Even federal agencies need a strategic communications plan

Working in communications, particularly in a resource-stretched federal agency, requires tempered expectations. Pitches fall flat. Events garner scant coverage. Opportunities get away. But, if you find that you have more failures than successes, it might not just be bad luck. You may have skipped the foundational work required for regular success. You developed a plan for implementing a list of communication tasks; you needed a strategic communications action plan.

There’s a reason why successful strategic communications plans begin with the RPIE (Research, Planning, Implementation, Evaluation) process; it works, as testified to by the Public Relations Society of America. Traditional (and often unsuccessful) communications plans tend only to address planning and implementation, and rather insufficiently, I might add. Most communications professionals can identify topics to talk about, plan public events, write a social media calendar or pitch a story. But that’s not a strategic communications plan. It’s hardly a plan at all.

When I think about strategic communications and the RPIE model, it brings to mind a term from baseball: repeatability. Repeatability refers to a pitcher’s delivery to the plate using the same motion, every time. It doesn’t come naturally to every pitcher. But, with practice, a repeatable delivery ensures accuracy (and helps to avoid injury). You’re putting the ball where you want it—hitting your spots, as they say—and staying away from the middle of the plate, where a good hitter will make you look bad almost every time.

By first focusing on Research, it ensures that you know the terrain. Different plans will require different types of research, some more analytical than others. But by drilling down to better understand issues, policies, needs and audiences, you’re creating a strong foundation for your strategic plan.

The RPIE model also demands a more rigorous Planning phase that identifies measurable goals, objectives, audience segments and targeted messages and strategies. Aligning all of these components and using various types of paid, earned, shared, and owned (or PESO) content will help you reach your audience on multiple levels with a direct call to action.

Only by taking those first two steps will Implementation yield effective outcomes. You’ll suddenly find that you’re reaching your intended audiences more effectively because you’re offering informed arguments and connecting with them where they live.

Finally, a meaningful Evaluation of your plan can occur because you set measurable goals. You will better understand why your plan performed a certain way and can adjust accordingly. Likewise, you can now adequately illustrate for your leadership a solid return on investment for your public affairs initiatives.

Strategic planning that follows the RPIE model is effective. It also takes time. I’ve worked in some of the busiest, most demanding communications environments on Capitol Hill. Time is precious. But moving forward without a strategic plan is wasted time and effort. When supporting federal agencies, I saw press officers hammered with media inquiries, buffeted by unkind news cycles and short on resources. But often the reason for all that frenzy is the lack of a plan. If you invest your time and resources in making one now, you’ll always find yourself ahead.