It’s that time of year when corporate communicators get serious about year ahead planning. It’s a regular routine and an utmost priority both for firms and in-house communication teams. Yet, while much is written on strategy and planning, for many the process remains daunting and difficult.
It doesn’t have to be. With the right focus in a few key areas, planning for a successful 2014 communication program can be a valuable and enriching exercise. Here’s how:
1. Talk to the C-Suite
I recently heard a CEO compare marketing professionals to court jesters. Why? Because marketers and communicators have a reputation for overlooking core business goals and metrics to focus instead on the latest cool thing. They talk about how to do the work rather than how the work contributes to the achievement of specific and measurable business goals. In order for communication to materially contribute to company success, the strategy must begin with business objectives that are defined by company leadership. Rather than expressing them in vague terms, such as “increase sales,” we must work with the C-Suite to understand the priorities. Increase sales by how much? How soon? With which specific customers? Aligning the program with what the CEO is trying to achieve helps to define and shape the communication strategy. And the best way to do that is to ask.
2. Seek Insights from Others
Beyond the statement of business objectives, sound strategic planning must incorporate insights from internal and external audiences – sales leadership, customers, influential journalists and analysts, trade group executives, and more. This information can be gathered any number of ways, ranging from one-on-one meetings to monitoring social discussion. By eliciting these insights and perspectives, gauging reactions to preliminary assumptions and engaging participation in further plan and program refinements, we can foster confidence that our ideas and directions are well focused and meaningful to those we are most seeking to reach. We can no longer presume that our audiences will follow our lead if we are boldly creative. Creative is catchy. Strategic and insightful creative is breakthrough.
3. Map It
Visual communications are more powerful and preferred than ever before. This trend toward visual expression can and should be applied to strategic planning. Illustrating the communication program facilitates assessment and acceptance. New tools make it easy to create a program plan in map-like format, so the path of communications, its intersections and road blocks all can be identified at a glance. This architecture is a far more useful delivery method for communication strategy than another mind-numbing PowerPoint or narrative. In its very configuration, it expresses structure and discipline. It also reflects an awareness of the interrelatedness of communication across multiple platforms to multiple constituencies. Synergy, coordination and tracking become eminently more possible in this format.
4. Build Consensus
Everyone in an organization has their own ideas about what is important and where the emphasis should be placed. Providing clarity about rationale, perspective, insights gained through discussions within and outside the C-Suite, and measurement protocols helps everyone “stay on strategy.” It is inevitable that others will parachute in with big ideas and bold concepts. Nothing is more powerful than informed and intelligent strategy built for results. If agreement is formed in advance of delivery to leadership, the paratroopers can be dealt with and the plan can proceed with support from the top.
The fourth quarter of the year is upon us. It’s imperative to get serious strategic planning underway. A clear and unambiguous process, beginning with these four steps, works equally well for agencies, in-house teams and organizations in diverse industries and sectors. Far more important, this approach to planning doesn’t require months to complete. Following this structure, a solid strategic plan can be in place well before 2014 arrives.