Four questions to help you build your communication strategy

ONE: where are you now?

A communication strategy should bring about change outcomes. Outcomes are audience specific. Think of outcomes in terms of four things: perceptions, emotions, actions or knowledge – or PEAK.

Practically, you will want to change how an audience perceives something, feels about something, to get it to do something or to know something. In reality, most outcomes are amalgams of all four of these; in order for an audience to feel differently about something it must first know about it.

So where are you now?

  • Are you clear about who the audience is?
  • How do they perceive the object of your attention now?
  • How do they feel about it now?
  • What are they doing, if anything, now?

And so on.

You should also know how you, as an organisation, are perceived. When you send out communications, it is stamped by your imprimatur. If levels of trust in you are high, you are going to get more useful attention than the reverse. If you don’t know how you are regarded by this audience (as well as the factors that affect its perception of you) you might be deluding yourselves and wasting time and resources.

If you don’t have a starting point, you will never be able to track any shift that your communication activity will bring about. So gather data a-plenty. And whilst you’re gathering, understand the audience through practical insight. If you want to change an audience’s attitude to something, how should you communicate with it to achieve the outcomes you want?

If you are unable to establish your starting point, then you will simply engage in activity without knowing whether you are achieving change.

I have been amazed by the number of clients who talk about achieving an outcome – we want people to have confidence in this organisation – without having the faintest understanding of where they are starting from.

I kid you not.

TWO: where are you going?

Or what does success look like?

Question one will give you a starting point; Q2 will specify your destination. Specificity is key. General statements are useless – we want a better reputation.

Sure you do!

Nail the change outcomes you are trying to achieve. You will need to look at the factors that will drive change so unless you are able to be specific you will be shooting in the dark. Be wary of clients who begin with the tactics – I want a social media campaign – without first identifying the problem.

A good destination outcome will be specific about the audience, the outcome and the things you would expect to see if you are successful. E.g. we want to see a 15% increase in recycling in x, y and z postcodes. You would identify what the current level of recycling is and use insight to look at the drivers for behaviour change. Importantly, your outcomes should be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound. 

This is not to say that you can’t take aim at big goals – we want a better reputation – for example. But you would need to be specific. You would need to look at the ways in which you currently measure reputation (your starting point) and how you might know you have been successful. It’s a lot more complicated than it looks. Be particularly wary of proxies that relate tangentially to the goal (using a “better press” or “more followers” as a proxy for a better reputation, for example).

Again, it won’t surprise you to know that clients will want you to deliver non-specific outcomes with no sense of starting or end points.

THREE: how are you going to get there?

This is what most people seem to focus on, irrespective of question one or two – doing stuff.

Question three is about action – what you are going to do, given your starting point, to bring about your PEAK outcomes. Ideally, as you take action you should be able to tell whether you are getting closer to your goal or further away from it. Tracking success (or otherwise) is critical. If something isn’t working, it’s best to change course than to carry on regardless.

This is all the more important because we don’t operate in closed environments. Communication takes place in a complex and uncertain world where you will be in competition with other organisations, individuals and interests for your audience’s attention. So the higher level of trust your audience has in you, the greater the chance that your message will cut through.

This is the point at which you will consider the four Ms. Your choice of medium (that which has the best chance of getting to your audience), your message (shaped through insight and the use of psychological drivers that will deliver your outcome), your messenger (the person who will best garner attention and add weight) and the meaningful actions you will take to achieve the outcomes. Meaningful actions are critical; people will tend to believe us when we say we will do something and then do it.

Talk, as they say, is cheap.

And all of this has to be scheduled to maximise attention within the available window, given that your audience will be thinking of a million other things at any one point in time. Be clear about how much attention you’re likely to get. Measure this in seconds. If you can get ten seconds, you’ll be doing really well.

You should also consider here what other matters (both from within your organisation and beyond) that could, and will, impinge on your audience’s attention. Some things (COVID, for example) will jam out anything else.

And when framing your message make it benefit-led; think about what’s in it for your audience. How is your communication solving their problems?

A quick health warning: before creating your Four Ms, look at the insight. You could find the person who wants to front up your strategy is either invisible to or simply not credible to your audience. One of the reasons you get paid well as a strategic lead is that you sometimes have to convey that message sensitively to very senior people.  

FOUR: how will you know you’ve arrived?

Yes, folks, it’s the “e” word – evaluation. This is not about gathering in warm words from sponsors saying how simply wonderful your strategy was.

It’s about brass tacks.

  • Did it work?
  • Could it have worked better?
  • What can you learn to achieve better outcomes next pass?

It’s metrics, metrics, metrics.

These questions may unearth uncomfortable realities – not everything we do works. The key is to learn and improve so that next time, things are better.

In the meantime, bank all lessons.

  • What do you now know about the audience?
  • What insights can be applied to other communication?
  • What do you know about the four Ms: medium, message, messenger, and meaningful actions in terms of delivering these and other outcomes?

For more on strategy and how it can link to improving your career prospects, take a look at this free course: how to get ahead in comms.

Mark Fletcher-Brown’s Perceptionomics can be downloaded from this website.


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