In nearly two decades of being a communicator, I can’t count how many times that a client or potential client has started our discussion with some version of “How can we get publicity?” or “How do we raise awareness?” That’s the wrong place to start a communications plan, and that’s when I start asking my questions.
Communications plans have to grow out of and be integrated into a larger organizational business plan. That’s why the most important first question in any organizational communication planning process is quite simply, “What audience behavior are we trying to change?”
While “changing behavior” might sound sinister, it’s what you’ve been doing since you first cried when hungry as a newborn. As a human being, you communicate with other humans for a reason. As a representative of an organization, your communications should function the same way.
That’s why I’ve never started a communications plan with “raising awareness” as a goal. Awareness is important, but it’s a means and not an end. This is where so many “awareness” campaigns with ribbons or colors or hashtags fall flat – simply being “aware” of something accomplishes very little, unless there’s subsequent effort to use an audience’s awareness as a starting point to move them through interest and desire and finally to action.
That’s where more questions come in. “What are we trying to get people to do?” is the end goal, so we then need to work back from there:
- Who are the audiences?
- What are their existing feelings on the topic?
- What have we tried before?
- What’s new this time around?
- Do we have existing communications channels?
- Can we build or share channels we control, or do we have to go through third-party gatekeepers?
- How will we know if our efforts are being effective?
- What happens if we’re successful, do we have plans for what the relationship and communication with our audience looks like at that point?
The answers to these questions drive the strategic component of our communications plan development, which then combines with limitations such as resources and timelines to define tactics. If your communications plan started with the right questions, you should be able to select any potential tactic in your plan and walk backwards through your planning process and explain how that particular initiative is helping your organization achieve the answer to your original question by changing your audience’s behavior through effective communications.
Recently, I had a client question why, given our goal of increasing purchase intent among a defined set of business customers for a particular industry-specific product, we were proposing that our media relations plan include outreach to local daily newspapers and business journals in Top 20 markets across the country. Because we’d asked the right questions up front and then planned accordingly, we were able to explain that these business targets not only read their targeted national industry vertical media but also closely followed their local industry goings-on in their hometown papers and business magazines. By finding opportunities to localize coverage in the major markets, we reached the target audience with messaging that gave them meaningful examples of how their local competitors were taking advantage of our client’s product. Asking the right questions and then putting together a communications plan accordingly paid off.