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Comms Foundation #1: Strategy
This is the first in a series of posts about the basics of effective comms. I'm calling it The Comms Foundation Series, in tribute to Isaac Asimov’s genius and in recognition of his protagonist Hari Seldon's uncertainty principle: when people become aware of what their behavior is expected to be, their behavior becomes unpredictable.
The concept is apt because in comms, there are no guaranteed outcomes. You can't compel people to like you, you can't force the press to cover you a certain way, and you're not owed anyone's attention. But you can present information and advance arguments in ways that help your odds.
These are the things I consider the foundation of excellent communications:
This first post about strategy is short. That’s because even though a having good strategy is obviously crucial, most of the time when comms flops it's not because the company didn't know the right thing to do. It’s because they weren’t able to execute.
We’ve all seen a comms plan stall out as an academic exercise, get carried out in a weak or tonedeaf way, or simply suffer from decision paralysis until it becomes irrelevant.
To adapt General Patton's famous quote:
A good comms plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect comms plan that languishes in Google Docs.
With that caveat, let’s set up the strategy.
Strategy serves purpose
Purpose is the difference between strategic comms and random noise.
In our personal lives, communicating has many purposes, like socializing, relaxing, resolving conflict, showing affection, and so on. For a company, the purpose of comms is to help create value, which is a fancy way of saying "make money.” Even if your mission is altruistic, it won’t be achieved if the business doesn’t succeed. Anything that doesn’t help the business succeed is wasted motion.
To make sure that your comms always serve a business purpose, I recommend crafting a strategy that follows the classic military framework of ends, ways, and means. It forces clarity about what goals you are trying to achieve, what things you’ll do to achieve those goals l, and what resources you’ll need to do those things.1
Here’s what it looks like.
Your ends are your goals. They are not comms goals (things like “get X views” or “pitch X articles”). Those are, for the most part, nonsense.
Your ends are business goals, things like: get more customers, recruit the best engineers, or close a funding round. In extraordinary circumstances, the goals could also be things like: win back trust, forge a partnership, or prepare for a successful financial transaction.
Identify the top goals that will help make your company more valuable, and don’t choose more than three. Trying to meet too many goals will erode your focus and dilute your messaging.
Ways refers to the specific tactics you’ll execute in order to meet your goals. Unlike the ends and the means, which are what they are, the ways are where you have lots of room to experiment and get creative.
To optimize for impact, I have a formula to figure out the most effective tactics to use. We’ll cover that in the next post for this series.
Means are the resources and capabilities you’ll need in order to pull off those tactics. For comms, that often means things like making an in-house hire, retaining an agency, or dedicating budget. You’ll need to be realistic about how much time, money, and manpower you’re willing to spend on your comms strategy given the expected ROI from it.
That’s it. This is the easy part, so don’t overthink it. You already know most of the answers. The whole strategy fits in a single-page Google Doc. In fact, here is one you can use (link).
Up next in this series, we’ll get to the harder stuff: Tactics!
See you back here soon.
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This framework has been criticized for being overly simple, and the simplicity is precisely why I use it.