A simple formula that helps separate Tactics from Strategy

By Derek Logan, communications advisor

Strategy and tactics are the prince and the pauper of planning, just like the two Mark Twain characters that are often mistaken for each other. Strategy sits higher on the planning hierarchy than tactics, but certain surface characteristics – like broad-based actions, stakeholder groups and timelines – can exist in either planning statement.  Without any devious intention, the lowly pauper tactic can usurp the higher position on a plan where the princely strategy should be situated.

The definitions have broadened over the centuries, shifting from the time they were strictly military terms to terms now used in business and communications planning. The word strategy emerged from the Greek word strategos, meaning the art of the general. The word tactic stemmed from the Greek word taktike, meaning organizing the army (www.wisegeek.org ).

These traditional definitions stress hierarchy, with strategy outranking tactic. Yet at the same time, they also suggest co-dependency. Tactics without strategies are meaningless actions that have no clear impact, while strategies without tactics are ideas with no clear step-by-step directions on how to achieve them. Even so, the question of what is considered a strategy and what is considered a tactic depends often on context, which leads to ongoing confusion among communication practitioners.

One solution is to use a set of questions that help define statements as either strategic or tactic. A 2002 paper released through Washington State University (WSU) suggested using select questions can help planners determine whether an idea or statement is a strategy or a tactic.

In the paper, a strategy is simply an answer to the question “What for?” In other words, a strategy provides the reason or justification why a certain approach will help achieve desired goals. A tactic is an answer to the question “How?” It lists what steps or set of actions are required to achieve a specific strategy.

As strategy and tactics are co-dependent, each statement will automatically trigger the opposing question to come up, ensuring that if a corresponding statement is not there, it will be necessary to develop one, or else get rid of the initial statement altogether.

For example, making a tactical statement such as “Send out news releases to business news media about our new CEO” should automatically trigger the question “What for?” A communications planner must then make a statement that justifies why the news release(s) is necessary: “Inform business news media that our CEO will be the voice and public face of our company and will noticeably change how news stories are covered.” Likewise, the latter statement can create, or even modify the tactic to be: “Send out news releases to business publications that have regularly covered the company in the past.”

As questions are raised, statements are developed and paired, a formula can be used to track relationships with various pairings:

Sx/ Tx = S1/ T1 + S2/ T2 + S3/ T3

Planners can use the formula to create an organizational chart showing this hierarchy of relationships. The advantage is that as each statement triggers a question, the corresponding answers reveal new levels of the plan not considered before. Rather than rigid linear planning, this formula allows plans to develop and broaden organically to any level.

Conceivably, one could start at the bottom with a set of random tactics and work backwards, although defining some broad goals and some measurable objectives first will help. We know strategies can drive tactics – but we must respect that sometimes tactics will influence strategies. Achievable tactics is the art of the possible.

The WSU paper is one of many suggestions to resolving the confusion between strategy and tactics. We encourage readers to add comments below of other solutions that can help communications planners avoid confusing tactics with strategy.