When it comes to communications planning, organizations of every ilk seem to spend a lot of time fussing about messages, tactics and products.
Communication, however — the very thing we are hoping to facilitate with this planning — only happens between people who are already connected and attending to each other — giving and sharing their attention.
In other words, a well-crafted message is only a message if people are ready to receive it and understand it. Otherwise, it is one more tree falling noiselessly in a forest.
The need to prime an audience for a message or story is the central insight of effective media relations. The very best people working in media relations build and nurture relationships with reporters and editors, to ensure they are ready to hear a pitch when it is made. The relationship — not the press release, key message or holding line — usually makes and shapes the story.
However, the story, much like the well-crafted key message, is only a story if people are ready to receive and understand it.
Today, all of your audiences are very much like reporters and editors. Thousands of people are clamouring for their attention every minute of every day. Thanks to social media, they also have the means to reach thousands of people any minute of any day.
However, the influencer’s social media post, like the reporter’s front page story and your well-crafted message, is meaningful only if people are ready to receive and understand it.
Thinking again of the example of effective media relations, we know the relationship is the most important consideration when it comes to priming an audience for a message. Relationships, we also know, happen between people. They can, in some cases, be nurtured digitally but nothing will ever surpass the effectiveness of regular and face-to-face interactions.
This means, I think, that the people in an organization who most often directly interact with the organization’s primary target audience must be empowered to nurture the kind of relationship that will prime the audience to receive and understand the organization’s message. If it works for the media, it should work for other audiences too.
The challenge, of course, will be to nurture as many individual relationships as possible and to do it as efficiently as possible.
This goal has always been the siren song of media relations and, more recently, of social media influencers. A well-placed story or Instagram post, it is assumed, reaches a larger audience much more efficiently.
While this might have been true once upon a time, we now know that the chance of reaching a target audience through these means is much more of a gamble and not a sure thing. It is also much more difficult to control the message that is delivered. An organization’s own employees, I think, are in a much better position to prime its audiences effectively.
The other important consideration is operational.
Who in an organization is ultimately accountable for ensuring that all employees who engage with the organization’s audiences are empowered to prime them for its message?
Because this outcome involves communication, many different parts of an organization could share the responsibility. Crucially, however, if no one part of it is definitively accountable, the organization’s approach will be neither uniform nor coherent and ultimately piecemeal.
If your audience is hearing multiple messages from different parts of the organization, it won’t hear any of them or only those it wants to hear.
Ultimately, there are many paths to your target audience, but, if your audience is not ready to receive and understand your message, it will not be communicated. The path taken will matter little.
If it makes good sense to prime journalists and editors and social media influencers to hear your message, it makes good sense to prime your target audience directly, relying on the employees who most often interact with it.
If no part of your organization is specifically accountable for ensuring that all relevant employees are empowered to prime your audience, it is likely that no one is doing it or, at best, it being done piecemeal or as an afterthought.
If that is true, your organization is overlooking the most important piece of the communication puzzle. Without the charitable attention of your audiences, your messages, tactics and products will encounter only stony indifference.