A four-step strategic communication planning process

Posted on June 4, 2009 2:41 pm by | General

During yesterday’s Twitter-based PR20chat on the seven deadly sins of PR 2.0, it seemed clear to me that a lot of the issues introduced would never occur if communicators employed a strategic planning process rather than just dive into Twitter, Facebook, blogs or whatever.

Even organic social networking can benefit from planning. Sure, you’re going to become a trusted member of communities and engage on an ongoing basis. Which communities you choose, though, can be more easily identified if you know what it is you want to accomplish on behalf of your company.

During my three-decades-plus in the communications business, I’ve seen a lot of strategic planning models. Some list seven steps, some as many as 10. They’re all valid and include activities like measuring the results of your efforts and making adjustments based on research results.

Still, I like the basic four-step model introduced by Wilma Mathews, former head of PR at Arizona State University and co-author of “On Deadline,” one of the best texts on media relations ever written.

The idea of a strategic plan is simple enough: It’s a plan designed to achieve a specific goal as opposed to communication for its own sake. The four-step plan includes strategies and objectives, words that seem to be interchangeable. During yesterday’s PR20chat discussion, I talked about strategies and was challenged: How could I have strategies if I didn’t first have objectives? As you’ll see, in this approach, strategies are broad approaches and objectives are the smaller, measurable activities undertaken to suport the strategies.

The plan works like this:

Goal—You have to start with a business goal. After all, if your communications don’t support a business goal, why are they paying you to communicate? My biggest problem with the Groundswell POST model is that it starts with people, the P in POST. You first have to know which people, and you can’t know that until you know what business goal you’re trying to achieve. Otherwise, you could invest a lot of time and effort in targeting an audience that won’t really help the organization accomplish what it needs to.

Strategies—Once you know what your communication effort is designed to achieve, you’ll develop broad strategies. Princeton’s Wordnet defines a strategy as “an elaborate and systematic plan of action,” as good a definition as any in this context. Any goal can be supported by multiple strategies, including non-communication strategies. As communicators, our job is to develop plans of action that leverage communication in support of the goal. Audience and community identification and research are part of the strategy phase.

Objectives—Each strategy will have one or more measurable objectives that must be accomplished for the strategy to succeed. The key here is “measurable.” Strategies are sweeping; objectives are specific.

Tactics—These are the specific tools and actions you’ll take in order to achieve the objectives. These include the channels you’ll use, like Twitter or Facebook, and the specific activities you’ll engage in.

An analogy and an example

I saw Wilma present the four-step plan at a conference, where she used World War II as an analogy. The goal of the Allied forces during the war was simple: win. In order to achieve that goal, broad strategies were developed in each major theater (Pacific, Europe, etc.). In Europe, one strategy—the elaborate and systematic plan of action—was to surround Germany with Allied troops. With Nazi forces occupying France, a significant arc of that circle remained unclosed, leading to the measurable objective of invading France. With that objective in mind, Allied leaders could deal with tactics: Invade where? How many troops? How many planes? How many ships? On what day?

This process is easily applied to any communication effort. Here’s one I was managed back around 1988 while I was a consultant at William M. Mercer’s Los Angeles office.

The client was an auto company that maintained its design arm as a separate entity. Car designers had their own benefits plans, but the business decision had been made to merge the design employees into the larger company’s benefits plan. Some designers could perceive this as a takeaway, since they had been told for years that their separate plan was better.

Goal—Our client wanted us to implement a communication effort that would result in few or no designers leaving the company. These were highly valued, talented people and the client didn’t want them defecting to the competition where they would believe they would get better benefits.

Strategy—One strategy we developed was to demonstrate that benefits under the larger company plan would be as good, if not better, than the design subsidiary’s plan.

Objective—One objective for achieving this strategy was to show each employee his projected benefits over short- and long-term periods under the next plan compared to the old one.

Tactics—We designed a personalized document for each employee that showed benefits values in two columns—the old plan and the new plan—in one year, five years, 10 years and 20 years, accounting for standard merit increases. These sheets were inserted into die-cut slits in a four-page brochure explaining the rationale for the change.

Goals, strategy, objectives, tactics. Use this approach and you’ll minimize the risk of your communications going awry.



  • 1.Great post. It's just shocking that this isn't common sense by now.

    Michael Miller | June 2009 | Toronto

  • 2.This is so true, but it's a shame that it isn't just common sense by now.

    Michael Miller | June 2009 | Toronto

  • 3.Shel, thank you for reminding people of this. It's in all the PR textbooks, and I know PR profs drill it down into students time and time again.

    I'm wondering, why do you think it's not used in practice as much as it should be? Is it because many PR practitioners don't have a formal PR education (though that seems like a poor excuse)? Is it because management & clients don't have patience for research and planning, and they just want to jump into DOING?

    I'd like to also share here the mantras about strategic PR that I drill into my students:

    - Strategic PR begins and ends with research (from Dr. Carl Botan, George Mason University)

    - Strategic PR is goal-oriented

    - Strategic PR has data or theory-based reasons for all decisions

    - Good research takes the guesswork out of PR

    Mihaela (Dr. V) | June 2009

  • 4.You know, Dr. Mihaela makes an interesting point. Many senior communcations and PR people come to the industry from media (or used to anyway). They don't teach strategic planning in journalism program, nor is it a skill you are likely to develop as a journalist. This was the route I took myself and if it weren't for a couple of very good mentors early on, my own approaches may be very different.

    Is this yet another reason some organizations undervalue PR and communications?

    Michael Miller | June 2009 | Toronto

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