A communications strategy is essential to persuasive, relevant comms. This is a step by step guide to creating a punchy, sharp comms strategy.
It occurred to me last week that there’s an article that I haven’t written and should have: how to develop a communications strategy.
I’ve written dozens of communications strategies — some short, some long, some that have been embraced, some that have been ignored.
What I’ve learned is that if you want people to embrace your strategy you need to keep it short. Here’s how I do it.
Types of communication strategies
Communications strategies in my experience fall into two groups: campaign-focused, short to medium-term strategies; and medium to long-term organizational strategies. This advice applies to both.
Step 1: understand why you’re doing it
A communications strategy isn’t an end in itself. It needs to serve a business, campaign, or organizational goal. Before you begin to develop your communications strategy you should review existing strategy documents to understand what you are trying to do.
If you’re a consultant and these documents don’t exist you may want to consider passing on the project. Anything that’s in someone’s head and not written is subject to change quickly, often, and without reason. It can make for a tedious project.
If you’re employed by a campaign or organization you probably just need to get on with it. Talk to the most senior person you can find who will give you some direction. Start with the CEO or campaign director and work down from there. Ask them:
- What’s the problem?
- What’s the solution?
- What’s our role?
Write it down this and put it at the top of your strategy so it’s clear why the communications strategy exists.
Step 2: Involve people
Before you do anything, bring other staff into the process. By involving others you will end of up a better strategy and increase the chance that people buy into it. Be strategic — you don’t need to involve everyone, but don’t leave out anyone important.
Step 3: understand the context
You need to understand the context in which you are operating. You might be working for a political party in opposition, launching a new product in a crowded market, or working on an issue with strong views on both sides.
You need to know the answers to these questions:
- Who are my competitors or opposition? What do they want? What are they saying? Is their message cutting through? Where are they vulnerable?
- What’s the media landscape? Do they know about us already? Are they hostile or friendly?
- What are the dominant frames in play?
- What’s our niche or how are we different? How are we similar?
- What do people think about us? Products like ours?
- What’s the political context?
- What tech trends are relevant to us?
I also conduct a SWOT analysis — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. If you did an audit of existing communication summarize what you found.
Put all of this into a couple of paragraphs. Dump all the detail in an appendix. You’ll find people probably won’t read it but are happy to know that it’s there.
Step 4: understand your audience
The next step is to think about your audience.
Is our audience local, regional, national, or global? What media do they consume? How do they vote? Education? Age? Color? What do they want? What do they want to do? How can we help them? What stories do reporters want? What are their values?
The only way to answer these questions is through research. One research methodology you may want to consider is a three-phase approach that includes focus groups or interviews, and a survey.
Summarize the research in your communications strategy. Link to the full research report or include it as an appendix.
Step 5: communications objectives
What are the communications objectives that will help you achieve the overall campaign or organizational goal?
Here’s how I structured this in an organizational communications strategy a few years back. (I have changed some of the details to make it more generic).
There are three key objectives that the Communications Team will use to produce high-quality communications that will: improve the quality of service those who support our work; cut barriers to supporting our work; and draw attention to unfair laws to reduce injustice. They are:
1. Generate and retain support for our work by building credibility, increasing understanding of what we do, and raising interest in the issues we work on.
2. Increase the quality of our communications by providing support, advice, direction and tools to staff.
3. Increase the quality of our communications through increased focus and clarity.
These communications goals are general on their own, but below each of these goals I included tactics that would help us achieve them. And importantly, the goals are measurable.
This section should form a large chunk of your strategy.
Step 6: values and story
You must be relevant. Connecting with your audience is the most important part of communications. Your strategy has to provide guidance to staff on how to connect.
Values are not a laundry list of feel-good words. Values guide everything an organization or campaign does. The organization might switch direction, add more products, or start new campaigns, but the values shouldn’t change. I’ve written extensively about values.
People are wired for stories. Your communication needs to be presented in a story structure which will make it memorable, sharable, and inspire action. It should be an expression your values.
It’s important that people are clear about the organizational values and narrative when they communicate publicly. Take the time to make this section clear, interesting, and memorable.
Step 7: tactics
By now you have a strong strategic base to think about how your communications objectives will help you meet your overall goal. You know your audience, the context, your communications goals, your values and story. You need tactics to help you get there.
Your strategy might be good for a few years or an election cycle, but your tactics will need to change to suit the situation.
What are tactics? Tactics are the tangible things you do like forming a relationship with an important reporter, building a photographic database, or giving a keynote speech at an important event. They help you achieve your overall goal. I have a template I use to help me connect tactics to strategy.
I think that reviewing tactics quarterly is a good approach. I almost always include tactics as an appendix to the communications strategy because they are subject to change.
Step 8: people and money
Your goals and first set of tactics will give you a good idea of how much money and how much staff or consultant time will be required. Make the case for how much money and how many people will be required and forecast it over the life of the strategy. It’s impossible to be precise about this — make it clear that it is an estimate.
Step 9: evaluate
Know what’s working and what’s not. How will you measure success and failure? Evaluate as you go. The only way to tell if your communications strategy is working is to evaluate your progress. You may need to change tactics, add more resources, or shift focus.
You should also conduct a robust evaluation when the term of the strategy ends. This will help you develop the next one.
How to format your communications strategy
However your structure your communications strategy it should read like a story. It’s important that people read your strategy through, understand it, and remember it. Keep it short — 8-10 pages is a good length. Anything that is not critical should be dumped into the appendices. Some other tips:
- Use headings in Google Docs, Word, or Pages appropriately. They help give the document structure and make it scannable.
- Use spacing between each line somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5.
- Keep your paragraphs short and your sentences shorter.
- Use a serif font for the main text — it makes it look more authoritative. Seriously.
- Make generous use of bulleted lists.
- Bold important sections.
Here’s how you might structure it (like a story):
- Organizational or campaign goal
- Comms audit
- Problem, solution, our role
- Communications goals
- Our values and story
- Ways of working
- Measures of success
Many ways to skin the cat
Every communications professional I’ve spoken to has a different method for developing communications strategies. Feel free to copy this approach, but you will probably find that it’s best if you adapt it to what works for you, your organization, your campaign.
Be methodical. Get buy-in. Know your values. Keep it short.