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Communication Strategy

Whether you are actively seeking an opportunity to highlight an issue, or reacting to an unfortunate series of events, the process of preparing for media engagement is the same.

Begin with the end in mind. That's how author Stephen Covey described one of his "Seven Habits of Highly Successful People." It's very applicable here as you begin planning your media engagement. At the end of it all, what is it you want your audience to know?

Reporters seek to answer the "five W's" of a story: Why, Who, What, Where, and When. These are useful not only in anticipating the kind of data you need to have ready, but in formulating your own communication strategy.

Why communicate? The most important part of planning is understanding why you are engaging the media. Whether providing information about a proposed weapon system or discussing an accident, the urgency of the situation and the stakes involved should guide your preparations

Who needs to know? The local community? Your own service members? A national audience? Foreign allies and partners? While you should target a specific audience, you must assume that all audiences may receive your messages.

What does your audience need to know or understand? This question can help you focus your messages prior to an interview.

Where does your audience get their information? The rise of competing cable news channels and the growing reach of the Internet means audiences are more fragmented than ever. If you don't select the appropriate media channels, you may not reach your desired audience at all. You can employ multiple forms of media to achieve your goals.

When do you need to inform your audience? In a crisis, the answer is as soon as you can verify and coordinate release of the information. You will have more time to prepare if you proactively plan to communicate.

You will have more time to prepare if you proactively plan to communicate.
U.S. Army photo by
Staff Sgt. Bertha A. Flores

Developing Messages

Now that you've gathered the information to create your communication strategy, it's time to identify the messages you want to deliver. Messages are statements that complement facts you provide to your audience. They don't have to be complex. Nearly everyone has seen a press conference after a tragedy, during which the speaker offers condolences or assurances of assistance. Delivered sincerely, they can create a powerful connection with the audience.

Plan early to synchronize your communication. Does your boss share the same concerns or priorities? How about his boss? As you develop your messages, ensure they are nested appropriately within what other echelons may be saying about the subject.

Consider the length of your messages. While there are a number of common principles regarding interviews, it does make a difference whether you're communicating via print, television, radio or Internet-based media. Electronic media have to package their content in very small sound bites. In general, you should aim for a sound bite of 10 seconds or less or about 35 words. This is dramatically different from the space afforded by a print publication, which has the ability to get into very specific detail on a range of subtopics. As you prepare, adjust the delivery of your messages depending on whether you will have a lengthy conversation with a print journalist, or a 20-minute television interview.

Provide useful, actionable information. You want your audience to know what you are doing and why the information is important. Whether it is asking for support, requesting action or just informing, use messages to make sure your audience understands your communication objective.

When preparing for a communication event, leverage SCOPE. You may not always have prepared messages at the ready. In this situation, you can quickly form messages by identifying a Strategy, Challenges, Opportunities, Professionalism and Education.

Start with the overall strategy, such as the government's response to a situation. Then acknowledge the nature of any challenge as best you understand it. Identify opportunities the situation presents, whether a stronger working relationship with other agencies or valuable lessons learned. Care should be taken here to strike the appropriate tone so that an interviewee doesn’t come across as trying to spin tragedy into a good thing. Refer to the professionalism of those who are responding to the crisis and how they are trained and educated to deal effectively with complex issues—"this is what we do." Even with little notice, this model is a quick method to meet the immediate needs of the situation.

You can quickly form messages by identifying a Strategy, Challenges, Opportunities, Professionalism and Education.
U.S. Air Force photo by
Senior Airman Kenneth W. Norman

Don't Just Answer ... Respond

Responding to, rather than answering, questions means providing relevant data, plus a message to provide context. Answers alone don't express the significance of information. Messages without data — or that don't match the data — are rightly derided as 'spin.'

Consider an interview topic as simple as new base construction. You can imagine the effect if the interviewee simply provided data. "The new Child Development Center will cost about $6 million." Nothing communicates less effectively than raw data provided without context. Consider the difference: "The new Child Development Center will cost about $6 million and provide our parents with closer, more cost-effective child-care options." Rather than leave an audience with sticker shock, the second approach gives rationale for the data. Not everyone will agree that the cost is worth it, but there is a basis for informed comparison.

This same method can be used in complex situations: "We have identified three units to deploy as part of the upcoming rotation of forces operating in ..." Combine this with: "Our Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines will provide mentorship and training to our international partners to increase their security capabilities and that of surrounding nations."

Put another way, you are building a partnership by responding. The answers are what the media need for their story. The messages are what you want to convey to your audience. By providing an answer and a message, you have met the needs of both parties.

Personalize your messages. If you forget a message you've memorized, you may get confused or nervous. Instead, prepare three to five localized messages to convey the perspective of the issue. Practice key phrases to develop comfort and confidence.

Anticipate tough questions and prepare. List the most difficult questions you might be asked regarding the interview topic. Think about how you will transition from answering these questions into a key point you want to make.

Practice your responses. You must be prepared to express your major points in concise statements. By organizing your thoughts, it is more likely your position will be understood by the reporter. Don't read your answers during the interview. Be prepared to respond without prompting from note cards.

Responding to questions means providing relevant data, plus a message to provide context.
U.S. Air Force photo by
Airman 1st Class Kyle Gese
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