The 1952 edition of Effective Public Relations: Pathway to Public Favor (Cutlip & Center) set the standard for PR education for decades to come. Chapters 5–7 introduced planning as the second of a three-stage process model. The first step was fact-finding, the second planning, and the third communicating. By 1958, the authors had moved evaluation (originally in step one) to step four. In 1963, Marston created the popular acronym RACE (Research, Action, Communication, and Evaluation) to represent the four-stage process conceptualized by Cutlip and Center. As in the earlier model, planning took place at the second stage.
Themes In Public Relations (Pr) Planning
Since 1952, three major themes have emerged in the PR planning literature: a growing emphasis on research as the foundation for planning, increasing stress on linking PR plans to business and corporate plans, and growing emphasis on the need to evaluate communication plans.
A Growing Emphasis On Research
Funded by the first Arthur W. Page Society research grant, Broom and Dozier researched and wrote Using Research in Public Relations: Applications to Program Management (1990). Positioning research as the central element in managing PR programs, this book outlines how research helps to define PR problems and conceptualize the program (“before”), monitor the program’s progress and make mid-course corrections (“during”), and assess program impact to learn what did or did not work and why or why not (“after”). In 1992, the International Association of Business Communicators published the results of the Excellence Project, focusing on roles (including research) performed by PR practitioners in countries around the world. Ferguson followed in 1993 with Mastering the Public Opinion Challenge, which won the 1994 National Communication Association’s Public Relations Innovation, Development, and Educational Achievement (PRIDE) award for best publication in the book category. This book addressed the role of environmental intelligence and strategic planning systems in the tracking and managing of organizational issues.
A Growing Focus On Linking To Business And Corporate Plans
By the early 1980s, leading textbooks stressed the need to link PR planning to corporate goals and objectives; and by the end of the decade, these planning models were ensconced in the literature.
Despite a growing recognition of the importance of long-term planning for communication, books and scholarly articles continued to focus, through the 1990s, on contingency planning for crises (with an increasing emphasis, as well, on risk management). Ferguson (1993, 1999, 2000), however, documented a large-scale and unique experiment on the part of the Canadian government to require long-term, research-based communication planning by all departments, agencies, and regions. In 1988, the Privy Council Office (PCO) brought its first government-wide communication policy to life by asking every federal department and agency to submit annual strategic communication plans in October and operational plans in March. The PCO reviewed the plans for conformity to the broad corporate objectives of the government and provided feedback to the strategic planners. Once approved, all subsequent planning efforts (work planning and support planning) were tied to these plans. (See later discussion for definitions of strategic, operational, and support planning.)
By 2000, a spate of articles on strategic communication planning had appeared, and every professional conference hosted sessions on planning. Led by an editorial board from the Netherlands, Singapore, Slovenia, and the US, The International Journal of Strategic Communication published its first issue in January 2006. In Great Britain, the National School of Government established training in strategic communication planning.
A Growing Emphasis On Evaluation
In the late 1980s, a survey of practitioners in Australia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and Zimbabwe identified the emergence of accountability as a critical concern; and by the 1990s, calls for greater investment in evaluation were coming from professional associations and academics in the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and other countries. The Institute for Public Relations Research and Education, the International Public Relations Association, the International Association of Business Communicators, and the Public Relations Society of America (along with chapters in other countries) urged organizations to pay more attention to evaluation.
This new century, which could be dubbed the “age of accountability,” intensified the challenges to PR planners. With scandals rocking the financial world, organizations grappling with new security issues, and trust in politicians and business leaders at an all-time low, the Internet provided a new means for dissident groups to organize and press their causes. These groups addressed a crazy quilt of political, social, and economic issues. Activist publics employed old strategies such as civil disobedience, teach-ins, and marches, as well as new strategies such as culture jamming. Class action suits gave a voice to the less powerful, and people’s tribunals judged people at the highest levels of government. In Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa, Barcelona, and other cities, crowds collected at world summits to protest against globalization. The crowds drew unlikely “march fellows,” with organizations as diverse as Greenpeace standing arm in arm with John Birchers and antiabortion activists.
Accountability implies the need to evaluate, and evaluation requires setting goals and objectives – basics in the planning process. In the same way, planning requires research into the opinion environment. So a concomitant stress on research, planning, and evaluation emerged in the PR literature. The increased emphasis on conducting quantitative research reflected this same shift in focus within both academia and industry.
