October 12, 2012
Executive-level communicators are often engaged in the development of strategic plans for their organizations and clients. Yet with the continued and ever-increasing bombardment of emails, phone calls, tweets, non-stop meetings and staff needs, the capacity to take part in meaningful strategic communication planning often eludes even the most well-intentioned and dedicated professionals.
At a time when communication departments are under enormous pressure to tangibly contribute toward their organization’s or client’s success, we asked senior practitioners in several communication sectors — agency, higher education, independent consultancy and corporate communications — to share their insights and perspectives on the benefits of strategic planning.
Charlie Melichar, APR: A strategic plan forces you to take a moment to consider the most important question: Why? What is the impact we seek to make based on our efforts?
There is no such thing as “the public,” and we need to recognize that before we start communicating. We need to understand who the people are on the other side and respect their interests and needs.
Public relations is a strategic discipline, but without planning, it devolves into a service.
Gary Wells: First, the most important intangible benefit of creating a thoughtful communications plan is a tangible benefit — you can contribute to the success of your organization rather than simply get some things done. You make yourself a strategist who understands the importance of using communications in a thoughtful and intentional manner to support specific business objectives, rather than serve as a tactician who delivers information that may not serve any intended purpose other than its delivery.
Second, inherent in the development of a communications plan that is intended to support specific business objectives — for example, increase sales opportunities or retain key employees — is the accelerated opportunity for success in achieving these objectives. If the communications team enables the organization to increase sales of products or services on which the growth of the organization is based, that team is helping ensure a viable and vibrant future.
Third, the development and implementation of a communications plan around specific business objectives demonstrates to the leadership of the organization that the communications function delivers value. At the same time, having a communications plan enables communications professionals to serve the best interests of the organization in achieving its objectives [and] ensures some degree of job security.
Patricia R. McCarthy, APR: Having a strategic communication plan that embraces all of the touch points of an organization — social media, advertising, talent management and customer engagement — can be a key driver to an organization’s success.
The benefits of a well-developed but not necessarily lengthy communication plan are legion. Here are three planning benefits: Your organization has a roadmap, everyone gets on the same page and your stakeholders will understand and embrace your organization’s vision.
Steve Zenofsky, APR, Fellow PRSA: I’ve seen when practitioners focus on the most important outcomes of their organization’s PR plans, manage their time well in terms of execution and avoid being distracted by items not aligned with their stated plans, they feel more in control of their results, more fulfilled by their work and have more peace of mind.
McCarthy: A strong communication plan is key to an organization’s success and, not surprisingly, to a CEO’s success. Without a plan, communication leaders and their organization’s leaders will fall short of their intended goal and likely lose credibility and market share.
Among the many downsides of not having a plan are daily exposure to a crisis, damage to an organization’s brand and reputation, and diversions and costly rework.
Wells: If there is no communications plan, then whatever it is that the communications team does cannot really matter. If the communications team is simply fulfilling tasks, then they are ceding all opportunity to create the brand reputation that the company requires.
If you are not defining the perception you want everyone to have, then everyone defines you based on their own perceptions. And even if those perceptions are wrong, then they are still right as far as the audience is concerned.
Zenofsky: When planning does not occur, or occur well, it can become more challenging for one’s PR efforts to be consistently aligned with the organization’s business objectives.
And when that happens, a PR practitioner may likely be seen in the eyes of upper management as a communications tactician, rather than as a strategist or adviser. That can make it challenging for a PR professional to have greater influence among their organization’s management team and to deliver results that matter to their business.
Melichar: Planning requires you to think about not just what you’re doing, but where you want to go. What are your aspirations? What do you stand for? And how do you go about your business in a way that is unique? People look to our institutions for hope, and it is our responsibility to talk about what a better tomorrow looks like and how we will get there.
What do you think about the proverb “He who fails to plan, plans to fail”? Are there challenges and opportunities that are unique to planning in your sector?
Zenofsky: One of my favorite examples related to that proverb comes from a story about Ivy Lee, often credited as the founder of modern public relations.
In the early part of the 20th century, Lee became a trusted consultant to Charles M. Schwab, the president of Bethlehem Steel, after sharing a simple planning tip that reportedly changed the company’s fortunes. Lee recommended that Schwab and his management team develop a habit to plan for tomorrow at the end of every day, by listing the next day’s top-six priorities and ranking them in order of importance.
The plan each day was to focus on the first priority until it was done. Once completed, they then reassessed the day’s remaining priorities and moved on to the second most important item, and so on.
A few weeks after implementing the idea, Schwab sent Lee a $25,000 check, saying the planning method was one of the greatest business lessons he had ever learned.
Melichar: There is no strategy without planning, and those who seek to play leadership roles in their organizations must contribute not only to day-to-day operations, but also to future planning and direction. These are challenging and often uncertain times, and those who don’t take the time to plan will fail those who depend on us.
McCarthy: Many years ago, a mentor told me, “If you don’t know where you are going, any path will get you there.” I have never forgotten this simple advice.
Wells: I have heard various iterations of this theme. These include, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” This is one of the maxims that the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden employed in his unparalleled success. Others include, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there” and “Just because you can do something does not mean you should.”
The issue here is waste. A failure to create a communications plan means that whatever you are doing will likely fail to achieve anything of substance.
That is a waste of opportunity to make a difference. That is a waste of time that could be used toward success. That is a waste of talent that will become disengaged or demoralized. Perhaps a better axiom is this: “A dream is a goal with a plan.”
What is the aspiration of the organization? What does the organization want to achieve? What purpose does the organization serve? And in the answers to these questions comes the opportunity to create a communications plan that can make the aspirations, objectives and purposes of the organization come alive.
Media inquiries, crises and daily operational challenges can impede planning efforts. Today, communication planning isn’t simply a good idea; it is a business imperative that elevates our profession from tacticians to strategists who add significant value to the organization.
Patricia R. McCarthy, APR, marketing and public relations consultant, partner, McCarthy Blanchard LLC
Charlie Melichar, APR, associate vice chancellor, development and alumni relations communications, Vanderbilt University
Gary Wells, senior managing director, Dix & Eaton
Steve Zenofsky, APR, Fellow PRSA, assistant vice president, manager of public relations, FM Global
Renée T. Walker, APR, is the president of Michigan-based Renée Walker & Associates LLC, a strategy and communications consultancy, and is a veteran communications executive with nearly 30 years of experience.
Email: renee at reneetwalker.com