Why I Value Strategic Planning: The Story of a PR “Dirty Harry”

Strategic planning. You can’t avoid, ignore, or gloss over it. It’s elemental to what we as marketing professionals do for our clients.

Our firm values planning and presents its approach on our website, and discusses it with our prospects. But something happened last week that compelled me to write about it.

It began with a movie.

When I was younger, I was much more of an avid movie watcher. Kids changed that. Heading out to catch a dinner and flick with my wife was not a regular event. Frankly, sometimes paying the babysitter was almost as expensive as the ticket and the meal.

Now, my kids are older and I’m catching up on a few films that I missed during their first runs. Last week, with a few hours to myself, Michael Clayton caught my eye. Something to do with shady lawyers and unscrupulous global corporations. So much for escapism.

The flick was great. The ending was delicious. But it unexpectedly delivered a glimpse back to my early PR agency career that earned me the nickname of “Dirty Harry.”  As Harry Callahan said in the movie, “Every dirty job that comes along.”

The lead character, Michael Clayton, is a bagman. A fixer. His sole purpose is to clean up the dirt made by clients and family of clients to grease the skids for the firm to retain its big corporate retainers. My dirty jobs moniker didn’t go to that extreme. But I proved myself adept cleaning up other people’s account messes.

Because I went from a corporate background to an agency (note to younger PR pros: best do it the other way around), I had to work harder to prove to a skeptical V.P. and the account supervisor who championed me that I had agency mettle.

The first assignment was to re-pitch a pitch gone wrong. Not the best circumstances when you’re presenting the same information from the same agency to the same contacts but with a different voice. I nailed it. And it got me noticed. What else can this guy do?

From there, it was on to handling more difficult media relations issues, poor project management and understanding clients expectations. All this prepped me for the biggest dirty job: Propping up an alcoholic senior account executive, whose boss took a vacation, right before a high profile client event in New York. The entire project, from the strategy to tactical, on-the-ground details, was a complete disaster. And that’s when it struck me: where was the planning? Where was the collaboration? Where was the leadership?

The project was rudderless, from a clueless client, right down to the agency where no one could make a decision.  And the event was only three days away. So, I started making decisions.

“Do you think that’s the right decision,” the team would ask?  “I have no idea,” I responded, “but it’s the decision we’re making today.”  As the quote says, “Done is better than perfect.”

After three days of hurried, non-stop activity, the event came and went off without a hitch. I was thanked with an on-the-spot bonus. But I found myself mystified about how the situation arose in the first place.

Seeing so many weak links, I came away with a greater appreciation for planning. After this experience, I started asking questions that were more pointed, about goals and objectives and what the client was really out to achieve. That was met with the higher-ups responding with, “Don’t worry about those details; they’re above your pay grade.”

True, the people who work at agencies and clients are only human. Mistakes will be made. But with thought-through strategy and tactics, everyone will know which way everyone is shooting. And when you’re working in the clutch, you’re more likely to know the answer to this question:

“…Did he fire six shots or only five?”