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How to plan a communication program on one hand.


I remember the day I became a business communicator. I had been out of college about a year, and was working as a creative writer for United Farm Agency, writing ads for farms and country homes. I took the title 'creative' seriously, and prided myself on my catchy headlines and 'farm humor' puns. One day one of the senior editors routed me a copy of a rather basic, straightforward flyer I had written for a huge ranching business, with a note across the top: 'Congratulations! You've stopped trying to be a writer and started trying to sell real estate.'

That was the moment I discovered what business communication is all about: trying to accomplish the goals of the organization.

I look back on that epiphany sometimes when I'm putting together a communication plan. It reminds me that no matter how creative the concept, how beautiful the design, or how exquisitely printed the material, if it doesn't meet the needs of the organization, it's not good business communication.

So how do you go about planning a program that does accomplish the goals of the organization? It's easy, if you keep in mind just five steps:

1. Define the problem or opportunity. This seems obvious enough, but all too often we find ourselves doing the annual report, the employee magazine, the anniversary book, in the same spirit as George Leigh Mallory, who wanted to climb Mt. Everest "because it is there."

You need to understand the why and wherefore of the situation. Who is your audience? Why do you need to communicate with them? What is their current perception of the organization, and why do you want to change or reinforce that perception? Researching these questions will give you the direction you need, whether you're writing a single speech or creating a public relations campaign.

How do you find the answers? Use formal research methods if the scope and budget of the project call for it. Other approaches:

* Use the library or computer databases such as NEXIS to explore media and public opinions on an issue;

* Get information about your product's market share and its competition from your marketing department;

* Get financial analyst reports (on your company and your peers) from your investor relations department or on computer databases such as InfoTrac, available at the public library in many U.S. metropolitan areas.

* In a pinch, make 10 phone calls to members of your target audience to get a non-scientific sampling of perceptions.

2. Develop a solution. Now that you understand the problem, you're ready to come up with the solution. Whatever the scope of your project, it should be built on specific, measurable objectives which address the need that you've identified. If your problem is that employees are concerned about possible layoffs, an objective of "high quality printing and photography" for the company magazine is not truly relevant. What makes a good objective? One description I've seen in several places is that objectives should pass the "SMAC" test: They should be specific, measurable, achievable and concrete.

Some examples of good objectives:

* "Calm employee concerns about layoff possibilities, lowering by 50 percent the number of 'highly anxious' responses in employee surveys."

* "Generate three positive mentions of new product in major trade media within three months." Or, better yet: "Generate 300 inquiries to customer 800 number based on trade media publicity."

* "Increase employee understanding of company's mission to a point where six of 10 employees, called randomly, can name three of the four key points."

What else goes in the solution?

* A description of the key message you are trying to convey;

* Specific strategies to reach each target audience;

* A timeline;

* A budget (if you're dealing with an unfamiliar area, call suppliers or fellow IABC members to get an idea of what things will cost);

* Who's responsible for what.

One thing that you probably already know (but I bumbled along for four or five years before anyone told me): Allow 10 percent more than you think you'll need in budgeting both time and money. Don't label it "contingency"-- that's the first thing to get cut -- but build it in throughout your program. You'll thank me later on.

3. Sell the solution to management/client. Have you ever developed a well-thought-out plan to achieve the organization's objectives, then seen your beautiful proposal return bloodied with red ink? Sometimes selling a project is more a question of political skills than conceptual ability. Two ideas to help you come through with only minor abrasions:

* "Tin-cup" the project. As you're doing your research and developing the plan, seek out key decision makers one-on-one to try out your ideas and ask what their priorities are. You'll gain insight into what's on their minds, and they'll feel that they've "bought into" your concept when it comes up for a decision.

* If the concept is unusual, build management's comfort level. Your plan may be parallel in many ways to something that succeeded in another industry; if so, point out the similarity. In management, you frequently earn more points for security than for originality.

4. Implement the solution. Finally -- it's time to write the copy, create the design, script the training program, call the reporter. As you do the work, remember:

* As your second-grade teacher always told you, "Neatness counts." In business communication, that means flawless grammar, adherence to basic design standards, and attention to quality in every detail. The smallest nonprofit project should be done as well -- within its parameters -- as the largest multimedia marketing campaign.

* Don't get distracted from your original objectives. It's easy to fall in love with a beautiful design or a creative theme that may actually interfere with clear communication. Don't end up like the advertising campaigns in which audiences remember everything but the name of the product.

5. Evaluate the results. If you set measurable objectives back at the beginning, this step is somewhat self-fulfilling. When the "hall talk" on a project is very positive, however, it's tempting to say, "We know everyone loved it." How do you know? Track the media coverage, call the employees, survey the financial analysts. It ain't over 'till it's over.

Follow these five steps (which, by the way, are the model on which Gold Quill judging and accreditation portfolio evaluation are based) and you'll not only create successful communication programs, you'll also be able to demonstrate that you are helping your organization accomplish its goals. And that, as my long-ago editor pointed out, is what it's all about.

Alice H. Brink, ABC, is a writer for American Capital Marketing, Inc., in Houston, Texas, and is the 1993 IABC Gold Quill chairwoman.


Creating a sound communication program is one thing. Trying to describe it in a competition entry is another. Here's a sampling of the corporate doublespeak and unintentional humor Gold Quill Blue Ribbon Panel judges have encountered over the past years (identifying terms have been deleted to protect the semi-innocent):

"In 1982, the company wandered away from the protection of its parent company." (I hope it had its address and phone number memorized.)

"The growing problem of adult illiteracy threatens our nation, as well as the future of newspaper." (It's good to have your corporate priorities straight!)

"|One objective was to~ reinforce the patient care elements of the publication's mandate."

"The program worked effectively as the focal production piece of information."

"Limitations: Since I'm not a good photographer, we're weak in photography."

"The design problem was solved using graphic design techniques."

"The most visible product of the Corporate Communications department, management has set very high standards for the newspaper." (If only more communication departments were producing management, we'd all be better off!)

"Recently, the railway has discovered its customers." (They were there in the train all along, no doubt.)

"The newsletter's audience is 10,000 living alumni."

"I encountered a brainstorm in the shower."

And the judges' favorite variations on a theme:

"Success of a magazine is hard to gauge in a quantitative sense."

"It's not possible to quantify success in the objective."

"It was impossible to quantify specific results."

And these were the entries that were good enough to be Gold Quill finalists. So yes, there's hope for you. Just remember to proofread your entry, and please, try to quantify your results.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Brink, Alice H.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:Supervisors are not the preferred communicators!
Next Article:40 ways to cut down on interruptions.

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