Imagine this scene: A CEO, VP of government affairs, communications director, media spokesperson, social media manager and webmaster are huddled in a conference room somewhere in Washington, D.C. Sipping on Starbucks and bottled water, they are diligently brainstorming about how to raise awareness about a particularly challenging issue facing their organization.
The CEO says to the spokesperson, “I know what to do. Write me an op-ed or get me a page one interview in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. Or get me on one of the Sunday morning talk shows. Better yet, a one-on-one with Piers Morgan would be cool!” The VP of government affairs says, “Wouldn’t it just be easier to run some inside the beltway ads?” “Too expensive,” chimes in the communications director. “Let’s just hold a press conference or send out a press release.” “That’s so old fashioned,” exclaims the social media manager. “We should create a Facebook and Twitter account and post our positions every day.” The webmaster speaks up, “Why not just build a micro site with lots of key facts, infographics and motion graphics videos to educate the public? No, no, let’s create a mobile app!” Then the general counsel walks in and, well, you see where this is going.
What’s wrong with this picture? While this highly-educated, seasoned team of Washington-savvy experts is well-intentioned, they are going about fixing the right problem in the wrong way. Like throwing spaghetti at a wall in the hope that something will stick, they are throwing random tactical solutions at a target, only this one is moving. And even though a strategy should have been in place to guide this entire discussion, it was nowhere to be found.
If this sounds like your organization, you are not alone. More than once, I’ve been approached by a client or potential client who comes to our firm and tells us they want our help in executing some predetermined tactic they have come up with, like running an ad or a press conference or creating a Facebook community. This is not unlike going to a doctor with a headache and telling him, “I think you should prescribe so and so.” Stone-faced, that doctor might retort, “And where did you get your medical degree – the Google School of Medicine?” Warning: Tactics without strategy and trusted expert counsel could cause adverse side effects.

Communications professionals, like physicians, are there to help you when you need it most. They are trained and experienced in the best ways to handle even the most difficult situations. And just as a physician should treat each patient differently, a discerning communications pro will help you figure out which course of action is appropriate for you and most likely to succeed. The best counselors spend most of their time listening, asking a lot of questions, and then thinking deeply about how to create a customized solution to your particular problem, rather than throw a one-size-fits-all prescription at it in the hope that it will work.
Speaking of physicians, I represent the molecular imaging doctors. Recently, I came across a PET scan image showing real time molecular activity in a person’s brain as it is engaged in four distinct processes: seeing, speaking, listening and thinking. What it revealed was amazing – most mental activity occurs during thinking, followed by listening, then seeing. Coming in last place, not surprisingly, is speaking.
The starting point for any successful communications campaign is by thinking and listening more, then looking (reading, researching) and talking. No matter who you are, whether you are a business, lobbying group, law firm or congressional office, it’s critical that you think carefully and follow a few simple steps before launching into your public education, public relations or public engagement campaign:

  • Step 1: Determine your goals, the problem you need to solve or the desired outcome you seek (i.e. - what success looks like).
  • Step 2: Determine your strategy. In short, this is the big idea plan that helps you move from where you are now to where you want to be. It’s “what” you want to happen to achieve an end.
  • Step 3: Determine objectives. These are the measurable tasks along the way that help you know if and when you are getting closer to achieving the overall goal.
  • Step 4: Determine tactics. These are the tools (ads, mobile apps, blogs, social media, etc.) you will use to execute against the strategy and achieve your objectives and ultimate goal.

If strategy is the “what,” tactics are the “how”, and tactics should always follow the strategy.
So before you invest a lot of time, money and effort rolling out a communications campaign, be sure to get the sequence right. Thinking before acting. Strategy before tactics. And if you need more help, make sure you hire a communications firm that follows the same process. Used as directed, these simple suggestions can be your prescription for a healthy communications campaign.

Michael Wm. Schick is a partner at Adfero Group, a university guest lecturer on public affairs and a former U.S. Senate spokesperson.