Strategic Communications Planning … While You Wait

The following is a complete chapter from my book, Making News in the Digital Era. It is a strategically-driven approach to developing a plan to enhance brand awareness and competitive leadership. The book has become a fixture in many university communications courses.

More than ever, I am convinced we live in a tactics-driven world, and it’s leading us in a downward direction. When we embrace tactics, we relinquish leadership, by default. Using tactics reveals a level of anxiety over needing to get results fast, at any price, and often with not much depth of quality or meaning. Good results don’t work that way, especially in the digital age.

In business and everyday living, we are awash in top 10 steps to solve this or that. Top 10 things to make money, top 10 things to get attention, top 10 ways to look more beautiful, top 10 things to be recognized as a winner, and so on. While they might be fun to read, these are all just tactics and most often lack strategic substance and purpose. Many PR people, however, love tactics because they require little thought, seem easy and are checklists of things to do that make us think we’ve accomplished something. This is just an illusion.

rocket_scienceTactics without carefully thought-out strategies almost certainly lead to unsatisfactory results, missteps or failure. Tactics lack inspiration, passion, cohesive purpose and focus. It’s like walking in circles, getting nowhere meaningful.

Yet we are living in a culture where tactics are popular because they are easy. Strategic purpose, on the other hand, requires imaginative ideas, intelligent process, organization and work. Strategies deliver desired results, and strategic planning is not rocket science. And here’s the best part: developing strategies is fast and quite easy.

However, the traditional approach to strategic planning has become too complicated, in my opinion. It’s reached the point where developing a strategy, as espoused by many consultants, is simply too time-consuming, too divisive and too frustrating a process. It’s dreaded at many organizations.

Years ago, I had a business partner, the late Jon Phelps, who, like me, always looked for practical solutions to assist clients with fast results. Most of all, we shared a dislike for the overly complicated style of strategic planning that’s taught in many business schools, an approach that requires weeks, wastes valuable time, and results in a plan that people either hate or rarely understand because it is so wordy and complicated.

So, we created the SOS approach to strategic planning, a way to keep it clear, easy, straightforward and, most of all, actually fun. This method for developing a plan gets people excited and delivers meaningful results on time. Jon called it strategy planning while you wait.

SOS means Situation Objectives Strategies — the foundation of a strategic plan. Add to that the components of identifying audiences, developing messages that resonate favorably with those audiences, tactics that bring the strategies to life, a timeline, and a measurement matrix, and an SOS results in an action-packed business communications plan that can be developed in a few days, builds consensus and delivers.

An illustration picture shows a projection of text on the face of a woman in BerlinThe key is to use common sense, plain language and never become tangled up in silly things that don’t matter, like whether something is a goal or an objective (because it’s all the same).

The process of developing an organization’s strategic communications cannot be delegated to staff members who may not be aware of the whole picture. Today’s top executive leader need to be involved, at least in defining the vision that he or she wants to communicate, as well as the primary positioning messages to precisely differentiate the organization from competitors.

Strategic communications planning is a process that need not be difficult or time-consuming.

Think of the elements of effective strategic communications as the three legs on a stool that allows you to stand above the crowd and be seen. Take away one or two legs, and you’ll fall off. Add too many legs, and the stool becomes awkward and unmanageable. Here are the three pillars:

Pillar One: The Strategic Communications, or SOS Plan. A plan gives focus to your purpose and your objectives. Why would any organization ever consider launching an outreach program or making any public statement without some sort of plan that provides purpose, relevance and context?

StrategicPlanningEffective strategic communications begins with a carefully thought-out plan to position an organization competitively. The plan embraces the overall corporate vision and objectives, giving focus, purpose and reason to a communications effort. It does not begin with tactics or with copying tactics that you’ve seen other people use to boost visibility in the media. It begins with asking yourself candid and tough questions that will help you put your fingers on the distinct pulse of your organization and identify precisely the right ways and the best words to enhance your image before key audiences. Some of those questions are:

  • What’s so special about your organization that makes it stand out from anyone else, and who cares beyond the company parking lot? What are the things about your company that appeal most to the people who really matter outside, those who rely on your organization, such as customers, employees, investors, buyers, vendors and stakeholders?
  • How do you want your company described by others — in clear, jargon-free words? In other words, how do you think your best customer might describe why you were chosen over a competitor?
  • What is genuinely newsworthy about your organization’s products or services? Keep in mind that no one cares about your company. Really. They only care about how your organization might benefit them.

Think of a strategic communications plan as a beacon that will guide important audiences to your organization. A strategic communications plan mirrors the objectives of a company’s business plan and works to bring the strategic business plan to life more efficiently and more compellingly than any other method.

Most of all, it helps organizations get outside themselves, and into fresh, new conversations and interactions with their publics.

