A Comms Strategy Is Mostly What You're Not Going To Do
Also, do you even need comms and PR?
These posts are part of a series written primarily for founders of growing companies who are trying to educate themselves before deciding if PR and comms is a smart investment.
📜Johnson’s Dictionary describes “strategy” as: a plan that charts every path you aren’t going to take to reach a stated goal.
What do you think “strategy” means?
The word “strategy” has been so abused by professionals across every industry to be almost meaningless.
Odds are every other meeting you’ve been in for your entire career has someone asking “What’s our strategy? Can we revisit our strategy? Are we on strategy? Can someone update our strategy? Where is our single source of truth around strategy?” None of these are bad questions—if people had any agreed-upon definition of “strategy.”
No one ever does.
In an attempt to calibrate—and because people aren’t going to stop saying “comms strategy”—consider this variation:
At the start of a project, a comms strategy is a map that charts one or more paths to explore to reach a single goal, with the understanding that most of those paths will be dead ends.
During the project, new paths will be added, explored, then abandoned again. As the work is done, there almost won’t even be a strategy anymore—you’ll just be doing the work. (How to sunset and post-mortem a comms strategy is a topic for another time.)
A comms strategy isn’t worth doing if it doesn’t answer these questions:
Who do we want talking about us?
What do they think of us now?
What do we want them to think of us in the future?
I cannot tell you how much it pains me to know that I typed those words out loud, but trust that it is less than the pain that comes when trying to work with a client that hasn’t answered those questions.
I always remember the observation of a very successful soldier who said, “Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.” - Ike Barinholtz, star of The Mindy Project and 34th President of the United States
A strategy should be simple enough to be understood by everyone, easy to refer to by stakeholders, and also flexible enough to be adapted when the landscape changes—most commonly the path forward, but very occasionally by changing the overall goal itself. In even the largest media strategy projects I’ve taken on, I’ve been able to put the strategy on one or two slides. The output is simply a document (sometimes a deck, sometimes a doc, sometimes a spreadsheet—whatever has the best chance of sticking around); almost all of the value from a comms strategy is in the process of creating it, so that choices are made on what to do and, more importantly, what not to do.
With this in hand, you can then get to speed, which is primarily a function of budget: Basically, how much money are you willing to invest to try to reach the stated goal faster? (There’s another major factor, which is “your company’s willingness to invest time into the process, but that merits its own post.)
I hesitate to even write down a definition of strategy, because it seems so obvious to me. Yet my experience is that very few people are thinking anywhere close to the same thing when the word “strategy” is used.
In part, I think that there is a studiness to the word “strategy” that implies that it is not tentative and plastic, when by definition every plan will change. The best strategy in the world is still a guess. The overall goal of any media strategy is to improve reputation, but the first draft of a plan often doesn’t match the real-life executions. A changed perception lives in the future, and the future is uncertain, especially with something as soft and difficult-to-measure as reputation.
The word “strategy” is so confusing that I’ve recently tried to stop using it at all in my practice, even though I am, after all, a strategist. Currently, I still use the word every single day.
Another pitfall: nobody thinks they aren’t thinking strategically—or that all the plans they’ve been making in quarterly strategy sessions might not actually be, you know, strategy.
Instead of “strategy,” I’ve been trying on some other business-y terms, none of which I love, but are at least harder to misinterpret: instead of a brand-level strategy, I’ll ask “What’s our North Star?” (I know, but at least it’s clear); instead of talking about an audience strategy, I’ll offer to create a “messaging framework” that clearly lays out all the changes we’re trying to make in a simple “From -> To” chart, then sneak in audience or demographic specifics there.
Whatever you call it, without a comms strategy you will definitely waste money pointlessly, instead of what you are trying to do, which is to waste money pointedly so you can learn what works as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
Pitfalls: Expectations, Metrics, and Ego
PR is improving reputation. And a media strategy is the plan to improve that reputation.