A major difficulty with talking about communication planning derives from lack of agreement on terminology. PR practitioners use such diverse terms as program plans, action plans, functional plans, project plans, strategic plans, strategies, operational plans, work plans, campaign plans, corporate plans, contingency plans for crises, support plans, communication approaches, communication (or “comm.”) plans, and risk management plans to describe the large variety of annual or multi-year communication planning products. Public and non-profit organizations frequently use different terminology to for-profit organizations.
For example, governments use the term “programs” to refer to major ongoing services such as leisure, health, or transportation. Businesses, on the other hand, consider a program to be a large-scale undertaking of limited duration with well-defined deliverables. Similar variations in usage occur at all levels of planning, making it difficult to use consistent terminology across sectors, business units, or industries. For that reason, a careful definition of terms is required to frame any discussion. Moreover, although many more specific forms of planning exist (e.g., market and advertising plans, program plans, management by objectives, etc.), it is beyond the scope of this discussion to identify the full range.
Applied in a corporate or communication context, the term strategic planning refers to future-oriented, “long-term,” and goal-oriented planning. Tied to the mission, mandate, vision, and broad goals or objectives of the organization, strategic planning involves deciding where you want to be at the end of your journey – your ultimate destination. In unstable environments, organizations must revisit their strategic plans on a regular basis to insure goals have not changed since the writing or updating of the last plan. The volatility of planning environments (social, economic, technological, political, cultural, and other) means that definitions of long-term have changed from the 1960s (10-year planning cycles) to the 1980s (5-year planning cycles) to the present day (3- to 5-year planning cycles, with annual updates).
Strategic planning can take place at the corporate or highest level of the organization or within the context of programs, branches, or business ventures. Before engaging in high-level planning of any variety (corporate or communication), the organization conducts a situation audit, clarifies its mandate, and writes or updates its mission and vision statements. A situation audit looks at the past performance of the organization (its achievements, failures, trends in products and services, and profit performance), forces in the organization’s environment (e.g., economic, socio-cultural, technological, political, and demographic), the biases and loyalties of stakeholders (those who have a stake in the success or failure of the organization), and organizational resources. A mandate specifies the responsibilities of an organization and assigns authority for pursuing those responsibilities. A mandate generally appears in articles of legislation, incorporation, or charters. A mission statement justifies the existence of the organization by defining its purpose or reason for being, values, strategies for achieving its objectives, and behavioral standards. Mission statements guide the present actions of the organization. A vision statement, on the other hand, says where the organization would like to be at some future point – its desired future identity. In that sense, a vision statement is an expansion of the objectives that used to appear in 10- to 20-year strategic plans. In ideal form, vision statements are optimistic, realistic, and eloquent in expression.
After completing these three steps (conducting a situation audit, clarifying its mandate, and rewriting or updating its mission and vision statements), strategic planners move into action – first at the corporate level and subsequently at other levels of the organization. Strategic planners in communication then link their efforts to these different layers of planning (corporate, business, program, or other areas within the organization). Every plan that succeeds the corporate plan links back to these central themes and ideas. In that way, the multi-year corporate plan offers a strategic framework for business units and programs, as well as for communication planners.
The multi-year communication plan typically incorporates the following elements: opinion environment, issues, communication objectives, messages, priorities, strategic considerations (with recommendations as warranted), desired outcomes, and budget. The omission of a heading called target audiences derives from the fact that the strategic plan is a broad “motherhood” document. Tied to activities specified at the operational and support planning stages, audiences do not appear in the multi-year or annual strategic plan. Designating audiences at this high level is deemed inappropriate.
Most commonly used by governments, the term “operational planning” refers to work and project plans. Like the term strategic planning, operational planning originated with the military. Driven by strategic planning and tactical in nature, operational planning involves making choices about how to reach a desired destination. Which vehicles will allow the organization to achieve its strategic goals? Which path will it follow? If strategic planning defines the destination, operational planning sketches a road map for reaching that destination.
Operational planning transforms communication priorities for the immediate planning period (usually one year) into products and services. Such plans also assign priorities to these activities and services, identify key target audiences, designate accountabilities (who will be responsible for carrying out the activities), articulate performance indicators, define evaluation methods and tools, establish milestones and timelines, and identify the resources required to deliver the products and services. Whereas top executives in communication are typically responsible for strategic planning, middle-level managers tend to be responsible for operational planning.
