Suzanne E. Henry is an award-winning public relations consultant and the CEO and president of Four Leaf Public Relations, a boutique communication practice headquartered in Charlottesville, Virginia, with satellite offices in Washington, D.C., Dallas, Texas, and Freiburg, Germany. She specializes in helping organizations not only develop communication plans, but also earn internal buy-in. Henry spoke with CW Managing Editor Amanda Aiello Beck about the elements that should go into a modern communication plan and offers tips for how to ensure your plan gets implemented.
Amanda Aiello Beck: How has communication planning changed over the years?
Suzanne Henry: In the world of mass communications, everything has changed. More options are available to communicators than ever before. But those options also are available to everyone else. Everyone is smarter about communication, which means the professional communicators must be smarter, as well. Communication plans also must allow for change. Stay focused on your strategic imperative, but allow tactics to change as opportunities arise, the landscape alters and new ideas are spawned.
AAB: What new elements should be included in today’s communication plan?
SH: At minimum, a communication plan includes an organization’s vision, mission, goals and objectives, target audience, main messages, main communications channels used, strategies, tactics, measurement strategy, and timeline. But today, also list things you won’t do. It’s so easy to drown yourself in Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Google+ and other social channels. But have you identified why those channels are right for your goals? Knowing what you will not focus your attention on (but could) is vital for a focused effort.
Also, include a content strategy. The section addresses how you are going to assess, develop and manage the ideas, thoughts and content you will use to direct conversations, viewpoints and reputation and image.
Staff assignments in the plan also helps. Everyone seems short-staffed these days. So who is going to implement this big beautiful communication plan? Identifying responsibilities and accountability is just smart management.
AAB: What new challenges does today’s fast-paced and ever-changing media environment pose to communication planning?
SH: A number of challenges exist. For one, the “content beast” requires regular attention. We also develop more content, pay more attention to SEO, monitor the ever-changing rules on social channels, and the keep tabs on how audiences are diversifying.
Keep in mind that when you are talking to one, you are talking to thousands.
Another challenge is the “human equation.” Communication channels have become a two-way street with real people are talking to other real people (versus the “big company” talking down to the “little people”). People now respond to organizations’ messages—and their friends are listening to how you handle their responses. Keep in mind that when you are talking to one, you are talking to thousands. In their return communications, organizations must be authentic, accessible and transparent.
Also, generational differences have caused new challenges. How generations work, live and communicate can be astoundingly different from one another. The millennials view work far differently than the baby boomers. To millennials, their work is an extension of their lives. They don’t compartmentalize like baby boomers do. They want friends at work, meaningful work, and advancement. So, when you are communicating, keep those differences in mind. (If anyone has found something that works for everyone, call me.)
AAB: One of the challenges for communication planning that you’ve addressed in your writing is the sheer number of communication channels now available. Can you share some tips for how communicators can determine which channels are most effective for their messages?
SH: Knowing your audience has always been important. But now you need to delve much deeper into their make-up, including their generation, and their motivations and fears as well as their desires.
Then, select the communication channels and strategies that have the greatest probability of reaching that audience. Do not be seduced by a shiny new communication channel without understanding who it will reach. This is where the “we won’t” list comes in handy. It’s tempting to do everything—and keeping tabs on everything is important—but focusing on where your audience is gravitating is a better bet when it comes to execution.
For instance, a major Facebook strategy may not be necessary if your audience is Generation Z. But you better familiarize yourself with Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube. This also may mean you’d have to revamp your content strategy—get away from white papers, trade shows (unless you’re going to Comic Con), and media relations and move to Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube.
AAB: You note that measurement is often the most ignored section of a communication plan. Why is this and can you offer any tips for how communicators can ensure they address this often overlooked section?
SH: I think the reason people ignore it is because it’s hard. Someone is bound to argue with me about this difficulty, but I believe it’s hard because most people haven’t sat down to determine what success will look like to them. Saying “sales” and “make the phone ring” isn’t enough. I always ask, “No, really…what do you want this message, this platform, this brand to DO for you?”
Additionally, despite our instant gratification world, the truth is that success still often has to be measured in inches instead of a sudden uptick in sales. But if you continue to gain inches, soon you’ve got both feet in the door and it’s much harder to push you back into the hallway.
AAB: Once a communication plan has been developed it can often be a challenge to get implemented. Can you share some ideas for how communicators can get buy-in for their communication plan?
SH: Getting input as a communication plan is being developed helps people feel they have some skin in the game. Again, our workforce is changing. New workers want to know they are being listened to and are making a difference. A very simple way to earn buy-in is to hold a companywide lunch and let employees brainstorm about your audience. What have they seen or heard when dealing with your customer base? What messaging has worked or not worked? Incorporating ideas from other departments or functions can help ensure the communication plan is implemented across the entire organization.