7 Easy steps to effective strategic planning

Excerpt from “Making News: A Straight-Shooting Guide to Media Relations” by David Henderson.

From years of helping organizations and businesses with strategic communications plans, I believe that many people approach the process of plan development with dread and shortness of breath. Strategic planning has gotten a bum rap because, I believe, too much has been made of the process rather than the outcome. Consequently, the process gets lost in the weeds. I believe in a minimalist approach to the process in order to achieve meaningful results … and, nothing like this U.S. Pentagon example.

Bad example of a strategic plan – the Pentagon’s “war on terror” in the Middle East.

Why is a strategic communications plan needed?

Without a plan, marketing, PR public statements or promotion usually lack focus and could actually work against fulfillment of an organization’s overall business objectives. You could be compromising your company’s reputation. So, why would you say anything in public without a plan? I cannot think of any reason except for carelessness or ambivalence about your organization’s image.

Effective communications begins with a carefully thought out plan to competitively position an organization. The plan embraces the overall corporate vision and objectives and gives focus, purpose and reason to a communications effort. It does not begin with tactics or with copying tactics that you’ve seen other people use to boost visibility. It begins with asking yourself candid and tough questions that will help you really put your fingers on the distinct pulse of your organization and identify precisely the right ways and the best words to enhance your image before key audiences. Some of those questions are:

  • What’s so special about your organization that makes it stand out from anyone else, and who cares beyond the company parking lot?
  • What are the things about your company that appeal most to the people who really matter outside and who rely on your organization, such as customers and stakeholders?
  • How do you want your company talked about, in clear, jargon-free words? In other words, how do you think your best customer might describe why you were chosen over a competitor?
  • What is genuinely distinctive and newsworthy about your organization and what it does or produces?

Think of a strategic plan as a beacon that will guide important audiences to your organization. A plan mirrors the objectives of a company’s business plan and works to bring the strategic business plan to life more efficiently and more compellingly than any other method.

7 steps to straight-forward strategic communications planning:

  • Situation Overview. A few paragraphs to summarize the lay of the land, competitive environment, challenges and obstacles, advantages and opportunities. This is your opportunity to say, “Here’s what we’re going to do and how we’re going to make it happen.”
  • Audiences. A list of all audiences that you intend to reach through your media relations initiative – internal and external, public and highly specialized. I’ve always observed a natural tendency to create a list that’s too long yet often omits the news media. Sometimes, we will list an audience group that’s no longer relevant to our business. Here’s your chance to fine-tune that list and reduce it to the essentials.
  • Positioning Message. The introductory sentence or two that distinctly and clearly differentiates you from your competitors and will work to capture the attention of your key audiences.
  • Objectives. Preferably three and certainly no more than four goals that reflect and complement the objectives in your organization’s business plan. Begin each objective with an active word, such as “boost” or “enhance” or “create.” There’s an old style of beginning each objective with the word, “to.” Many of us stopped doing that after high school.
  • Strategies. There must be a specific strategy for achieving each objective. This is where you describe in detail how you intend to achieve the objectives. In other words, how you plan to get from here to there. Remember that you cannot list an objective without a strategy for making it happen. And, you cannot have two strategies for one objective.
  • Tactics. The unique and distinctive action points that will bring your strategies to life in order to achieve the objectives.
  • Measurement. The plan must have a mechanism to demonstrate tangible results. Elements can include an upward trend in news stories, increased Web site traffic and more unsolicited contact from journalists. Create a measurement matrix, a chart that tracks each component and clearly shows achievements.

Be mindful of not allowing tactics to drive the planning process. Tactics are the fun side of planning, while objectives and strategies require more thought. Consequently, people all too often jump to tactics that may or may not be relevant to the plan. That could lead to wasted time, wrong strategic directions and costly mistakes.

During the process of developing a plan, the right tactics will naturally reveal themselves. Chances are you can even identify clever new tactics that will become distinctive to your organization. So, even if someone else currently has an advantage over you in the area of media relations, it’s realistic to expect to gain the upper hand because many people don’t bother with developing a smart strategic communications plan. I’ve found that most people think only about tactics and hope that tactics will solve everything. That’s a fool’s game. Before you think about tactics, think BIG. Have a strategy.

Once you’ve launched that process, you will begin to see your company or organization through a new set of eyes, with 20-20 vision, focused on the essence of what’s important. You will no longer find it relevant to think of your organization in terms of competitors but rather as a unique organization of talented people who are part of something big.

As a footnote, let me just add that this 7-step approach can easily be applied to other types of strategic planning. It’s quick, intelligent, effective, and gets results.

Originally published on Davidhenderson.com

Slavomír Dušek