A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
December 8, 2005 Volume 36 / Number 4


The Art of War Translated to the Art of Business

The principles of Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu illustrate how ancient wisdom can be used to enhance student comprehension of public relations and its role in modern organizations.

Although Sun Tzu lived 2,500 years ago, his strategies—outlined in his martial classic The Art of War—provide commentary and guidance for such present-day topics as leadership, competition, and organization.

Sun Tzu’s central premise is that battles and competitions are won by those organizations that have the greatest competitive advantage and that make the fewest mistakes. Public relations focuses on an organization’s desire to achieve positive image and goodwill among its various constituents. This results from setting goals and reaching objectives based on the successful implementation of strategies and tactics—terms commonly used in public relations instruction that also have obvious military and management applications.

Using Sun Tzu’s principles as a teaching tool offers an effective way to explain to students such major public relations concepts as the open system, relationship management, the situation analysis, applied and theoretical research, implementing change, crisis planning, employee relations, communicating with special internal and external publics, and the effective use of information and technology. And applying Sun Tzu’s wisdom in the classroom can also help public relations and business students gain insights for their own character development as professional communicators and future managers.

A number of books have been written based on concepts adapted from The Art of War. Among these are Donald G. Krause’s 1995 interpretive treatise The Art of War for Executives (Berkley Publishing Group). Krause’s version includes brief passages from a literal translation of the original Sun Tzu text blended with a contemporary interpretation adapted for business settings.

Krause concludes with an appendix that outlines Sun Tzu’s principles in 10 summary statements that, when applied to public relations instruction, can teach students to view public relations as a strategic tool, a legitimate management function, and a necessary element in helping organizations to maintain legitimacy.

Learning to Fight—According to Sun Tzu, competition is inevitable and often occurs when organizations have something important to gain or are under threat. Public relations applications can help organizations avoid emotional reactions and, instead, incorporate methods of inquiry and structured evaluation.

Show the Way—In Sun Tzu’s opinion, leadership alone determines success. Effective public relations practices can be instrumental in helping leaders to reach external and internal constituents at all levels of the organization.

Do It Right—Sun Tzu counsels that all competitive advantage is based on effective execution, which results from proper planning: creating favorable opportunities and then acting on them at the appropriate time.

Know the Facts—Sun Tzu’s views on intelligence gathering illustrate the need for systematic collection and interpretation of information based on highly credible, structured, scientific research.

Expect the Worst—Sun Tzu warns that because one’s competition will always try to win the battle, adequate preparation is always necessary. He encourages leaders to expect and prepare for the worst if they intend to succeed—a basic premise of crisis planning.

Seize the Day—According to Sun Tzu, speed and innovation are key to staying ahead of one’s competition. This encourages the use of simple, flexible methods to gain an advantage.

Burn the Bridges—Sun Tzu believes that this action can have great strategic consequence in organizations because it creates a mindset in leaders, employees, and constituents alike that the organization can only move forward or it may not survive its current state.

Do It Better—Sun Tzu stresses the importance of innovation because this gives the user a tactical advantage by doing simple things well. This can foster ongoing goodwill with vital publics such as customers.

Pull Together—In Sun Tzu’s opinion, training, organization, and communication are the foundation of success because these keep constituents informed and promote group comfort and stability.

Keep Them Guessing—Sun Tzu encourages the implementation of flexible, creative tactics rather than predictable ones that fail to make the organization stand out from its competition.

—Morris Brown Jr., Department of Journalism