The SOS plan’s components are straightforward:

  • Situation overview: a few paragraphs to summarize the lay of the land, competitive environment, challenges and obstacles, as well as advantages and opportunities. This is your opportunity to say, “Here’s what we’re up against, here’s what we’re going to do, and here’s how we’re going to make it happen.”
  • Audiences: a list of all audiences that you intend to reach through your media initiative — internal and external, public and highly specialized. I’ve always observed a natural tendency to create a list that’s too long yet often omits the media, mainstream or online. Sometimes we even list an audience group that’s no longer relevant to our business. Challenge yourself about who’s important, and who is not. Here’s your chance to fine-tune that list and reduce it to the essentials.
  • Positioning statement: an introductory sentence or two that distinctly and clearly differentiates the value delivered by your organization from your competitors and works to capture the attention of your key audiences.
  • Objectives: preferably three and certainly no more than four goals that reflect and complement the aim of your organization’s business plan. Begin each objective with an active word, such as boost or enhance or create. You can also use the old style of beginning each objective with the word to.
  • Strategies: having a specific strategy for achieving each objective. Describe in inspiring detail how you intend to achieve the objectives. In other words, how you plan to get from here to there. Remember that you cannot list an objective without a strategy for making it happen. Additionally, you can only have one strategy per objective in order to keep the SOS plan streamlined and effective.
  • Tactics: unique and distinctive action points that will bring your strategies to life in order to achieve the objectives.
  • Measurement: a mechanism to demonstrate tangible results. Elements can include an upward trend in such measurable points as sales, new business leads, stock value, media coverage, increased Web site traffic and unsolicited praise from people who are important to the organization. Create a measurement matrix, a chart that tracks each component and clearly shows achievements.
  • Timeline: how the plan will be executed in a timely fashion, and when you can expect to start seeing results.
There's a time and a place for tactics.

There’s a time and a place for tactics.

Be mindful of not allowing tactics to drive the planning process. Tactics are the fun side of planning, while objectives and strategies require more thought. Consequently, people too often jump to tactics that may or may not be relevant to the plan. That could lead to wasted time, wrong strategic directions and costly mistakes.

Tactics will, however, naturally be revealed in a communications plan developed using the SOS strategic planning process because they will be connected clearly with objectives and strategies. There will be no spinning of wheels, no false moves. SOS planning tactics will show what to do first: for example, how and whether to use the communications power of Web 2.0 or more traditional techniques.

Pillar Two: Be Original. While it always helps to know your competition, ignore what they are saying and how they are saying it. Although a competitor may do something cool, it may not be either smart or effective. If there’s a news story about that company or organization and you’re not mentioned, forget it. As with the city bus, another opportunity will soon come along before you know it. If you copy or react to the featured organization, you have, by default, put yourself in second place, making yourself a “wannabe” in the media’s eyes. The media and the public do not gravitate to wannabes.

Ignore what the competition says to the media. Chart new territory. Be original and imaginative because you are smarter and savvier than they are. If you become passionate, inspiring and credible in communications, the competition won’t matter because more people will pay attention to you. More importantly, as I have previously written, focus on what your customers or buyers really care about: the benefit and value that what your organization makes or sells brings to their lives. Again, never talk about your company or organization, because no one cares.

There’s too much competitive clutter out there in the marketplace these days. You cannot afford to be ordinary. Throw out conventional wisdom and old-school, traditional approaches for working with the media. I’ve often said that conventional wisdom is a code phrase for dull and predictable.

Challenge the claims and promises of your public relations agency, if you have one. Forget news releases and expensive media kits. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling compelled to announce every little event that happens at your place. Your organization has special things to say, so why say them in a predictable and boring fashion?

An essential part of being original is using clever visuals. If you want to quickly leapfrog your image and reputation out ahead of your competition, think about three things: visuals, visuals, visuals. Nothing captures the media’s attention faster than great pictures.

When it comes to what makes it on the air, a TV news producer most often will go with a second-class story that has great visuals over a better story without visuals. That’s just the way journalism works, and it’s not going to change. Television news, online news outfits, blogs, newspapers and other media are mostly driven by visuals over content.

Pillar Three: Tell the Truth. Regardless of the situation and circumstances, accuracy, transparency and candor in dealing with the media is always the best route.

We have all learned in recent years of far too many examples and stories of deception and lies in communications and public statements: Wall Street’s financial meltdown, torture of foreign prisoners by the United States, political misdeeds and corporate wrongdoing, just to name a few.

Today we are living in a new era, when nothing remains secret, and openness is paramount. In today’s world of communicating through the media — when what you say can be heard around the world in a split second — imaginative ideas, transparency and the truth win out every day of the week over thread-worn conventional wisdom, such as manipulation, parsing words and hype.

Many of today’s most highly visible and respected business leaders have invested the time to develop a plan for competitive image and reputation leadership through the use of credible communications. They have dared to step outside the box of what everyone else is doing and saying in order to build awareness with imaginative ideas and approaches. Most of all, they are earning our trust and respect by being open and transparent.

© 1990-2015 David E. Henderson