“Support planning” flows from operational planning. Activities identified in the operational planning phase must be brought to life. The organization sets timelines and budgets and assigns responsibilities for accomplishing activities. Planners consider both the strategic responsibilities (e.g., communication objectives and messages) and the tactical (e.g., timing and vehicles for carrying the message). Support planning develops – in a more complete fashion – each of the activities identified in operational plans. Unlike annual or multi-year plans, which cover the full range of an organization’s issues and activities, support plans are more limited in scope. The focus of the support plan (rather than the longevity, number of activities, or timeline) sets it apart from other types of planning.
Support plans can take the form of “single-use plans” (nonrecurring activities) or “standing plans” (repetitive work and predictable, recurring situations). Redundant once the activity has been carried out and the objective achieved, single-use plans help the organization to manage specific issues, activities, or broad initiatives. Planners write single-use plans for pending policy announcements, upcoming special events, environmental campaigns, press conferences, publications, or capital expenditures. Within the business sector, single-use plans can also apply to programs. Standing plans, by contrast, remain relevant for a lengthier period of time, involve a number of components (e.g., public service announcements, website, and other activities), and have no set length. Communicators dust off standing plans year after year for events of a recurrent nature (e.g., Secretary Appreciation Day or Recycling Day).
Contingency Planning For Crises
Different from other kinds of planning, crisis communication planning involves anticipation of a situation that could (but not necessarily will) occur. Written in Chinese, the word “crisis” has two characters: one represents danger, the second opportunity. Handled properly, crises can bring increased knowledge of how the organization should function. Common sources of crises are industrial accidents, environmental problems, massive restructuring, union–management conflicts, product recalls, hostile takeovers, acts of terrorism, charges of financial fraud and embezzlement, health threats, major economic and technological changes, and natural disasters. Some result from natural events and others from human actions. Whatever their cause, in the short term, crises can threaten the viability – even the life – of an organization. For that reason, organizations attempt to anticipate and plan for crises. They create categories or typologies to hold various kinds of crises. An airline, for example, might plan for a crash, hostage taking, hijacking, strike, merger, employee layoffs, discovery of a structural fault in aircraft design, air rage, bomb scare, intoxicated pilot, death onboard, food poisoning, weather-related problems, threat of bankruptcy, or service disruption. Planners assess both the probability that the crisis could occur and potential impact in the event of occurrence. They also look for advance indicators of a crisis. Simulations prepare organizations to cope in crisis situations.
Crisis management teams include PR personnel, and crisis management plans have communication components: parties responsible for managing the crisis (team members, chain of command, lead spokespersons, coordinator of operations, alternates, and liaisons to connect with victims’ families), required support systems (physical facilities, communication hardware and software, staff requirements, and regulatory requirements), information strategies (key messages, media for carrying messages, target publics for communication, mini-crises that could be activated by the crisis, and sensitivities/cautions in managing the crisis), response and control mechanisms (alert system for activating crisis management network, daily operational guide, system for de-activating crisis management network), evaluation of operations (pre-testing of systems and procedures, post-crisis debriefing, and modifications required), and appendices (principles and regulations governing crisis management). Contingency planning for crises requires the generation of detailed guidelines for dealing with the media. In the situation, publics affected want to be informed and to believe that the organization is taking the necessary actions to better the situation.
Planning For Risk Management
Risk management involves assessing and developing strategies to manage potential risks (losses, injuries, or other negative events). Risks may range from threats to the image of the organization to computer viruses or bioterrorism. Many pertain to health or the environment. Strategies for dealing with risk can include avoidance (not purchasing a computer program that carries the risk of being infected with viruses), reduction (installing anti-virus programs), retention (accepting the loss of files when a computer virus strikes), or transfer (suing the company that sold ineffectual virus protection software).
Risk management planners identify the risks, assess the likelihood of occurrence and potential consequences, prioritize the risks based on this assessment, decide on options for managing the risks, develop appropriate responses, and seek approval of their choices. They track the risks to determine whether re-evaluation is necessary at some later point in time. Planners also develop individual plans for high priority risks.
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