Wednesday May 25, 2011 marks the end of an era. The last original episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show will air and shortsighted executives will no longer be able to say “We should try to get on Oprah…”
I have included this slide entitled “Getting on Oprah is not a Strategy” with a photo of Tom Cruise’s iconic visit to the show in 2005 for some time. It was inspired by the amount of times I’ve heard executives, board members, stakeholders, and clients suggest getting on Oprah like it is some sort of panacea for their communication needs. Variations include an article in The New York Times or op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
The Oprah Winfrey Show, New York Times and Wall Street Journal are all incredible placements, if they reach the target audience identified in a larger strategy. According to MSNBC, Oprah’s audience of 7.4 million is predominantly female, white, and over the age of 55. But how does that help you if you’re trying to reach men or teenagers? Similarly, the New York Times has a readership of 224,899,000 according to their press kit. 72.3% of those readers have a household income over $75,000. That is over $25,000 more than the 2009 median according to the United States Census Bureau. Furthermore, 39.6% of NYT readers are from the New York media market. Not effective if you’re trying to reach the average American.
Essential Elements of a Communication Plan
Tactics like specific placements need to be part of a comprehensive, intentional strategy. Write it out, addressing five areas:
- Objectives: Before you start a communications plan, you need a business or long-term plan with clearly stated goals. The communications plan then directly ties into those goals and supports them. When I was with the National Crime Prevention Council, the agency had a long-range plan with eight defined
goals. When writing the communications plan, we made sure that our communications goals matched the long-range goals of the agency, mapping each initiative to them. If it didn’t support a goal, it didn’t go into the plan.
- Audience: You may have a pretty good idea of who you want to talk to. Ask yourself though if they are the right audience to achieve your goals? If so, what do you know about them? What are their attitudes, likes and dislikes, and how do they consume media? Get to know your audience. You can be as formal as focus groups or as casual as surveys and anecdotal conversations. Just make sure that you’re talking to a good sampling of your audience, don’t skew your view by weighing the opinions of your fans or critics too heavily.
- Messages: Create three key messages for each of your goals. Make them short, sweet, and memorable. With so many competing media messages for audiences to digest and shorter attention spans, communicators may have seconds to make it stick.
- Tactics/Tools: Willie Sutton may not have said he robbed banks “…because that’s where the money is”, but Sutton’s Law applies when deciding what tactics to use. Go where your audience is. In discussing creation of a YouTube channel for a client that produced a lot of videos, someone asked “Why?” Because that’s where the viewers are. A study by comScore found that 43% of online videos are viewed on YouTube. Schedule your action plan on a calendar as tactics also don’t exist in a vacuum, they should compliment and build upon each other over time.
- Measures: I always ask the question early in the process “When all is said and done, what will make us all look back and consider our work a job well done?” This needs to be asked upfront because there needs to be clear agreement on what success will look like. Failure to do so may cause serious problems later. You may think you carried out a successful plan, but your executive or client considers it a dismal failure because of differing expectations. Set the quantitative and qualitative measures. Establish a baseline before you start executing your plan. Get a lay of the land before you begin by assessing where you are. What’s your challenge? What is the current situation? What competition do you have? Routinely take pulse checks while rolling your plan out. What is working? What isn’t? Why or why not? When wrapping up your plan — either because it was project based or it was for a set period of time — do a post-mortem assessment. Learn what you did right and wrong, and then incorporate those findings into your next plan.
Keep it Simple
A communications plan also does not need to be complicated. Before his infamous Rolling Stone interview, retired General Stanley McChrystal made headlines with a PowerPoint slide gone amuck. The New York Times aptly described the slide that was “meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy” as looking “more like a bowl of spaghetti.” An overly complicated communications plan leaves too much room for confusing messages and poor execution.
Even if your communications needs are complex, distill the objectives, audiences, and messages down to the essentials or identify areas to focus on first. Break them up into baby steps if need be over time in order of priority. Form internal work groups to focus on particular areas or outsource. Marketing firms, public relations agencies, video production companies etc. can bring specialized expertise to portions of your plan, leaving you free to focus on others.