Building Communications Strategies

There is no one perfect way to build a strategy. But it is important to think strategically about everything you’re doing. Matching tactics to goals and time frames, segmenting and prioritizing audiences, and evaluating your progress should be a part of your everyday communications work. And realizing that no strategy is set in stone is also key, because circumstances change. What should not change, though, is a tight alignment of communications resources with organizational goals.

Step 1: Determine Organizational Goals

Any communications efforts should serve overarching organizational, campaign, or movement goals. Once these larger goals are defined and understood, you can start asking questions about how communications can support them. Without this critical first step, it’s difficult to determine how to focus and allocate communications resources.

Step 2: Determine Communications Goals

When drafting communications goals, identify target audiences, actions, and timelines.

  • Target audience –These are the groups and individuals whose behaviors you need to change to reach your goal.
  • Action – It’s crucial to state exactly what you need them to do, or how you need them to change. It’s not enough for an audience to be aware of your issue. Do you need them to vote, boycott, or influence someone else?
  • Timeline and priorities – Prioritize the audiences you can realistically reach and persuade in the time available.

Step 3: Research

Public opinion: Consider what you know about your target audiences—and find out more. Where do they stand on the issue? What do they find persuasive or repugnant—what are the barriers and opportunities to get them on board? How can you find out more about what they think? Public opinion research can be a key resource, but so can talking to a range of people in that group and to people who are familiar with them. This is particularly true if you’re looking at a localized group such as a school board or congregation.

Media: Determine how people are talking about your issue and how you’d like to intervene. Media research is an important component in this step. Regular media monitoring and analysis shows trends over time in cov- erage and conversations, and can also show how and if your strategy is working. It may also help to identify reporters and commentators who can help to convey your message.

Field: It’s important to talk to others who work on your issue from different perspectives. While it’s not always possible to share a communications strategy, you should at the very least have some understanding of the broader advocacy and organizing landscape. Also, don’t overlook the valuable intelligence you can glean from your peers. There is a wealth of information and expertise among folks who have been talking about these issues for years, as well as from those with a fresher take. 

Step 4: Framing, Narrative and Message Development

Create messages by determining where your audiences stand on the issue right now, and where they are most open to change. Identify what is important to them, the values you share with them, the barriers to getting them to act, and any opportunities to persuade. Identify narratives and messages that work together to support both your long-term and short-term goals. Think “opportunity!”

Step 5: Create an Outreach Strategy

Reaching Your Target Audiences

  • Traditional media: Determine which media the target audience and their influencers consume. Identify the tactics that will best match your goals—for example, will you hold a press event, conduct a paid advertising campaign, spearhead a letters to the editor campaign?
  • Online media: Integrating your online strategy with your larger strategy seems obvious, but sometimes the rapid pace of the online world can make that difficult. Having clear audience priorities permits more straightforward day-to-day decision-making about how to use your social media bandwidth. With almost limitless choices of content to share and retweet, knowing your audience and how you hope to persuade them will help guide your decisions.
  • Other outreach strategies: Media—both traditional and new—are only one type of avenue for reaching your target audiences. Make sure your communications strategy encompasses the full range of your activities, such as organizing, coalition work, speech opportunities, and the like. If your target audi- ence is a policymaker, consider how you may gain direct access to him or her.

Spokespeople. Identify spokespeople and allies your target audiences trust and listen to. Determine who of those people you can activate, particularly if you don’t currently have direct access to your targets.

Step 6: Integrate and Implement

Your communications strategy must be an integral part of your larger effort. Advocacy, organizing, litigation, and other tactics should incorporate the audiences, messages, and spokespeople that you identified in your communications planning.

Step 7: Implement and Evaluate

Evaluation should be an ongoing part of any strategy. A constant check-in on your progress will alert you to needed adjustments regarding tactics, strategies, even goals. If something’s not working, it’s really not worth continuing unmodified.