PR planning? Get agile

PR planning? Get agile

Here at PR Academy Kevin Ruck just discovered he has had an article published - because he was  marking a student's paper and the student had referenced it !  It is in the CIPR Profile online mag  so some of you may have seen it. But in case not, we thought we would share it here. In particular, if you have just finished your CIPR Diploma planning assignment (well done) , do you agree?

Agile PR planning by Kevin Ruck

When I ask CIPR diploma students if planning is important, there is unanimous agreement that it is. So, it seems as if the old ‘flying by the seat of the pants’ approach to solving public relations problems might be over. But why is it the answer to the follow-up question: 'how much time is spent on planning' is less clear?

 The logic to the benefits of planning is readily accepted. Planning:

 Focuses attention.

Establishes clear objectives.

Ensures that mistakes are avoided.

 The main reason many people do not spend time on planning is the process is too time- consuming. Research can also be costly, and in today’s fast moving business world, it can be out of date in weeks. Perhaps there are also other underlying reasons. Planning is a process in which many practitioners might have limited experience. Marketing research is an acknowledged all-round discipline.

 The same cannot yet be said of PR research, which tends to be based more on measuring the impact of media relations after the event than comprehensive analysis required before undertaking campaigns. Most models of PR planning emphasise four phases:

 Defining the PR problem – situation analysis.

Planning and programming – strategy.

Taking action and communicating – implementation.

Evaluating the programme – assessment.

 This model echoes corporate strategy, which focuses on analysis of the environment, selection of the right options, and implementation. All this tends to assume that organisations can exert some control over the external environment and the way it impacts what they do.

 As students who tackle the planning assignment in the CIPR Diploma readily appreciate, there is a lot more to finding out about what is going on in the environment than we first think. Detailed research can reinforce assumptions and clarify uncertainties. Techniques for identifying target groups for communication ensure that resources are more effective. But these processes are not foolproof.

 Traditional planning is often based on rational assessment and linear processes, yet the world we live in is neither logical nor straightforward. Interpretations of data might be subjective and we can be blinded to an array of possible options or strategies because of individual mindsets and previous experience (good and bad). For example, sub-conscious beliefs about the relative value of quantitative and qualitative research can quickly cloud judgment, however much we might attempt to counter this.

 Recent communication consultation at British Telecom’s Information Technology division has provided an insight to a new agile development approach to IT that has transformed operations. Detailed and exhaustive planning processes which previously took months of research now comprise faster “agile” methodology. This emphasises:

 Interactions and engagement more than processes and tools.

Responding to change more than following a rigid plan.

Working deliverables more than comprehensive documentation.

 Agile principles, described as collaboration, iterative working and flexibility might sound like buzzwords, however, in practice they are paying dividends. Internal client satisfaction levels increased to unprecedented levels during the past year. And people also enjoy working this way as well.

 The agile approach is not new, though it is in terms of applying it in a big organisation like BT. The approach is simple. Firstly, people come together in a “round table” to discuss ideas with key stakeholders. A range of options are discussed and the best way forward agreed. Following this key stakeholders attend a second ‘roundtable’ to build on the proposal. Business scenarios and ‘user stories’ are analysed to develop a proposal and a ‘stop’, ‘park’ or ‘go’ decision.

 If the proposal receives endorsement at the end of the second ‘roundtable’, a ‘hot-house’ helps to build alternative working proposals. The best approach is agreed and the implementation plan kicks off immediately with continuous testing, monitoring and checking with stakeholders.

 Now, the world of IT development is different to our world of PR, though some of these principles are transferable. Take scenario analysis for example. This helps develop marketing and corporate strategies, partly to avoid the traps of mental mindsets and failures to think the unthinkable.

 Human tendency is to not explore as many options as those that exist, and then to stick to the selected option, even if evidence emerges you might be on the wrong track. Psychological studies show us that to act rationally we construct simplified mental images of events in our world. Such images then form a frame of reference for more generalised interpretation and action – limiting future visions to a narrow range of possibilities.

 Scenario planning explained
There are different varieties of scenario planning, though most emphasise a gathering of a diverse group of people from across the organisation in a face to face setting. Brainstorming techniques are used to think openly about the environment. Wild suggestions are ok and some challenge to the status quo should be encouraged. A PEST framework can be incorporated, though it need not be followed rigidly. Clustering techniques are used to categorise ideas. It is important to be non-judgmental at this stage.

 More rational analysis of possible consequences follows, with some evaluation of the importance and certainty of scenarios assessed. Full alternative scenario writing is the next step. Two to four scenarios are recommended, each taking a different perspective. Any format that works for the people involved can be used. Finally, from these scenarios, key issues are identified and critical stages or turning points confirmed and used to formulate strategy.

 In short, scenario planning can generate a range of alternative perspectives. Coupled with other elements of the agile methodology it might also ensure that strategies are better informed, more regularly updated, and tactics readily adapted on a continuous basis. This does not replace traditional research or stakeholder identification and mapping. It is how people use this research which is different. Project plans also have a place, though over zealous documentation (for example, a big Excel spreadsheet) is not part of an agile approach.

 In management speak, systems theory provides the basis for contemporary thinking about how organisations affect and are affected by the environment in which they operate. Organisations have to adapt to survive and prosper.

 This is a biological metaphor with links to evolutionary development. It is, though, just one way of thinking about organisations that suggests they can maintain some form of control over the environment. But this does not reflect the speed of change we now see around us. A new way of understanding organisations, through complexity theory, is emerging in management studies.

 This recognises the real-life experiences of people at work who intuitively sense that often more value comes from connecting the right people than spending too much time on detailed analysis and planning with elaborate time lines. This does not mean there is no order. It is simply more emergent and self-organising.

 In many ways, systems theory links with traditional planning, and complexity theory can link to a more agile approach to planning. Ultimately, the selected method will be influenced by many factors, including an organisation’s culture. But using scenario planning techniques and focusing on continuous engagement and adaptation as part of the planning process provides PR people with an alternative approach to planning. This can potentially be both more effective for the organisation and more fulfilling for the practitioner – if the IT agile delivery model is anything to go by.