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While there's less candy involved and more spreadsheets, come October, I look forward to communications planning for the new year (and it's not just because I love spreadsheets). Rather, it's a time to reflect, remember what worked in 2016, decide where we can push ourselves in 2017 and set a roadmap for success in the year to come.
A good plan with practical strategies and measurable goals can be your key to more budget and more influence for your department in 2017. And if you’re serious about capturing both, the time to start your 2017 planning is now. If you wait until ghosts and goblins give way to gourds and gobblers, you’ll find yourself once again running out of time. Then, before you know it, you're well into the first quarter without a solid plan and likely will spend the rest of the year playing catch up.
As both facilitator and observer of strategic communications planning for clients, I've seen the spectrum of approaches — from the six-month process that entails 150-page masterpieces and reviews by three committees to the two-page summary presented to the CEO who green lights the plan in under 15 minutes. No matter where your plan lands in terms of scope and depth, there are several key insights to keep in mind.
I thank Kelley Peterson, past president of the Professional Chapters Council of the American Marketing Association, for this one. She articulated perfectly the concept that if you’re launching a program that affects others, you must include them in the process to reach success. When it comes to planning, that means including other departments within your organization, as well as input and involvement from outside stakeholders. This process may take longer but will yield stronger results. However, the way you seek that input is critical because doing it wrong can backfire.
Here’s something far too many organizations do: Gather a big group of non-communicators representing key business units in a room with a whiteboard and ask, “What do you think we should do?” While these sessions are well-intentioned, typically the feedback is given in very specific, tactical terms. So instead of having a strategic conversation about the forward direction of the organization relative to your communications goals, you’re playing defense and trying to avoid offending key stakeholders whose ideas are off the mark. To make the best use of their expertise, ask questions that will provide the strategic insight you need. This could include the motivations of the target audience, changes among the competition or trends within the sector. Then, you can keep the in-the-weeds, tactical decisions in your own realm.
As far as I know, this is a Stacy Armijo original, not least of all because champagne is one of my favorite libations. This comes up when working through the goal-setting element of planning. Sometimes, we communicators are fond of goals like, “increasing awareness” or “capturing mindshare” or “driving the conversation.” These are all valuable pursuits, but they’re exactly that: the pursuit, not the destination. As such, how will you ever know when you’ve arrived? Specificity is key and that's why there should always be outcomes focused on a point in time, such as: “achieve a 2 percent increase in market share over competitor X” or “increase member satisfaction ratings by five points." By having specific quarterly milestones and year-end outcomes identified in your plan, you will know when to pop that champagne cork.
I can’t tell you how many planning processes I’ve watched stall (and eventually die) because those facilitating would accept nothing less than perfection. That might surprise you because perfection sounds like a good thing, right? It can be, except that the perfect plan never completed is worthless. That’s why I favor progress over perfection in my planning process (say that three times fast). I seek consensus among team members, not full agreement (which will never be achieved). Rather than delving deep into implementation guidance, we outline only the elements necessary to scope budget requests. This simple, fast-paced approach creates a plan that is practical, well-rounded and most important, complete.
My husband is fond of repeating this mantra in his sales role. For me, it informs how I seek approval of a communications plan. I’ve watched as a program is proposed to a large group, when only one or two of those involved actually have authority to approve it. However, everyone has opinions, and it only takes one person to speak against it or “reply all” with a criticism and the sentiment of the group turns negative. That's why I like to present or preview proposed programs one-on-one to key stakeholders. In doing so, I’m always clear about the broad input sought to create it. In this process, I can also ask a few key questions, such as: “Do you think this is along the right track?” or “What’s missing that you think we should consider?” That allows you to not only improve your program, but also to surface opinions individually. Then, once you get to the big presentation, everyone has been included in the process, so they’re less likely to criticize (and if they do, you’re ready with a sound response).
That’s it: my five quotes to create a strong communications plan for 2017. Intrigued? I’d love to tell you more and explore if Pierpont can help make next year your best year yet for marketing and communications. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
Stacy Armijo is Senior Vice President and General Manager of Pierpont Communications' Austin office. She spearheads strategic planning and program execution for clients across diverse verticals, including real estate, transportation and professional services.