5 Steps to Take Now to Fine Tune Your Communications Plan for 2011

As the third quarter draws to a close and lawmakers increasingly turn their attention from policy to politics, it is a great time to conduct a media and communications strategy "check up" to see if you are ready for the year ahead. A key place to start: Online.

According to the 2010 Pew Research Center report on the state of the news media, 60 percent of Americans get some news online in a typical day, and nearly half of Americans get their news from four to 6 different platforms - Online, print, television, etc. - on a typical day. This is no surprise. For the third consecutive year, only digital and cable news saw their audiences grow.

When it comes to social media, the report finds that increasing numbers of online news consumers use social networking sites for news. These sites are increasingly becoming a place for people who feel passionately about an issue to come together quickly and share information and concerns -- and bring about change. Greenpeace has over a million supporters on Facebook, and it brought its online force to bear against companies such as Nestle and BP this year. In a recent interview on Forbes.com, a Greenpeace spokesperson said the group will "maintain a strong presence in social media, using the latest tools and communication channels where it is effective to challenge those who are involved in environmental destruction. It's impossible to predict exactly where social media is going next so it’s hard to say exactly what you should expect but we will definitely continue to use creative online campaigning tactics to create change."

Clearly this changing landscape is presenting more opportunities - and challenges - for you to get your message out. However, it takes time and resources up front to navigate this changing landscape successfully, and avoid the pitfalls.

Below are five proven ways to retool your communications strategy now for the year ahead:

  1. Find out who is talking about you or your issues - and listen in! As the number of voices and sources of news continues to grow and change, we have worked with several of our clients to do an audit of who is talking about their company, industry and issues and identify the key influencers critical to them. A key reason to do this - or update your audit - now is that it is critically important to spend some time "listening" to what is being said, and perhaps more importantly, how and to whom they are saying it. This is both a quantitative and qualitative effort and can take some time - but it is well worth it. Knowing which sources are most influential to your key audiences and how best to respond - or not - will help you avoid pitfalls down the road and be able to act quickly later, if necessary.

  2. Build relationships, and remember: they are a two-way street. It is as important - if not more important - to proactively build relationships with social media as with traditional media. Don’t assume they will find you, and remember - it is social. You are engaging in a two-way conversation - not pushing out a mass mailing or only engaging when you have a story to pitch. Also, one-size does not fit all. Be prepared to personalize what you plan to send so that it meets the needs and audience of the reporter you are sending it to. While a flat press release riddled with typos may not get any pick up in the traditional press, a poorly written or targeted pitch to a blogger may set you up for viral ridicule!

  3. Content is king, and knowledge rules. Be sure your company is positioned to be a trusted resource for up to date facts and other information. This may mean having subject matter experts - not just the media relations and PR team - media trained so they can reply appropriately on line in real time to answer questions or concerns about a product or policy. Consider setting up separate microsites or an Issue Room that can keep information on a particular matter of interest in one place that is easily to find and up to date. For example, the Deepwater Horizon Response site, provides unified information on the BP disaster in the gulf and close to 38,000 people indicated they "like it" on Facebook. Also, make sure the messaging on your corporate website is up to date and aligned, outdated information is removed or archived, and that the site is properly tagged with key words and search terms so that it is easy for people to find what you want them to know.

  4. A Picture Still Paints a Thousand Words. Create effective and engaging multimedia content that helps tell your story. For example, when Philips unveiled the first LED replacement for a common household light bulb, the company provided interested reporters and news outlets with multimedia assets that they could utilize in reporting the story to their audiences, resulting in multiple mentions across a variety of communications platforms. Now is a good time to take stock of the media assets (pictures, logos, b-roll) you have and identify your needs. Update your website to include an online newsroom with relevant media assets in multiple formats and produced in the highest quality possible so they can be easily incorporated into stories. Also remember that, while rich media lends itself to viral content, viral is not always an organic phenomenon - you need to push the story out in order to pull people in to learn more.

  5. Be Prepared. Nestle learned the hard way earlier this year about what not to say if an NGO starts a social media campaign against your company. But what would you do? And even absent such a campaign, do you have a social media policy that outlines rules about participation and compliance procedures - and, if so, does the staff know about it? With over 500 million users on Facebook alone, and over 150 million users accessing it on their mobile devices, chances are, your employees are using social media. If you haven’t already, put training programs in place that help them avoid pitfalls, better navigate, and hopefully embrace this changing media landscape in a productive manner.

The number of outlets has exploded and the pace of info-flow is exponentially faster; however, some things have not changed: Have a good story to tell, and tell it well; and, know which sources and outlets among all the clutter are actually influential to the audiences that matter most to you. To learn more about how to put these tools to work for you, contact Forum Media.