It happened again last week. I got a panicky phone call from a mid-level campus administrator in a perceived communications crisis. The faculty member who chairs a committee this administrator staffs was in the room with her (and probably contributing to the staff member’s heightened state of anxiety), so she put me on speakerphone and outlined her concerns.
“Nobody knows about all the great things we’re doing,” she exclaimed.* “How can we get the word out?”
My response: “Who are you trying to reach?”
Then the faculty person chimed in: “We’ve got a bunch of great stories to tell. We really need to do more press releases about what the committee is doing.”
So began a conversation that has, alas, become familiar terrain for me, and probably for many of you. Before we got too wrapped up in talking about tactics and vehicles — press releases, brochures, websites, etc. — I managed to steer the conversation toward my canned pitch about thinking strategically about communications and the three questions that must be answered before anyone can create an effective communications plan. The same questions work for any type of communications, including marketing communications.
The three questions that every communicator must answer before attempting to create a communication plan or strategy
1. Who? Who is your audience? Whom are you trying to reach? This is the first step. Define your audience. “Everybody” isn’t an audience. And it’s OK to have more than one audience. If that is the case, then:
- Segment. List all possible audiences you want to reach. Then,
- Prioritize and focus on the top three for starters.
Implied in step 1 is that you know something about your audiences. If you don’t know about certain audiences, then get up to speed quickly and learn something about them, or consult a member of that audience for some guidance. Find out what makes them tick. (I’m generalizing here, but you’ve got to start with something.)
2. What? What do you want to tell your audience(s)? What is your message? You may have more than one message for each audience, but try not to complicate things. Try to stick with two messages per audience, three messages at most. Keep the messages short, simple and to the point.
You’d think that we’d know what messages we want to communicate. But you’d also be surprised how little people actually think about messaging and just wing it. (I’m as guilty of this as just about anyone.)
3. How? How do you want your audiences to react? What action or response do you want from the audience? Do you want to increase giving rates? Raise awareness? Once you figure out the response from each audience, then go back and review your messages to see whether they’re likely to elicit the type of response you’re looking for.
These are three simple questions. But they aren’t necessarily easy. To answer these questions requires thought, planning and objectivity. (As for objectivity: You may think you know what messages will elicit the response you’re looking for, but your audiences may have other ideas. It wouldn’t hurt to test the ideas with members of those audiences, either formally or informally, before you go beyond the three-questions stage of planning.)
If you answer these three questions — or help someone else answer them — before you attempt any sort of communication plan or strategy, you’ll probably cut back on a lot of stress, angst, rework and false starts down the line.
In my next post, I’ll talk about the steps to take after answering these questions.
As for last week’s conversation, I followed up with an email outlining these steps with a simple spreadsheet seeded with possible audiences to help them get started. I’ll follow up at the end of the week to see if they’re making progress. If nothing else, maybe at least they’re thinking about communications a bit more strategically.
* To Tim Nekritz, if you’re reading this: I know I just violated your prime directive of news-release writing, which is also good advice for blogpost writing. But she really did exclaim. I swear she did. I could hear the exclamatory tone in her voice. At least I didn’t write, she panicked, which would also be accurate.