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Why your PR strategy requires an Agile approach

24 Jun, 2021 Media relations, PR planning, strategy, budgeting, Project management

The world has entered a challenging era, including the business landscape. To keep your organization afloat and competitive, it’s crucial to develop adaptable strategies, one of which is through directing serious attention to PR strategy. This article explains why you need an Agile PR strategy.

First, understanding stakeholders and PR

Public relations (PR) is the practice of improving your organization’s stakeholder relationships, or “publics.” Hence, the “public” in public relations. Clearly, it is vital to attract and retain good relationships with all your stakeholders. A stakeholder is any person, group or organization who can place a claim on an organization’s attention, resources or output, or is affected by that output. They have a stake in the organization, something at risk, and therefore something to gain or lose as a result of corporate activity.

PR is used to establish reputation, not branding and image. Reputation is what others (stakeholders) think of you, so you can’t actually control or manage your reputation; you can only influence what stakeholders think of you. These business concepts shouldn’t be confused as they can lead to costly and irreversible mistakes.

Depending on the size and nature of your organization, stakeholder groups can be as big as the general public or as small as one person, such as an investor, key decision-maker, or government minister. Branding and image are what you create. Essentially, branding is a customer-centric concept that focuses on product and service outputs. At the same time, reputation is more company-centric. It depends on gaining credibility and respect among stakeholders such as your employees, shareholders, suppliers, government in all its forms, community groups, members of the public, and your competitors.

To develop a successful PR plan – an Agile PR strategy – you need to look at the bigger picture. PR revolves around stakeholder attitudes – largely through reputation – which are always volatile. We only need to think of top European soccer player, Cristiano Ronaldo, who dismissively moved two bottles of Coca-Cola from the table as he was being interviewed during a televised press conference in June 2021. This implicitly created a negative impression of the company’s hugely successful global product. The company immediately lost US$4 billion in share value from that simple action! (Although some observers said this was due to the company’s shares going ‘ex-dividend’ that day.) This example shows how the public, including all your stakeholder groups, can be influenced by many personal, social, and psychological factors that may also affect your business. Thankfully, an Agile methodology can lay the foundation for success if properly implemented.

Introducing Agile and The Agile Manifesto

Agile methodology was originally created in 2001 for uncovering better ways for developing software. Due to its success, it is now used as the methodology for project management in many other disciplines as diverse as hardware development, business management, organizational change, banking, finance, biotechnology, digital services, telecommunications, sales, marketing, (and even public relations!). The 17 software creators who met in 2001 wrote the Agile Manifesto, which comprises 12 Agile principles that aim to provide continuous and quick delivery to customers, adapting to their changing requirements, while cutting waste and reducing as many mistakes as possible. The 12 principles in the Agile Manifesto are sound (and smart) and relevant to all our work:

  1. Satisfy customers through early and continuous delivery.
  2. Welcome changing requirements even late in the project.
  3. Deliver value frequently.
  4. Break the silos of your project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals.
  6. The most effective communication is face-to-face. [Everything else is just a substitute.]
  7. Working [functioning] software is the primary measure of progress. [If the result of your work in software or in any other type of project is not the way your customer (stakeholder) expects it to be, you are in trouble.]
  8. Maintain a sustainable working pace.
  9. Continuous excellence enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity is essential.
  11. Self-organizing teams generate most value.
  12. Regularly reflect and adjust your way of work to boost effectiveness. [Evaluate your performance and identify room for improvement.]

Take a look at this site to see the ingenious application of Agile into user experience (UX) and how UX designers made it look like Agile is precisely created for them.

Other similar project management methodologies have since been developed, largely based on Agile Principles. You may have heard of some already, such as Scrum, Lean, Waterfall, Kanban, DevOps, and Rapid. Among all of them, Agile focuses on predicting and responding to change rather than following a strict plan.

When using an Agile approach, expect that you’ll work on each phase of the project in the short term and run into a feedback loop that may or may not change the entire process over again. An Agile approach can help you adjust regardless of these changes.

Reasons why your PR project strategy needs an Agile approach

The business landscape also reveals growing application of the Agile approach, which shouldn’t come as a surprise because of the methodology’s advantages. One of the reasons to review projects progressively is because hardly any significant project is ever 100% successful when it is reviewed only at completion. Therefore, it is better to detect those reasons for potential problems than find out at the end of the project.

Problems encountered in traditional project management

Typical problems encountered in the management of traditional projects:

  • Didn’t successfully meet the original goals and business intent of the project.
  • Poor communication was a major cause of problems in all types of projects.
  • Senior management project sponsors didn’t actively support the project.
  • Didn’t finish with their initial budgets.
  • Didn’t finish within their initially scheduled times.
  • Experienced scope creep or uncontrolled changes to the project’s scope.

In light of this, here are striking reasons why your PR strategy should adopt an Agile approach:

1. Your current approach isn’t achieving planned results

Imagine completing a fixed plan for your PR campaign, only to find out that it won’t work due to inefficiency, unsustainability, and unforeseen change and uncertainty in the surrounding business environment at a team level, business unit level, organizational level or societal level, e.g. the arrival of COVID-19.