When I take on a new client, one of the first things I ask to see is their revenue growth plan. Sometimes it’s easy to infer where the revenue is expected to come from, especially if the company is already out doing business in the market, but not always. I also ask to talk to their sales and marketing teams to understand how their funnel works.
Growth comms—PR that errs towards strategic thinking, not service work—is typically the vanguard for sales, or the broadest, top-most of the funnel. Having a good reputation with your potential sales audience is a catalyst for sales and marketing work. People are inclined to choose a product or service they’ve heard of, especially if they’ve heard good things.
It’s extremely difficult to quantify this with metrics that are truly useful even in a mature org, but you don’t need sentiment measuring to understand how you’re doing. Use common sense. Does it seem like your reputation is improving? Great. Keep going.
Most importantly, your sales people (or growth marketers) should be able to relay to you how well your marcomm work is clearing a path, even if just anecdotally.
Do not get wrapped up in metrics during the first few months of putting a comms strategy in action. Common sense and increasing revenue is enough.
I like to look at the revenue and sales strategies because it helps me assess what sort of money we have to work with and offer up realistic recommendations from there. The wisdom in this should seem obvious to you, but to many it is not. In fact, most clients I work with have no idea what they should expect to pay to stand up a comms practice or what they should expect from the investment. (Another one for a future post, but the short answer is this: The ol’ “Fast, good, cheap: Pick 2” applies.)
A simple majority of the conversations I have with new clients start by a founder saying, with varying levels of humility, that they don’t get enough attention in the media as they think they deserve.
“I want people to talk about me” is a clear goal, at least, even if their presumptive strategy is often wrong. (And it also doesn’t define what you want them to feel about you specifically.)
Many new clients that I talk to—especially founders—think that good comms is asking me to call up a reporter and say You’ve got to write a gushing feature about this company. They’re going to be the next Amalgamated Beef Prionator, LLC! and then expect four-to-six weeks later they’ll be on the cover of Legally Edible Cows magazine, all for the price of a few hours of my time.
In reality, a full-blown strategy I build will take three-to-six months of work across every part of your business to get in-house comms in order, identify weaknesses in your business that need to be fixed or downplayed, hire and develop a relationship with an agency if necessary, ruthlessly edit your expectations to match your growth plans and budget, and write it all down on a couple of pages with a channel plan and a phased deployment.
Obviously, more targeted requests can be done much faster—call it a few weeks. But weirdly, one-offs are not often all that much faster since there is often a lot of building or clean-up work to be done first.
How to sketch a first-draft comms strategy in 5 minutes
One of the questions I love to ask a potential client is “What would make you happy?”
This isn’t just good client management—there’s no reason not to throw them a bone if they’re fans of a particular magazine or podcast—but without the time and money to do broad audience research or ethnographies I’ve found just asking that question to be a decent shorthand for understanding what someone really wants out of a public relations project.
“I want to be popular on LinkedIn,” is a much better starting place than “I’d like to up-level my brand’s perception within key demographics on any channel that impacts revenue and LTV.”
“It would be cool to be in BusinessWeek,” is a much better starting place than “I leave all the decision-making to you, the expert! (But I will definitely complain if you don’t get me into BusinessWeek.)”
Anything is better than “I don’t know. You tell me!” Why? Because usually if someone wants to hire me to help them solve their PR problems but doesn’t have a result in mind besides “A spot of fame, please!” it means that they’re not going to be happy with specific wins because they’re expecting everything they’ve ever imagined comms to be as the only win.
If you’re the client, be specific about what winning is to you. Name the outlets you like, even if it would be a stretch to get a placement there. Explain the business metrics you hope to improve very specifically, even if it’s obviously going to be a ricochet from media to revenue. You’re paying. And if the agency or consultant guides you in a different direction, maybe that’s right. Have a discussion. Public relations is about human perception, and you’re one of the humans involved. It’s okay to have feelings.
Taking a few minutes to write down your expectations before you even look for outside help will be clarifying and I wish more clients would do it. Honestly, this is mostly why I’m writing any of this: it kills me that people waste so much time and money only to be disappointed.
