3 simple questions for communicators

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.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

11 thoughts on “3 simple questions for communicators”

  1. If I had a buck for every time this kind of scenario played out on our campus, I could probably endow my own faculty chair. But seriously, this encapsulation of Who, What and How is one of the best responses to this universal conundrum I’ve seen. It also serves as a reminder to those who want us to communicate that this isn’t just about throwing things out there and hoping they stick; there’s a method to our madness.

    Since you’re a seasoned communications professional, I’ll assume that your sharpened powers of observation determined that “exclaimed” was the optimal verb. It works in a blog and in telling this story.

  2. I believe the correct punctuation of the second paragraph is thus:

    “Nobody knows about all the great things we’re doing!” she exclaimed.*

    Or even:

    “Nobody knows about all the great things we’re doing!!!!!!!” she exclaimed.*

    If she was truly panicked, as you note.

  3. As Tim says, such clarity and great advice on how to respond to this very familiar panic ;) The only thing missing from the conversation was, “How can you get us in the NYT?” Looking forward to the next post.

  4. It’s funny looking at things from the other side. I think this happens to be a case of “the grass is always greener…”

    At our school, it’s like pulling teeth just to get anyone to share anything with our PR and marketing staff. We often wish people would call us with these types of problems, just so that we’d have something with which to work. Instead, we constantly have to go digging for things to promote and share.

  5. OtherWebGuy – I feel your pain. We still have to beat the bushes to get some departments to share information with us, and I’m sure we always will. All things considered, I guess it’s better to have people calling us with a bad case of the panics than to have wide-scale indifference. Keep digging and keep doing good work, and pretty soon you’ll be getting those calls.

  6. Great article — anyone who works in communications has been round and round this one. But I think you missed the FIRST important question: WHY? Why do we want to communicate this–what are we trying to achieve? While you’ve covered it in the How, I think it’s the starting point from which the who/what and how must spring.

    Regarding audience, it can’t be hammered home hard enough: Everyone is not an audience, and neither is that perennial fave “the general public.” The general public, that amorphous mass, cares more about what Tiger Woods is up to than the great things any university is doing. Hone, hone, hone, or you’re wasting your breath.

  7. Leslie – D’OH in all caps for me on missing the biggest question of all: Why? Then there’s the “So what? Who cares?” question that connects to both the “Why” and the audience. Thanks for the great input.

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