Restarting the whole process will be costly, impractical, and time-consuming, but you don’t have to deal with all that when you use an Agile method. The fluid approach of Agile opens a business’s situational flexibility and openness to explore and iterate (repeating successful changes).

Agile teaches you to give up plans, strategies, and practices that don’t achieve the results you’re aiming for, and that’s one of the courageous actions a business can do.

2. PR teams need to adapt to the ever-changing customer profile and other stakeholders

In the PR world, you should never lose sight of your target audiences (stakeholders) because their behavior and decision-making can change in a blink. For instance, when a new trend arises in mainstream or social media, companies feel they need to scurry around to fit hot topics into their PR campaigns to achieve relevance, attention, and profit.

However, you may find your business unable to keep up with how fast consumer trends and decisions change. A conventional, linear approach is quite often called the ‘waterfall’ approach because each stage of (1) information gathering, (2) planning, (3) implementing and (4) measurement, has to be completed before the next stage starts.

Instead, the Agile method offers ‘build, measure, learn’ phases that can deliver swift outcomes without compromising quality. It is reminiscent of the quote by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander of  armed forces in World War II and later US President (1953-61), who said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that [total] plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Starting your Agile PR campaign strategy

How will it work? Start by assembling a diverse team representing different points of view to visualize the campaign. Brainstorm and map the detailed workflow for the campaign. Using Post-it notes helps with this. The image below gives a snapshot of this process. For a remote or hybrid team, you can develop a spreadsheet of the work. Build a complete view. Split  it all into small phases or stages known as sprints. Document for future reference, eg take a photo or develop a spreadsheet.

Above image: Post-it notes used for Agile planning of media relations project. 

Then choose the first stage and analyze. Tackle one workflow at a time – assign a specifically-selected small project team to do the work in each stage. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos apparently initiated a two-pizza rule – “every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas.” The recommended Agile team size is 5-9 members.

Keep the momentum going for your Agile PR strategy. Move fast and stay focused. Instead of having long weekly or monthly meetings, opt for frequent short meetings. It’s simple: get the team together once a day or every two days for the shortest time possible. Start of the work day is the most common time, and run each meeting for only 15 minutes. These quick, frequent meetings are extremely important for effective communication because research has found the most crucial success factor in project management is effective communication with all stakeholders—a critical core competency. In a complex and competitive business climate, organizations cannot afford to overlook this key element of project success and long-term profitability.

Short daily meetings keep the energy high. This also keeps the team focused on the main goal of the meeting: removing impediments quickly so the team can keep working fast. It also enables  continuous process improvement.

Sprinting isn’t just about design and development, but it eventually becomes your strategy when the expectations and needs of your stakeholders fluctuate.

Managing dependencies in your agile communication project management: Nearly all tasks depend on work conducted in other tasks. These are called dependencies. Managing project dependencies is vital for successful completion of the work. Read more about this in my article on managing dependencies.

Solve possible bumps along the road to completion of your Agile PR strategy

Remember that you need to be alert to human frailty – you need to look out for possible bumps along the Agile road, such as:

  • Team member disagreements or lack of unity. Check throughout the project to ensure all team members are on the same page.
  • Insufficient skills or knowledge. At the start of the project identify skills needed. Find people within the team who have the required skills, or seek external sources who can help fill gaps, including other teams, consultants, or freelancers.
  • Stakeholder interference. Relevant stakeholders can quickly derail progress. Involve them early and get their feedback and support on the direction of the project. Arrange contact with them and note the amount of feedback you need to give them.
  • Lack of interest or prioritization by key team members. Ensure all team members are committed to the project and, if possible, solely focused on it to avoid project loss of skills or prioritization. If a senior team member can’t attend sprint planning or review, get another team member to fill the gap.
  • Missing team feedback loops. If there is insufficient feedback between team members and an internal customer/stakeholder, try to establish appropriate touchpoints and expectations.

What happens when you are not the boss?

How can you get good team results with projects when you are not the boss or if someone else is nominally the boss and is quite ineffectual? Fortunately, there are various ways you can informally lead or influence a project outcome. You can lead such areas as communication (obviously!), team recognition for milestones achieved, project reviews, change management, measurement and reporting cycles. You can read more of my thoughts on this in my article, “How to get good project outcomes when you are not the boss.”

Bottom line: Agile PR strategy is the way towards future-proofing

Agile pushes businesses to think on their feet. To run an effective PR campaign, your ideas should be active, adaptive, and flexible, creating many effective and realistic ideas. It’s crucial to work closely with other business-unit teams to achieve outcomes that incorporate helpful modifications and revisions in response to their feedback.

But, most importantly, Agile methodology prepares your organization for the future. These days, organizations face many uncertainties, particularly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Using an Agile approach will prepare you to adapt and change to deal with the changing environment  you face.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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