Successful Strategic Communication: An Admonition and Five Steps.

Every strategic communications professional has her or his own favorite model for doing strategic communications. There are toolkitschartsworkbooksboxes, and more. Most of them mostly say the same thing, and all of them owe a debt to Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

In this regard, I am no different from my strategic communication professional colleagues. From my perspective, successful strategic communication is one admonition and five steps. The toolkits, charts, templates, boxes, and the rest all have these elements at their core. When I write plans for clients, and when I teach courses on strategic communication, this is where I start.


Strategy is not tactics.

Five Steps:

1.) Identify a clear goal;

2.) Determine who has power over your goal;

3.) Learn what people with power find persuasive;

4.) Learn to whom people with power listen about the topic; and

5.) Do that.

Admonition: Strategy is not Tactics

Strategy is the approach, tactics are how you implement the approach. Strategy is how you will frame your issue, the conceptual model you will use to get from here to your goal. The tactics are the tools you will use to make it happen. For example, talking about climate change as a public health issue rather than a national security issue, a faith-based issue, a legacy issue, and so on is a strategic decision. The tactics used to make that goal happen are getting articles about climate change in public health publications, getting doctors to talk to their patients about health threats from climate change, and so on. Tactics can be fun and are easy to come up with, but absent a strategy, tactics are just marbles rattling around in a tin box in search of a tune.

Five Steps

1.) Identify a Clear Goal

A good strategic communication plan has a clear, measurable goal. Your goal should answer the question, “how will the world be different tomorrow because of what I do today?” That answer should be as precise as possible. Good goals are “cut litter in the park in half,” “get the city council to vote for light rail,” and “get people to floss more.” Weak goals are “increase understanding” and “raise awareness.” The point of strategic communication is action — as Aristotle taught, “The use of persuasive speech is to lead to decisions.” Understanding and awareness may be a step on the road to action, but they are not action themselves. It is very likely that you know you ought to floss more — you probably don’t floss enough not out of ignorance, but out of inertia or some other force. For my part, I know I should drink less soda and more water, and yet that knowledge is not enough to prevent me from heading to the store next to my office to grab a Sprite. As Ann Christiano and Annie Neidmand of the University of Florida put it, stop raising awareness already.

2.) Determine Who Has Power over Your Goal

The person with power is the person who can take or block the action you want. These are the litterers, city council members whose votes you need to win, and those of us who don’t floss enough. The “American people” as an imagined whole do not have power. There are more than 300 million of us, and some of us believe some really weird things. The odds are exceptionally slim that you could get us all to agree on anything. Even if “a majority of Americans agree,” it may not mean much — if public opinion in general mattered, we would have stricter gun laws and Hillary Clinton would be President. Similarly, “the press” do not have power as a conceptual group with a single point of view — those with power may be persuaded by some members of some media, which means they are a means to the end of power, but not power itself (an idea I’ll get to later). Similarly, Congress and “policymakers” as a conceptual group do not have power. Some members of Congress and some policymakers have some power some of the time. The Speaker of the House of Representatives has power — she or he can ensure a bill comes to the floor for a vote, or prevent even the most popular of bills from seeing the light of day. A Representative from the minority party in his first term, on the other hand, has little power over anything. When it comes to policy making, heads of agencies and those whose votes can make up a majority have power — agency staff who are not final decision makers and those whose votes do not make up a deciding majority do not have power. They can influence power, but themselves are only means to the final end of policy or behavior change. Power lies with the person who can write the check, sign the bill, block the vote, put the can in the recycling bin, and pull the floss through the teeth.

3.) Learn what Power Finds Persuasive

Framing and agenda setting are important tools in reaching power — if you can control the terms of the debate, you are much more likely to win that debate. Your task is to determine how those in power view your issue, and then to get the attention of those in power in a way that makes them want to adopt your view.

As Aristotle noted, “Persuasiveness is persuasiveness for an individual.” Persuasion is not universal; there is no ideal and perfect persuasive message out there waiting to be found. Persuasion is unique to the person who needs to be persuaded.

We all like to think of ourselves as reasonable, rational people who come to conclusions for reasonable, rational, reasons. We tend to think of others the same way, at least initially. As such, when we try to get someone to do something we typically use the reasons (we think) persuaded us. If that person disagrees, if she refuses to floss, continues to litter, or votes against us, then we repeat ourselves a little louder and a little more slowly. We turn into American tourists in France looking for Disneyland Paris — full of hand gestures and shouted slow-motion phrases. If the person still disagrees with us (or sends us to what is clearly the international departures terminal of the airport instead of Ratatouille — The Adventure), we dismiss him or her as irrational, venal, or stupid. The person we’re trying to persuade may be all of those things, but odds are good that person is just like we are — trying to make sense of a complicated world the best way they know how. As clever as we all think we are and with apologies to A.A. Milne, we are all just bears of little brains.

