Successful communicators know how to plan strategically. That’s what makes them invaluable to the organization. Our job is to lift the discussion beyond tactics—“Can we make this go viral on Twitter?”—and connect thoughtful, effective strategies to relationship-building and meaningful business goals.
And yet, when I lead communication training for my clients, I include this disclaimer: “Good communication doesn’t always result in consensus.” In short, you don’t always win; even the 1927 New York Yankees lost 29% of their games.
So what’s a communicator to do when things go south? Here are things to build into your plan:
Build in analysis from the start. It’s not good enough to do a survey for the end of a campaign. Make sure you have metrics to check the pulse as you go along. If you’re using digital tools, what do engagement numbers and analytics tools tell you? Are you making progress on your measurable objectives? On the qualitative side, focus groups and advisory circles are useful when developing a plan, but they can also give you valuable feedback during execution.
Build in interaction. Too many communication plans are based on delivery. That’s why so many communicators focus on tactics—“Send an email!” “Send a tweet!” “Send a video!” But good communication isn’t something you do to someone; it’s something you do with someone. It must be rooted in interaction—listening to your audience, understanding their perspective, finding common ground, offering your perspective as a path forward, and being willing to change where possible to achieve mutually beneficial results.
Build in rapid adaptability. A great, carefully crafted strategic plan can’t be monolithic. Over a decade ago, I helped with a follow-up communication campaign on a company’s retiree benefits. The first effort hadn’t gone well. Retirees were angry. Company leaders launched retiree meetings to explain the changes, but the first one was nearly a mob scene. Over dinner, the leaders admitted to me that their communication efforts fell short. I convinced them to make that admission a key part of the message and to shift the meetings toward more listening. The next retiree meetings began with a heartfelt apology, and the mood changed dramatically. So did the outcome—the company reworked some details of the benefits changes, and most retirees felt heard and understood.
Build in a plan for failure. Communicators should never settle for failure, but we must accept that some audiences won’t embrace the message or call to action—and may in fact actively resist. That doesn’t mean the original plan was bad (though a critical analysis is always wise, regardless of success). A good plan, however, will include a strategy for addressing resistance. It may be as robust as engaging naysayers directly or as simple as letting them go. You’ll need to understand and factor in the potential risks and rewards of that strategy.
Build in a time to learn. Part of your analysis at the end should be a reflection on what worked, what didn’t, and how you’ll do things differently next time. Be fair to yourself. There lies as much danger in minimizing the wins as there is in ignoring the failures.
In Blackadder Goes Forth, World War I Captain Blackadder points out his commanding officers’ “brilliant plan” involves “climbing out of our trenches and walking very slowly towards the enemy.” One officer’s reply? “How could you possibly know that, Blackadder? It’s classified information!”
Our task as communicators is to think and act strategically—while recognizing failures will happen and doing our best to manage them effectively.