The Modern Strategic Communications Plan

If you google “how to write a communications plan” you will receive thousands of hits containing templates, advice and guidance on how to take your reach, influence and visibility to new heights. But, if those suggested formats were written before 2009, they aren’t complete. Here’s why.

Smart organizations develop a communications plan that will help steer you and your colleagues to greater reach and influence. But, today’s communication plans must include strategies and timelines that a few years ago were not even possible. The new communications game of visibility demands a new way of thinking.

Just a few trends coloring today’s communication landscape include the democratization of information and influence by social media, the introduction of tiny messages (140 characters or less), the rise of the visual medium and entertainment (games), a reduction in objective journalism, and content going mobile. Add a whole new generation of workers who don’t communicate or consume information anything like previous generations along with a coming mass exodus of the baby boomers into retirement and one could say it’s not just a whole new ballgame. It’s a whole new sport.

Are you ready?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll break down each part of the planning process for a communications effort that fits modern times. Yes, that means social media will be addressed. But, we also will discuss the rise of storytelling over messaging, the breakdown of the communications heirarchy, having a content management strategy, having a “we won’t” list, and more.

What is perplexing you about today’s communications landscape? I’ll try to address it in this series.


More On Finding The Right PR Firm

On Friday I blogged about things to think about when hiring a PR firm. Developing a score card for each PR agency or counselor that you evaluate can be a helpful tool in making a final decision. Four big areas to “vet” include:

  1. Communication skills
  2. PR staff characteristics
  3. PR services offered
  4. Overall character

To get more granular, under “communication skills” consider these questions:

  • How well do they know your industry? Did they do their homework before meetings and their pitch?
  • Do they appear to engage in strategic thinking that adds value? Do their tactics stem from objectives and strategy?
  • Is their timeframe clear? Is the program budget reasonable?
  • Do their ideas appear innovative yet personal to your organization, and clearly outlined? Are their ideas realistic and makes sense?
  • Is the program measurable?

Under “PR Staff Characteristics” consider these questions:

  • Does your team and the PR team assigned have good chemistry and a good mix of personalities?
  • Have you met the people – before hiring the firm – who will be conducting the campaign?
  • Does everyone you’ve met at the firm appear to be professional, qualified and competent?
  • Is the account team accessible and responsive? How quickly do they answer your communications?
  • Does the staff have experience in your industry or markets?
  • Are they enthusiastic about the strategies and tactics offered?
  • Do they have demonstrated “street smarts” and common sense?
  • Do they have client references?
  • Do they have a written approach to financial and administrative account management?
  • Do they understand time and budget management?

Under “PR Services Offered” consider these questions:

  • Do they have examples of proven outcomes for clients?
  • Do they have proof of competency for the type of strategies you hope they deploy for you (examples would be social media, writing, research, media relations, speaking engagements, trade shows, events and more)
  • Does everyone on the team appear to have a baseline of knowledge and competency in the PR field? (examples include social media savvy, writing skills and more)
  • Do they have any specialties, such as crisis communications or messaging and storytelling work that is important to you?
  • Are their people published, have blogs, strong online presences and other personal branding strategies that keep them connected and constantly learning?
  • Does the firm appear to have invested in their people’s ongoing education and evolution?
  • Do they invest in the tools necessary to do their jobs, including analysis, tracking, issuing of news, and other administrative functions necessary to execute and evaluate the program?

Under “Overall Character” consider these questions:

  • Does the firm share its mission and values?
  • Can the firm service multiple accounts seamlessly and efficiently?
  • Is the firm known in its field? Been published or has engaged in thought leadership activities in its industry?
  • Have client conflicts been discussed and resolved?
  • Has the size, stability and make-up of the firm been shared?

7 Things to Think About Before Hiring a PR Firm

The social media realm has made it easier than ever for an organization to directly manage their reputation and image. An entire public relations effort may be conducted from the inside of the organization. However, there is more to reputation than tweeting, posting and blogging – all of which we agree should be done by someone from inside a company, nonprofit or themselves for their own personal brand. But you may find you need help in directing mere attention to a specific kind of visibility that you want and need to compete. It’s not enough to just be seen. That attention must cause action. And, that is where a PR firm can help.

Public relations experts will help prepare you for media work (both social and traditional), conduct messaging, work with you on presentations and pitch the organization (or you), its management and its products and services to the media, conference organizers, and other influencers. Media analysis, market monitoring and finding new channels and opportunities for visibility are also parts of a good PR program.

But, how do you choose the right PR partner? Below are seven action items to set you in the right direction to attract the appropriate PR counsel.

1. Get to know them through a Request for Proposal (RFP) process. Meet with the firm in person, if possible. Chemistry between the PR people and the person managing them is important. But, also know that making your decision on personalities and attraction alone is not going to guarantee good results. Issue an RFP. It does not have to be lengthy, but it should help you compare apples to apples when getting bids from different firms or consultants. This ensures you also will get a response that covers all the things you want and need to know before making a decision.

