Strategy is one of the most abused, misused words in the entire lexicon of business. Ask 100 executives what strategy means and you’ll get 150 different answers. In this six-part series, we’ll look at how to choose a PR strategy based on visible, measurable criteria and a meta-strategic framework. Today, we’ll examine the collaborative PR environment.

Recall that our framework for choosing a PR strategy is based on two dimensions, pace (how fast things change) and voice (how easy it is to be heard):

The collaborative environment is defined by a fast pace and the ability to have a strong voice, to be heard clearly; the strong voice has a catch, however. Strong voice in a collaborative environment is possible only through networking and alliances. In an environment in which no one brand has dominance but is quickly unchanging, collaborative PR efforts can lead to significant breakthroughs.

For example, in Jeremiah Owyang’s collaborative economy, companies like AirBnB, Uber, Breather, etc. all are aggregations of individuals and sole proprietors. None of these individuals on their own would be able to achieve any market awareness or scale on their own; together, they form a formidable opponent. These companies have become so dominant that their names and brands now define other business models. New companies define themselves as the Uber of X or the AirBnB of Y.

In the early days of podcasting, a consortium of podcasters grouped together and amplified their voice and awareness through a nascent company named Podshow. Podshow’s efforts led to the first wave of podcasting and gave the medium enough momentum to sustain itself.

In digital music, while there were many upstart companies, only Apple Inc. was able, using Steve Jobs’ many entertainment industry connections, to force the hand of the recording industry companies to participate. His efforts paved the way for legitimate digital music companies to flourish at a time when music piracy was the de facto standard among consumers.

Collaboration is nothing new to the digital age; associations and organizations of businesses are as old as business itself. Consider the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the myriad of trade groups for every industry. All these associations serve similar purposes, to amplify the voices and power of individual members above and beyond the individual companies.

How To Choose A Collaborative Strategy

In the collaborative environment, connection defines whether you win or lose. If you want to become the industry leader in a collaborative environment, you have to be the organization with the biggest, best network of connections to other players. Like the formation of stars and planets, the strongest connections build the biggest winners.

What strategies and tactics fit well in a collaborative environment? Collaboration is ideal for industries without much news to offer. By creating an association or consortium, individual members can pitch in affordable amounts of marketing and communications budgets to accomplish industry studies or major initiatives that they could not afford alone. The collaboration leader would set the direction and manage the plan, but the industry as a whole would benefit and awareness can be created from the research.

Collaboration is also ideal for any environment where major challenges must be addressed but are beyond the scope of any one company to tackle. Note that this can occur even in the presence of an existing industry; the example of Uber disrupting the taxi industry is a textbook case of collaboration overthrowing an existing paradigm.

Where You’ll Go Wrong

The biggest mistake in collaborative PR is not being the collaboration, leader. If your network isn’t the strongest, if your connections aren’t the deepest, then you can work to build a coalition and end up deferring leadership to another party. The other party will reap the rewards of your efforts. You may gain some ancillary benefit, but no more than other coalition members, while the other party’s name will be strongly associated with the industry’s leadership.

The second biggest mistake in the collaborative PR environment is in failing to distinguish it from a chaotic environment. While fast-paced, collaborative environments aren’t as unstable as chaotic environments. A truly chaotic environment will render moot any attempt at defining standards via a consortium or association; a collaboration strategy in a true chaotic environment will simply be a waste of time. To avoid this mistake, determine if the changes are going to happen with or without your industry’s participation. If the latter is true, you’re in a chaotic environment. If a coalition of industry players can steer change, then you have a collaborative environment.

For example, smartphone adoption and usage happened without the agreement of the music industry. Companies such as Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartRadio were able to adapt in the chaotic environment, in an environment in which they had little say. Traditional music companies neglected to recognize the change until the streaming music players had eaten their lunch.

In the final post in this series, we’ll look at choosing strategies and understanding whether your strategy is the best choice.

Read more: