The Process of Strategy, Messaging & Creative
OUTdrive Episode 21 with Mark Thomas
In this episode of OUTdrive, Cliff visits with Mark Thomas, Director of Marketing and Communications for Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES) in North Haven, Connecticut. An accomplished marketing professional with a proven track record, Mark is passionate about crisis communications, staying on top of industry trends and implementing creative solutions to provide results for clients.
Read more for key highlights of their conversation on implementing a well-structured crisis communications plan, reaching audiences through segmentation, developing an effective strategy, the never-stop-learning mentality and more.
Developing and Implementing a Strategic Crisis Communications Plan
We’ve all been affected by the COVID-19 crisis and have learned that you can never be too prepared. Although the specifics of a future scenario are not predictable, it is important to establish a framework for how your business will operate in the event of a crisis. Building a strong foundation will allow your team to navigate uncertainties more effectively and efficiently when they arise.
Mark is a firm believer in establishing a crisis plan, placing it at the forefront of his efforts in his past and current positions. He explains, “Almost every job, if it’s not already set up, the first thing I do is set up a crisis communications plan, because I’m either the spokesman or I’m responsible for the messaging.”
As communications specialists, we are responsible for communicating on behalf of the entire organization, serving as an intermediary for our organization and its publics and communities. Establishing ground rules and developing a plan ahead of time allows you to be better prepared.
Elements of a crisis communications plan that should be established ahead of time can include:
- Implementation criteria
- Key messages
- Internal procedures
- Crisis communications team identification
- Media contacts
This is not an exhaustive list and each crisis plan should address the possible situations specific to your organization and include what works best for your team. A crisis plan looks different for every organization, but having a framework from which to operate means you’re less likely to be playing catch-up in the midst of a crisis, especially when timeliness is so critical.
While planning is ideal, for a crisis like COVID-19, there were no guidelines for companies to follow. Mark and his team built a strong foundation so that they were well prepared to roll with the punches as the situation developed, better known as the implementation phase of a crisis communications plan.
One of the most important aspects of utilizing a crisis communications plan is to monitor the situation and make adjustments as needed. Mark explains how he keeps an eye on things, saying, “Every day I check my communications plans. I check what is most urgent, what has changed, what the metrics are, and then find out where projects are if they’re not moving along. Then you get your fires. There’ll be a wreck on a bus, or there will be a fight among our students somewhere. So how do we resolve that to make sure everybody’s safe, and that everybody knows what’s going on?”
Having a plan in place helped Mark and his team be better prepared for the unexpected of the COVID-19 crisis. They didn’t know the details of what was happening ahead of time but they were prepared and understood the importance of communicating what they did know to their audiences.
Like other communicators around the world, Mark was unsure of what the pandemic would mean for his organization but they stuck to a plan. He says, “What we did and what I feel good about is we had structure. We knew what we needed to do. We knew how to get our messaging out. The problem with COVID was it was so widespread and it went well above our universe. It wasn’t just one story, and it hasn’t ended yet.”
In times of crisis, be transparent about what you know, communicate often and be responsive to the needs of your audiences. Having a plan in place allows you to focus on what truly matters when times are tough: the people.
Evaluate and Adjust
Creating and implementing a crisis communications plan is vital for the success of your organization, especially in the midst of a crisis. But what happens when the dust settles and you slowly return to normal? This is one of the most important times, as it allows your team to look at the situation with the benefit of hindsight and adjust for the future.
Working in education, Mark knows that the situation is far from over as the school year is still in progress. However, Mark and many others are already evaluating how they handled the situation in the very beginning and making adjustments for the future. He says, “I think we’ve done okay. Could we have done better? Looking back now, I think everybody in the world would say, yeah, we can do better. But we do a lot more communicating now and we are very respectful about how challenging it is.”
Even as the crisis continues, Mark has realized the challenges that his audience is facing and has adjusted to best communicate with them. While adjusting quickly is necessary, take the time to sit down and debrief with your team when the crisis comes to an end. Create a framework for the discussion and what you want to get out of the meeting to apply moving forward. Questions to consider may include:
- What was executed well?
- What could have been done differently?
- What were specific areas that provided the most challenge?
- What areas did we not account for in planning?
The discussion that will evolve from these questions will lead to great strategic insight and help you prepare for the future. Navigating a crisis is challenging, but the experience will lead to stronger communications in the future. Mark captures this idea perfectly, saying, “I think it’s changed us and I also think it’s going to make us better on the other end. There’s an old German saying; ‘what does not destroy me makes me stronger,’ and I believe that it’s no fun getting through this. But I think we’re learning a lot and I think we’ll be better in the end.”
Audience Segmentation and Strategic Marketing Principles
While the tools used to reach audiences have changed, the core principles of a sound marketing strategy remain the same. He compares the past to now, saying, “A company had a brochure, they did direct mail, they did trade events, they did print advertising, if you were with a real progressive company, you did radio and TV. I don’t think that’s changed. I think the titles have changed. Instead of a brochure, you now have a website. Instead of direct mail, you have email. Instead of events, which we still have, you have meetups and tweet ups and things like that.”
New tools are a great way to evolve and grow your business, but they must be implemented as part of a strategic and research-driven plan to deliver results. Through audience research and segmentation, you develop a strategy and identify key messaging to effectively reach and move each audience segment. Crafting strategic messaging backed by a sound strategy allows you to work with ‘freedom and framework.’ Once the groundwork is laid and you know the why behind what you’re doing, you can develop strategic messages and creative assets to reach and connect with your audience segments while aligning with your overall strategy. Then it simply becomes a matter of finding the most effective tools and platforms to communicate that messaging and reach those segments.
Establishing these relationships and lines of communication ahead of time means that when it’s more important than ever to get a message across, you will be able to do so. As we continue to learn from the current environment, we must keep in mind the importance of planning for the future and remaining agile.
Hear more from Mark and Cliff about crisis communications, audience segmentation and get an inside look into the process of strategy, messaging and creative in this episode of OUTdrive. Check it out!