2. Identify what they are capable of in the real world (not just what they say on their blog, social media outlets or in a pitch). When choosing your PR agency, request media clips, social media case studies and statistics, speaking engagements booked, events handled and more that were conducted over the last year. No PR campaign is the same. But, you should be able to see the results from another client that had similar PR needs to yours.

It is important to ask the various budgets for producing such results, as well. After all, a company spending $2,000 a month cannot expect the same level of attention and outcomes that $20,000 produces. You want to get a realistic picture of what your money buys.

Additionally, ask how much time in actual tactics will be spent for your investment. Most agencies today know that strategy is an important step, but tactics are where the action is (literally).

3. Find out if you will be a little fish in a big pond. How many clients does this agency or consultant have? How much time will they put toward the investment you are making? And, specifically, who will be managing your account and making things happen for you? You will want to know your place on the totem pole.

4. Answer honestly how much time you have to manage the agency. Lack of internal resources to work with the PR agency is one of the greatest killers of a campaign’s success. Public relations is a partnership. You will need to devote some time to get the agency up to speed on your company, personnel, products and market. You will need to be responsive to documents that need your approval, and be available for media interviews, be engaged in the social space yourself (if growing your online presence is a goal), and get engaged in other activities.

5. Know your objectives up front and share them openly and honestly with the PR team. A good PR firm will craft a customized program to meet specific goals and objectives. In fact, your investment will be determined by what you want to accomplish. Ask how much time the PR group believes it will take to achieve the outcomes. No one can predict media coverage or your YouTube video going viral. But, they should have some sense of how long it will take to gain traction.

Side note: iI is not appropriate to ask a PR firm to develop a communications plan for you in the proposal stage. This kind of work “on spec” is asking too much and that strategic work should be conducted once you hire the firm.

6. Share your budget. The game of not telling someone how much you can afford won’t do you any good. Share at least a ballpark figure so the agency can provide a proposal that is realistic. You don’t want to waste your time just as much as the PR firm or consultancy doesn’t want to, either. If you aren’t a match due to minimum budget requirements by the agency, it is better to learn that up front.

7. Ask how results are tracked and measured. What tools do they use to show and report the outcomes of the PR effort? Do you need graphs and charts on a regular basis? Do you need your PR firm to submit regular reports to boards, executive teams or others? Tell them up front what you need in the way of justifying the PR expense and discover early if they have the ability or inclination to do so.

Organizational Storytelling: A Synopsis

Over the last few weeks, I’ve shared the steps to organizational storytelling using the Hero’s Journey template. I have been asked to put the steps into one post.

The general pattern is from Joseph Campbell, the great philosopher and writer. He wrote extensively about the template, which goes something like this:

A hero is called to leave his common everyday life to explore the wonders of the world.  Mystical forces are there encountered and a conclusive victory over an adversary is won. The hero returns from this mysterious adventure – forever changed and more powerful – and with this new power, understanding and wisdom, can (and does) bestow benefits and gifts upon his fellow man and the Universe is now a safer place. The End.

There are 17 steps in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but I boiled it down to four parts for the business world.

Step 1: The Call. This is the beginning. The hero of the story goes out into the new world responding to a call to action. There also is a sense of a resisting this call to action, as if he or she knew the journey was going to be hard.  What was wrong that had you believe something could be better? What idea did you have that could move the organization from point A to point B? What did someone say when they brought this idea to the meeting? There are a myriad of ways stories start. For more, including examples, read it here.

Step 2: The Journey. This is the largest part of any story and is generally considered the middle. It is what happens or the expedition. Often our hero quickly discovers the road really is harder than it seemed at first. He or she meets friends along the way, runs into obstacles, meets a villain or adversary, and there are twists and turns. Show how you thought how something was going to go one way and then it didn’t. That will make it more interesting. Read more here.

Step 3: The Achievement. This is where the hero slays the villain or adversary. The achievement is simple, really. What happened? Just say it. It’s the pay off. Give it to your audience directly and succinctly. Read more here.

Step 4: The Transformation & Return. This step is meant for the storyteller to share what was learned. How were you or the company changed? And, what does that mean? How is your department, company, industry better? How was that customer’s life changed? Also, share what it means and how life is better for others. A story that can convey a message, wrapped in a narrative with meaning, can inspire change in people just by them listening to it. Read more here.

Who is that Masked Writer? The Disappearing Professional Journalist

Thank you Internet and social media for turning the world of media relations on its ear in the last five years. It was time for such a communications upheaval. It is creative and exhilarating.

But, this revolution has not been without consequences. And, we have seen something new emerge, which has us a little perplexed and unsure of how we should feel about it.

First, know that we are unafraid of new trends (we’ve seen quite a few come and go). You could say we are “well-seasoned.” Four Leaf is comprised of PR professionals who have all used a typewriter for work (not at a museum just to see what it feels like), can recall when a two day turnaround at a mail house was considered fast, and can tell you what a color separator used to do.

We have watched the world go from a one way street where you could only go 35 miles an hour to an information superhighway (remember that phrase?) where you have to go the speed of light just to be seen or heard.  You could say the world has grown into Audrey, the flesh-eating Venus flytrap from the Little Shop of Horrors, crying out Feed me! Yet while the world’s insatiable appetite for information, entertainment and material has grown, one little wrinkle formed: not enough people to fill the content hole.

