Part One of a Three-Part Series: A Strategic Communication Plan
Most people think of public relations as getting your name in the New York Times, booking you on a podcast, or scoring a guest blog on an influential website. In other words, gaining “earned media” — free coverage versus a paid advertisement. Many nonprofits might look to PR to conduct a campaign to raise money or awareness. Public relations, however, is concerned with managing communication with your publics across all channels (social media, email, newsletters, blog, website, customer interactions, etc.). It takes into account the public perceptions, reactions, and effects of your communications. While many seek PR help hoping for media placement and coverage, the best money you can spend on PR to get started is on a strategic communication plan.
Defining who you are
Managing your organization’s image or reputation has always been in the PR wheelhouse. That is for a good reason. In a survey of consumers on corporate reputation done by DHM Research, 93% of consumers said reputation matters when faced with choosing products or services of similar quality and price. Sadly, reputation gets more attention when sullied, and organizations must turn to PR to help shore it up. Many times, the damage is self-inflicted, and it is often too late. A strategic communication plan can help avoid this and help to ensure alignment with your vision.
To manage a reputation, you first have to define what you want it to be. Doing so is part of a well-written communication plan. How do you want people to feel about your business or organization? What do you want them to say to others about it? What about your company, products, or services lifts you out of a sea of sameness? Does each of your marketing and social media messages reflect and support this? So many businesses and nonprofits don’t do this important work, despite its great importance.
You need to have crystal clear answers because this will form your messaging architecture, which acts as the standard to which your messaging aligns. In turn, all your programs, advertising, social media, and earned media become integrated within the plan’s framework. It helps you define what you stand for and where you will not go.
Organizations have a million choices of channels these days, and you can find an expert in each of them to help you. For example, you can have a social media manager, a Facebook marketer, and a blog content writer. Yet, something must align all this with the organization you want to be. It must reinforce the reputation and expertise you want to have. Each of the messages and channels must support your goals, and a plan helps that.
Identifying and talking with your publics
Communication is a two-way thing. Anything else is just message dissemination. Public relations, because it focuses on relationships, naturally tries to build opportunities to listen and engage your publics, so you are talking with them and not to them. The messaging used to reach potential customers, for example, isn’t necessarily what existing customers need. In the same way, lapsed customers need something else. The planning process figures this out and addresses it. Knowing what questions and concerns your audiences have helps develop the information you provide, whether on your website, customer paperwork or via another channel.
The best plans are based on audience research. They are thorough in identifying and prioritizing your audiences. It goes beyond prospective customers (or donors in a nonprofit). Depending on business goals, an organization’s legislative representatives, suppliers, distributors, and employees may be essential audiences to consider. Then, there are “intercessory audiences,” or people who can intercede on your behalf or even intercede as a threat. The development of a solid communications plan helps to identify and understand these various publics. It also seeks to build feedback into your infrastructure, so there is an ongoing dialogue with those publics. All of it supports and maintains your reputation and image.
Keeping you accountable
A strategic communication plan keeps your organization accountable to its vision and its goals. Because the research has been done with your publics in building your plan, it will be easier to anticipate the effects — and the ramifications — of your communications, policies, and courses of action. In other words, it serves as a compass that can keep you out of trouble and avoid self-created crises. (Crisis is the theme coming up in part 2 of this 3-part series).
Investing in your goals
A solid strategic communications plan ties back to your organization and its business goals. Because it is based on research among your audiences, it will also establish intermediate objectives leading to those goals. It will include immediate steps you can take to shore up holes in your channels and your messaging. You may not need further public relations assistance to carry out much of it. It is an investment toward meeting and exceeding your goals. That is something public relations has always aimed for, and a plan is a great place to make your PR investment.
Look for part 2 of this series in the next week. We’ll talk about planning for crises through a Crisis Communication Plan, something every business and nonprofit organization needs.