What you should expect while talking to a comms strategist
The best comms strategists are not just problem solvers, but counselors and advisors. We’re not always right—I personally have a tendency to be a little overcautious, for example—but part of any comms person’s job is to tell you how they think the general public or specific audience will respond to your message. We’re required to be simultaneously pessimistic about how the media will respond to your pitching, while keeping a curious and hopeful mindset while helping you craft your story and strategy.
Then we have to try to implement that plan over weeks and months, knowing full well that we may be on the wrong track and that the client is champing at the bit for stories about themselves or their company.
It’s not cheap. Or even that fun, once the excitement wears off and you’re waiting for results. You’ll be paying for your media relations team to pitch 100 reporters to land one opportunity and that will feel bad. You’ll want to get metrics and testing. You’ll want to revisit the strategy. You’ll wonder if maybe you picked the wrong partners or if PR was even the thing you actually needed in the first place. You’ll have to be patient and most founders and ambitious leaders want results. Hire slow, fire fast, etc.
It’s never as fast as you want. Bluntly, I am about the fastest strategist and executor I know, and I can’t recall the last time a client didn’t complain in the first month that something was taking longer than they’d hoped.
Gauging a client’s patience and EQ is a big factor in who I choose to work with. (I take on only about a third of the clients that are referred to me, a luxury most agency-affiliated strategists don’t have.) I only want to work with clients who appreciate the value I (and other good strategists) bring.
But more than that, I firmly believe that to get the most value out of an investment into PR, you have to be open to the often uncomfortable, critical gaze of a professional bullshit detector while not expecting instant results. Most people don’t have the confidence.
This stage of the process is very much like therapy. It takes time and doesn’t have a clean ending. And like a therapist—the person paid to ask hard questions to someone who might not be entirely happy to be interrogated—you can really only help people who want to be helped.
Moreover, sometimes I take a hard look at a company and come back with disappointing news: that PR might not be the right tool to solve the problem they think they have. Or that PR could help to some degree, but there are better places to deploy effort or capital. (Both of these are disappointing primarily to me because I don’t get to keep billing, but I’d rather identify that before wasting each other’s time.)
To sum up, a first draft comms strategy is developed through this basic workflow:
Identify the problem that comms might solve. (Bad, stagnant, or zero reputation, typically.)
Gauge if the problem is actually a problem that needs solving. (Doing nothing is free!)
Establish budgets, resources, and revenue. (The funnel.)
Determine if the problem can be solved by comms alone or will need changes in other parts of the business like product, marketing, or HR.
Determine if the problem should be addressed with in-house staff, external agencies, or both.
Build a 3-18 month strategy with 1 or 2 key messages, the right audiences to hear that message, which channels to reach them on, how much money it will probably cost, and how you will determine if the plan is working.
Be prepared to update the strategy every 1-2 months, ideally making it simpler each time you touch it.
Depending on the scale of the ask, I think a first-draft comms strategy can be done in as little as two weeks or as long as 12.
The biggest slow down is often education: does the strategist or agency understand your industry? Do you understand what PR and comms can actually do? Does the agency understand your value prop? Do you? How many stakeholders will they need to talk to before starting to uncover relevant information? Will those people make themselves available?
The “Am I Lying To Myself?” Checklist for Those Considering Paying For Public Relations, Hiring Your First In-House Comms Person, or Hiring An Agency
Do you or your company have a good reputation in the media? A bad reputation? No reputation?
Why do you want PR for your company? Is it just to increase sales? To establish a brand-recognition moat? Because you want praise for your efforts? To make conversations and deals with financiers and lenders easier? Because you think PR will be cheaper than advertising? Have existing customers been telling your story poorly? And are they right?
Can you afford your first in-house comms person? (Hint: If you’re past Series A and/or ~75 employees, you should probably hire a full-time, in-house comms person.)
Are you trying to implement a long-term reputation-raising operation or a one-off blip? (Either is fine.)
If you took the money and effort you have earmarked for comms and put it somewhere else, such as improving your customer satisfaction, would that fix the “comms problem?”