Strategy vs. Tactics: Why It’s Important To Distinguish the Difference

July 19, 2016by Gregg ApirianInternal Communications


The Difference Between A Strategy and Tactics

Let’s begin with a scenario. You are an HR or internal communications professional, and you have been tasked with communicating something important to the employees you serve. You think the best way to communicate this information is through a poster that will be hung up on all floors near the elevators and to post the information somewhere on your Intranet. Before you read on let me ask you this — do you think this a strategy or tactic?

The answer is a tactic. Year after year, many HR & communications professionals of well known brands and companies of all sizes reach out and task Vignette with helping to define strategies that help them achieve specific business objectives like improving turnover, communicating change, or engaging and/or activating employees. After asking a few qualifying questions, we can quickly determine if the person who is asking us to define a strategy actually understands what they are asking for or not. In most cases the terms are often confused so it is clear they don’t fully understand what they are asking for.

The Benefits of An Internal Communications Strategy

A strategy is defined as a method or plan carefully chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem. There are several different types of strategies but one thing every type has in common is a strategy takes time to develop. The process starts with defining clear business objectives, measures of success (how will you know you are successful), and your target audiences. The outcome of these initial steps should also determine a methodology or approach to developing and executing the strategy. From here research is performed and should deliver new and meaningful insights that guide the definition or validation of the strategy, clearly mapping to how the strategy will achieve the goal or solution to the problem — defining what channels to use, what to measure and how to measure the effectiveness of the strategy, etc.

Why Starting With A Communications Strategy Before Tactics Matters

Tactics are the actual means used to realize your strategy and are most effective when aligned to the greater strategy. For example, if your strategy is to modernize how you practice internal communications and the strategy includes using a handful of new and existing channels to reach your employees, then your tactics will be how to use each channel best to engage employees and measure the effectiveness of the tactic.

Tactics play an extremely important role but are generally most effective when aligned to the greater strategy instead of being used in place of a strategy. Playing off the scenario above, if you start by thinking a poster and the Intranet is the answer, then ask yourself a few simple questions like:

  • How does this poster achieve my strategy?
  • How will posting the information on the Intranet achieve my strategy, especially if most employees try to avoid using the Intranet?
  • How will I measure if the poster and Intranet achieve my strategy?
  • How will you be able to report success to your peers or leaders?
  • What if the poster looks great, but is sending the wrong message? How will you know?

The answer is without a strategy you can’t answer these questions, which means you don’t really have irrefutable evidence that your tactic is achieving your business objective. Trust that your C-Office and senior leadership wants to know that your methods and efforts are founded in strategy so that you can provide the irrefutable evidence to support your business case.

What To Expect If You are Asking Someone To Define a Strategy For You

If you are asking someone to define a strategy for you, then you should be prepared to expect:

  • Time: The project to take anywhere from a few weeks to several months
  • Skill-set: The professionals you hire are more senior in experience and capability, therefore come along with greater cost
  • Commitment: You will need to play an important role to support the definition of the strategy from providing clear business objectives and measures of success, share all you know about your employees behaviors and habits that relate to the strategy and desired outcomes, deliver all data and insights that relate to the strategy, and be the core expert of your company’s business to help guide your strategist where he/or she isn’t the ultimate expert.

If you are asking someone to define tactics and there is no documented strategy to play off of, then don’t expect your tactics to be effective. If somehow it turns out the tactics were effective without a strategy, we have a word for that, and it’s ‘luck’.

Gregg Apirian

As the Managing Director of Vignette, Gregg is responsible for agency-wide vision and strategy, operations and finance, business development and engagement management. With nearly 20 years in entrepreneurial and executive-level roles, Gregg has been an instrumental leader at many distinguished agencies. Prior to Vignette Gregg was EVP, Digital Marketing at Trailer Park, EVP at Schematic (now POSSIBLE), and began his agency career as co-founder and CEO of BLITZ. Over the years Gregg’s leadership and combined experience drove growth, profitability and delivery of innovative and effective solutions for brands like GE, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Target, Verizon, OWN, Sony Pictures, NBCUniversal, Johnson & Johnson, HSN, Ann Taylor & LOFT, Nike, and Reebok.