Column: Synchronize your communications

The rush is on for businesses, non-profits and public agencies to hop on the social media bandwagon. The rise of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube has added several new elements to the external communication tool box.

If you already have a social media presence, or if you are strongly considering it, then now is also a good time to take a look at your overall strategic communications plan. Are you just chasing after the next bright, shiny thing? Or do the new media options really fit with your organization’s long-range communication objectives?

That’s the value of a good, up-to-date communications plan. It helps you take a broad, strategic look at your operation. A plan helps you decide if you belong on Facebook. And if you do, the plan helps you promote the site, determine how best to use it, attract “likes” and measure success.

Wikipedia.com defines strategic communication as “… the systematic planning and realization of information flow, communication, media development and image care in a long- term horizon.” Such a plan helps synchronize your various communication methods and messages to achieve your goals and objectives. Without a holistic plan, you risk mixing messages, confusing or missing target audiences and potentially wasting scarce resources.

Creating or updating a strategic communications plan allows an organization to not only look ahead, but also look back on efforts to date. Have your current strategies worked as expected? Do you have useful measures for success? Have you adjusted to economic, social, or political landscape changes over time? Do you need to rethink your plan to reflect new circumstances and address future opportunities? Once you start thinking strategically, a social media launch can be evaluated in the context of your overall strategic approach.

An effective communications plan needs well-defined goals and objectives that flow directly from the organization’s overall strategic or business plan. Questions you should ask include:

• What does success look like? This is your definition of success illustrated by achievable goals.

• How do we get there? This lays out your road map of strategic objectives, and drives plan implementation.

• How do we know if we are on track? Always include measures of success to keep the plan dynamic and responsive.

• What are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? This so-called SWOT analysis is very effective at evaluating past performance and setting long-term objectives.

• Who are your target audiences? Few, if any, organizations have “everyone” as their target. Defining who you want to reach is both efficient and effective.

• What are the awareness levels, interests, and expectations of these audiences? You may think you understand what they know or want, but maybe not. Don’t guess about this. Find out.

• What key messages should we convey to these audiences? These messages should generate a desired response that supports your goals and objectives. If you are not getting good responses, then revisit the plan.

• What communication tools work best to achieve your goals? This is among the last planning steps. Know what you want to achieve first, and then figure out the best tools to use.

The actual plan may vary depending on the type of organization. For example: A business seeking to increase sales may focus heavily on marketing strategies, such as paid advertising. A government agency may rely on the news media and public meetings to share information and encourage stakeholder involvement. However, there are no bright lines dividing strategic options. Businesses seeking to stay connected with their communities may also include media relations and community outreach strategies. And agencies may use marketing strategies to promote public health and safety.

The overall strategic communications plan is the repository of all of your tool options synchronized to achieve well-defined goals and objectives. With a plan in place, an organization can speak with one voice externally, listen and respond effectively to key audience feedback, and also help internal staff be effective external ambassadors. Sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it?

Jim Gladson is a senior communications and public involvement project manager in the Vancouver office of BergerABAM, a multidiscipline consulting firm with offices in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Texas. He can be reached at (360) 823-6121 or e-mail at jim.gladson@abam.com.

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