In fact, today’s media outlets are so hungry for content that we hear more questions more than answers to our media pitches. We used to  hear, I liked the idea. Let me get back to you after I’ve talked with my editor. Today, we most often hear, Sounds great. Can you produce a 1,000 word article on that topic for us?  

But, that’s not the trend we’re noting today that has us scratching our heads. It’s this: we have seen an increasing number of “journalists” who, well, aren’t. They aren’t even close. These writers, who clearly have good backgrounds in their topic, come from anywhere: from non-media companies, from non-profits boards, from the blogosphere, from twitter (because they were prolific there?), from PR firms.

The surprising part of this is that we didn’t know they weren’t a card-carrying journalist until we did some digging. It wasn’t apparent that these were not “media people.” They were hired to write. There is a difference. Journalists aren’t supposed to have an agenda except to write an unbiased account of what happened. Writers from a non-media source can cross the opinion line.

We’ve run into writers for Forbes, CNN, Psychology Today and more who own PR firms, are book authors, or own software companies and other non-media businesses. Hiring writers from non-media sources is not uncommon. But, the fact it’s not transparent that they aren’t on the media’s payroll is what has us wondering what has happened.

Have you noticed this? What do you think of this trend? Smart and savvy? Or, dishonest and scary?

Yet Another Hazard in Storytelling: Weighing It Down with Endless Detail

While there are many snares in organizational storytelling, a few have been worth noting: too much corporate jargon, nothing unexpected shared, and telling an irrelevant or even insulting story to an audience.  But one snag that trips up many presenters and communicators is making the story either too long or too short.

In our experience, too many business stories are too long.

Brevity is the soul of wit, wrote William Shakespeare. And one of the most famous stories of all time by Ernest Hemingway is just 6 words. “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.”  But, what is too short, then? Be too brief in a business setting and the message gets lost.

A story is the right length when just enough detail is given – 2 or 3 small details – to paint the right picture of what happened.

Wanting to get in every detail to share an accurate account of what happened appears to be a strong pull. However, you should be striving to tell the truth of the story – not ever detail that got you there.

Another Storytelling Danger To Avoid: Predictability

If you are interested in adding the storytelling technique to your communications arsenal, good for you. Storytelling, the art and science of sharing information via narrative, is an ancient form of communication. Human beings around the world have used storytelling to get their ideas across for millennia. Over the ages, it has outlasted every fad, technique and notion around persuasion and discussion. And, there is a good reason for this. It works.

But, avoid the dangers that lurk. The last few day’s I’ve been blogging about some of the pitfalls. Here’s another: nothing surprising happens.

We all know that stories have to have a beginning, middle and end. But, they also need to have some air of unpredictability to be interesting. What do we mean? Having an ending that isn’t easily identified is good. But, hearing something in the middle that they weren’t expecting, as well, is even better.

Too many business stories do not have enough suspense or twists and turns. No need to turn your story into a saga with such details. But, do include soemthing that will perk the ears.

Be wary of adding something that is meant to trick, however. Audiences don’t like to be deceived. Film director M. Night Shyamalan is brilliant at his sudden twists. But, even he sometimes can miss the mark. The surprise introduction of new information worked in the Sixth Sense. (The psychiatrist was really a ghost.) It didn’t work so well in The Village, with critics (and viewers) feeling they had been duped. (The time frame of the movie went from years past to suddenly being in present day.)

Think of a twist along the veins of Mattel finally having to admit that their famous Barbie doll’s measurements were an impossibility. (Should she be a real woman, her original measurements would have been an impossible 36-18-38.) Or, how Walt Disney had numerous business failures and bankruptcies before finding his magical formula. In fact, he  was fired by a newspaper editor because, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Leaving those details out of their stories would have made their eventual success less interesting, no?


Yet Another Pitfall in Organizational Storytelling: Too Much Jargon

We are so fond of our big words and our intelligent phrasing.  We thinkmarketing speak” – the way of presenting products and services that is meant to convey that we are intellectual, smart and savvy – grabs attention.

Even when we tell a story the pull to throw in a few buzz words is strong. Because, we must create a sense of being so smart that you simply must listen to us, right?


If you believe your 24/7 enterprise solution brought that mission-critical project to fruition, adding to the corporate bottom line and realizing a greater ROI than the other guy down the street – and you tell the story that way – you have successfully put your audience to sleep. Or, running from the room.

You may have all the elements of a good story — the hero/main character, a villian or adversary, twists and turns, a big change for the person or organization. But, don’t forget that real world language is necessary to create a relationship between speaker and listener. If your audience is highly technical, of course, use the language of that audience. But, authenticity trumps jargon any day, no matter who is listening.

Too much jargon makes it appear you are trying too hard — trying too hard to sell. No one wants to be sold to. They want to willingly buy-in.

Lead your audience to somewhere new with your organizational storytelling. Don’t hit them over the head with how smart you are by trying to sound like it.