A Candid Conversation with Castle: Strategic Communications

Simon ZhouAt The Castle Group, we consider it our responsibility to share our knowledge with the next generation of thoughtful communicators. That’s why we provide internship opportunities for college students in the greater Boston area. We’re always seeking enthusiastic, eager-to-learn interns to work with our public relations and event management divisions.

This past semester, Simon Zhou, a senior majoring in public relations at Boston University, participated in our 15-week internship program, gaining valuable, hands-on experience working alongside our public relations team.

As part of our new intern-led “A Candid Conversation with Castle” series, Simon sat down with Castle Co-Founder Sandy Lish to talk about what he learned over the course of his internship and why strategic communications plans and social media strategies are so important to an organization’s success.

Simon: Hi Sandy! Thank you again for such a great opportunity. In my short time here at Castle, I’ve learned a great deal from you and the team about public relations. One thing I heard you mention almost daily was the importance of working from a plan. Why do you think having plan is so important?

Sandy: Without a plan, how do you know whether you’ve accomplished what you set out to achieve? Think of it this way: a strategic communications plan is essentially a roadmap that guides an organization in its week-to-week (or month-to-month) approach to communications with the audiences that matter most. This plan must always work in conjunction with the organization’s overall strategic plan, and support its short- and long-term goals and priorities. Working from a plan will also ensure an organization’s key stakeholders receive timely and consistent communications.

Simon: What are some of the most important things to consider when creating a communications plan?

Sandy: We have to always consider the business goals. If an organization produces and executes a communications program that isn’t tied back to broader objectives, the company might be enhancing its public profile but won’t necessarily be achieving ROI or impacting its audience. That’s not strategic—it’s just noise.

Always think about the target audiences who should hear from your company on a regular basis. This probably includes both external and internal audiences. After all, the best ambassadors for a company are its own people.

Inventory existing communications. Determine what’s working, what isn’t and what needs to be improved. Also pay attention to how the organization’s audiences already receive communications, where they are geographically, what media they consume and how they’re segmented. After you’ve developed core messages and initiatives that are tailored to your target audiences, you can determine the best communication channel to reach each audience. What works for one audience won’t necessarily work for another.

Simon: So what is the most effective way to communicate with target audiences?

Sandy: There isn’t one best way to communicate. It depends on the content—how urgent it is, who it affects and what it means strategically. For example, the best way to communicate during a crisis is on a platform where content can be controlled. Sometimes it’s a phone call, sometimes it’s an email or sometimes it’s social media. And, as I mentioned, pay attention to time-sensitive and external events. Does your message conflict or align with anything else that’s happening? Does your audience want to hear from you? Or do you have to make an extra effort pull them in? The best PR people are hungry to follow and be aware of current events and pop culture.

The key here is getting to know your audiences—who they are and what they’re interested in. If one approach doesn’t work out, be flexible and try another route. Effective communications almost always requires the use of multiple routes at the same time.

Simon: From your experience, what can companies do to stay at the forefront of their audience?

Sandy: Take a holistic approach.  The media, analysts, in-person communication, podium talks, networking and civic events—each of these avenues help keep clients top of mind. Part of our job as public relations professionals is to get our clients in front of the right audiences. We want them to be both where their competition is, and to have an edge by also being where they aren’t.

In terms of standing out, bloggers are a terrific way to reach key audiences. We don’t limit ourselves to traditional targets—we make it a point to include digital and social media influencers who can help inform what their audiences are most interested in.

And while clients don’t always have news to share, they do have expertise—which is why we take steps to position them as subject matter experts. Companies should also take time to leverage internal channels to maintain a steady flow of communication. Regularly updated blogs, social media posts, newsletters and web sites are easy ways to make sure that you are in front of your contacts as much as possible. We also encourage clients to stay active in their business and civic communities. Participating in or speaking at events supports the brand and establishes new business development opportunities.

Simon: In today’s digital age how do you build relationships with the media?

Sandy: Building a relationship with the media starts by being a consumer of the media—in all its forms.

You have to be creative to get your information out there, especially since the media isn’t necessarily coming to PR firms for stories anymore.  Today’s digital age has created a 24-hour news cycle, one in which a single story can be updated multiple times throughout the day. Immediacy and availability of key sources are two qualities that have immense value to journalists who are increasingly pressed for time.

Simon: Do you have any additional advice with regard to how a company can push out messages?

Sandy: It’s important to pay attention to the company’s internal calendar, including key programs and events throughout the year. Be aware of when annual reports, studies or surveys are released to ensure that the message does not conflict with or detract from anything else that’s happening. This includes keeping track of industry events, legislative actions and holidays, as well as paying attention to outside events—political, competitive, economic, global or other factors—that can impact the reception or reach of your message.

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