How Adapting Your PR Strategy Is Like Settlers Of Catan

After returning from this year’s PRSA International Conference in Boston, I came away with one word from the conference about building an effective PR strategy: adaptation.

With the constant stream of new apps, social media platforms, and #hashtags to stay updated on, even the most well-planned PR or communications strategy can fail to reach the intended audience or worse, not make an impact with your audience. I spoke about Agile PR at the conference with #TriStateConf speaker Brandi Boatner, and the key takeaway was to fail fast and prototype quickly.

But I thought of a better way to relate the changing world of PR, communications, and marketing using a board game that became popularized in Silicon Valley: Settlers of Catan.

“The Board Game Of Our Time”

Said the Washington Post about the game in 2010. The game won Game of the Century in 2015. And yes, it was just announced a feature-length movie will be created.

For the uninitiated, Settlers of Catan or just “Settlers” is a board game involving collecting resources, trading resources with your opponents, and building your civilization faster than your opponents. The game is highly addicting and mixes elements of resource management and building strategy, but also remains simple to learn for newbies. The game has entered popular culture as shown above with the Parks and Rec gif of our beloved Ben Wyatt discusses one of the cards in the game.

Your Strategy Depends On Other “Players”

At the outset of the game, you develop your initial strategy by placing your settlements on the board where you think you can collect the most resources. You brew a strategy in your mind of how you plan on building your civilization and it all starts with where you place your first settlements. This is similar to building a PR strategy with the key points of of your communication plan.

As the game progresses and other players also lay down your settlements, your original strategy more likely than not will not seem ideal anymore. Perhaps another player blocks a path where you were going to build, or another player takes a spot you were originally going to build. What once began as a your ultimate strategy to dominate the game quickly turns into an outdated plan that will put you at the bottom of the game.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

In the PR and marketing worlds, large investments are made in user research and consumer behavior in order to predict how a communication strategy will perform with a given audience. As we discussed at the international conference, this the fallacy PR and marketing professionals are faced with:

“Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.”

Does this describe the campaigns you work on? If so, you will be bound by a losing strategy that prevents you from reaching your target audience and the ultimate goal of changing their perceptions and beliefs about your client.

In the world of Settlers, there are various strategies that look appealing at different parts of the game. The most difficult part of the game is to figure out when the current strategy you’re building towards is no longer going to help you win and you need to adapt to a new strategy.

For instance, a common strategy is to build the longest road which awards you 2 points. Some players get caught up in out-building each other to get the longest road award, but at the opportunity cost of building other structures that can award points too. Being able to shift from one strategy to the next at multiple junctures in the game allows you to do two things:

  1. Adapt to actions of other players’ actions throughout the game
  2. Keep your opponents guessing on what your next move is

Going Outside The Five Ps of Marketing

For the non-academic types out there, can we agree that the 5 Ps we learned in introduction to marketing freshmen year is an outdated framework?

With Settlers and your PR strategy, a predictable plan that your competition expects will likely fall flat with your target audience. It is very difficult to predict your opponents next move in Settlers, so the best way to move forward is to be on the offensive so your opponents react to you. Too often in the PR and marketing world, we rely on the “tried and true” strategies that feel familiar, but are way too predictable.

When There Are No More Rules

One of the most interesting aspects is the resource trading that takes place every turn. You have the option to trade resource cards in your hand with those of your opponents. As a trader, you need the cooperation of your opponents but at the same time you don’t want to give them the cards they need either. There are no specific rules about trading so players are allowed to attach any condition they would like to trades.

In a world where fake news and alternative facts are the new norm, how do we create winning strategies when the rules have completely changed on us? I think this opens up the door to those strategies which are truly unique and creative that will be valued by consumers.

Tomorrow at our 2017 PRSA Tri-State Conference, we will discuss this very topic. The conference is entitled “What Now? Maintaining Your PR Integrity In the Post-Truth Era“. At last year’s conference, we saw over 200 attendees and this year we are expecting 300+! Let the games begin!

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