The challenge for the advocate or behavioral change communicator is finding what approach to an issue will get someone to pay attention and act (agenda setting and framing for those keeping score). Teenage boys care about things that can help them get dates or that prevent them from getting dates. Telling them about the long-term cardiovascular effects of poor oral hygiene is unlikely to get them to floss — but telling them boys with good breath and nice teeth get kissed more than boys with bad breath and dirty teeth will have them flossing constantly. Policy examples of the power of framing abound — up until about 1999 or 2000, the death penalty was “about” mass murderers, since then it has largely been “about” innocent people on death row and fair trials. As a result, the numbers of executions have been steadily falling and the number states limiting or abolishing the death penalty have increased. The death penalty is of course about both of those things, and many more, but people tend to view issues one at a time and one way at a time. If the focus is on the guilty, there is one policy outcome; if the focus is on the innocent, there is another policy outcome. “Don’t Mess with Texas” started as an anti-littering campaign after years of signs saying litterers would be fined had failed to reduce the amount of roadside garbage. Littering can still get you fined, litter still pollutes the earth and creates environmental hazards. Litter also runs against Texas pride. When pride is put front and center, people protect that pride by not littering. An entire consulting firm called the Frameworks Institute is devoted to the idea that issue framing matters.

The very best campaigns don’t get those with power to think something new — the very best campaigns remind people with power of something they already believe (Aristotle again). Most of us believe a lot of different things, often about the same topic and not always in ways that make objective sense. Rather than shout at us to think something new, help us see how your idea fits well with what we already believe to be true. Don’t tell me men who rape and murder deserve to live — remind me everyone deserves a fair trial. Don’t tell me not to toss a burger wrapper from the window of a speeding car in the middle of the night because I might get a fine or hurt a bird — remind me that I’m proud of Texas and Texas isn’t full of roadside garbage. And don’t tell me that in half a century, I’m going to regret not flossing after scarfing down an entire pepperoni and onion pizza — tell me if I want a shot at the cutie at the next table, I should make sure my breath doesn’t stink.

4.) Learn From Whom Power Finds the Message Persuasive

The messenger matters. Who says something can help determine how what is said gets heard. The person talking predisposes us to believe or disbelieve what is being said, to listen or tune out, and to learn new information or stubbornly hold on to what we already believe. Imagine you hear that “Donald Trump said…” Odds are very good you will form an opinion about whatever he said before sentence is complete. The same is true outside of politics. Odds are good that you don’t turn to your accountant for health advice or to your doctor for help with your taxes. In addition to making a claim believable, the right messenger can help reinforce the framing of an issue. For example, researchers have found that local television meteorologists are effective climate change messengers because they help make the issue local, real, and about the immediate effects people feel every day. Similarly, people trust pediatricians when they talk about the health effects of climate change, in part because they reinforce that the issue is not about a distant dystopia or Al Gore, but about my kid right here and now. It is important to think not just about what those in power find persuasive, but from whom they find it persuasive.

The press falls into this category. As I wrote above, “the press” as an imagined single entity does not have power. As a colleague who once served as the Washington Bureau Chief for CNN likes to say, “there’s no standing 7am conference call to plan that day’s liberal agenda.” Some press may help reach some people in power some of the time, but the press itself is an unruly mass of writers, producers, bloggers, personalities, editors, and more. Before reaching out to the press you need to think about how those in power will respond to the specific newspaper, TV show, radio station, or podcast as a messenger. A lot of people want to be in the New York Timesbecause it is a big and important newspaper. The problem is that the Times is viewed by many as liberal and elitist and therefore isn’t trustworthy, and because it’s based in New York, it doesn’t “get us” here in wherever we are that isn’t New York. (On the flip side, it can be a great way to get the attention of liberal New Yorkers). If you want to get the attention of an elected official, get the attention of their hometown newspaper or the first national media outlet they consume in the morning.

5.) Do That

The first steps in this process are fun. Coming up with new and creative strategies can be exciting and invigorating. A bunch of folks brainstorm, do some research, think big thoughts, and write a plan. Writing the plan is a bit like solving a puzzle — you cast about for clues, assemble parts, and admire your final product. Implementing the plan, however, is not typically fun. It requires ongoing discipline and focus. Doing your plan means not doing other things that sound interesting or possibly important. It means doing the sometimes tedious work of editing and re-editing documents, finding new messengers and keeping them on message, keeping track of who has power now and who might have it tomorrow, there are usually lots of lists involved — all of the nuts and bolts of getting the work done. There is an old story that someone asked a great artist how he was able to carve such a beautiful swan from a plain chunk of stone. “It is easy,” replied the sculptor, “find a piece of stone and cut away everything that doesn’t look like a swan.” But of course it isn’t easy — deciding to carve a swan and imagining what it might look like is easy, imagining the sculpture in the home of an important collector or major museum is fun. The work of carving is difficult, frustrating, and takes practice. Designing your campaign is imagining a marble swan; running your campaign is carving it from a slab of rock.


There are endless paths to walk for each of these steps. Narrative theory, framing, media effects, ethos, behavioral economics, metaphor, and more are all ways to help create the right message from the right messenger for the right audience. I would wager that the amount of trees killed to produce books on management — the how to “do that” step — have made a measurable impact on the world’s climate. (I’m not throwing stones here, I wrote one of those books). But polished down to its key elements this model is a simple and effective way to understand, design, and run strategic communication campaigns.

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