choices to help you get to your vision or goals. By design they are broad enough to encompass tactics as they develop. Tactics are specific actions. Strategies are the framework that will help you decide which tactics should have resources behind them.”

Stephanie Araujo, an adjunct professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., said the difference is often difficult for her students to grasp, so she uses lots of examples to essentially teach them that, “A strategy is what we will do to accomplish the objectives. The tactics are the steps taken to accomplish the strategy.”

Tracking the problem

You see a pattern, right? So, why are so many still confused by this?  Jon Goldberg of Reputation Architects in Roseland, N.J., has a theory.

“I think the confusion actually starts well before strategies and tactics,” he said. “You can’t have a strategy unless you have a clear, measurable objective for the strategy to achieve. There’s a wonderful exchange in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ between Alice and the Cheshire cat. Alice comes to a fork in the road and asks the cat which road to take. 

“The cat responds, ‘That depends on where you want to go.’ After Alice says she doesn’t know, the cat says, ‘Then, it doesn’t matter which road you take.’”

If you don’t know where you’re going, that is if you don’t have an objective, no strategy will get you there.”

Jason Mudd, CEO of Axia Public Relations in Jacksonville, Fla., said the problem often starts at the top.

“I can’t even count the number of times I’ve attended a conference or presentation where the well-credentialed speaker is casually using these terms as synonyms for each other,” he said.  “It’s no wonder that our profession struggles to adopt standard PR measurement practices when we struggle to have a shared vocabulary on PR planning. 

“We address this at our PR agency by training all new hires — regardless of experience — on proper PR research, planning, and measurement,” he continued. “That way we’re all speaking the same language.”

Putting it into practice

In her work with one faith-based organization, McLeod created three very general strategies to move them toward their desired vision. 

“The three were first to create a culture of discernment, second, to intentionally build a more collaborative organization, and third, to become a more effective organization to support our mission,” she said. “To fulfill the third strategy, the organization developed tactics that included creation of an onboarding document for new liturgical ministers and development of leadership succession plans.”

The key is that while it is important for PR professionals to fully understand the difference between strategies and tactics, it is equally important to coach clients and organizations to embrace a consistent language that is accurate in its framing of strategies and tactics.

photo credit: jose luis duenas


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