The questions you can't forget to ask when building a communications strategy


Communications professionals, whether in-house team members or external experts, are routinely asked to design complex and sophisticated communications strategies to advance the goals of the businesses they support.

Often, the leaders requesting strategic communications support have a good sense of what an improved future state looks like: higher profile, better brand recognition, smart positioning versus the competition or perhaps a shift in how the brand is perceived by customers.

What’s very often less clear is how to get there, what success looks like when translated into communications outcomes and what assumptions the business and its leader are making regarding what’s achievable.

Having designed a variety of communications strategies across many industries, I can tell you that the sleuthing which is sometimes required to arrive at those answers does not get any less demanding with experience. And communicators, in a rush to deliver something bold and ambitious, often disregard the unspoken elements bubbling under the surface and don’t do the digging necessary to uncover the deeper answers. They are then surprised to find their definition of success is very different from that of their client, or that the tactics substantially miss the mark.

With that in mind, below are a few of the best questions which have worked for me in preparing for communications strategy work. I’ve asked them often, and of as many people inside an organization as possible. That breadth of perspective has then enabled me to translate vague ideas into clear communications thinking and a concrete plan which aligns closely to what my clients are actually seeking.

Here are the questions, in no particular order:

  • What problem or need are you trying to solve? Why do you think communications/PR is the best way to solve this?

  • What is different about this problem or need from other, similar cases you’ve faced before? What, if anything, is similar?

  • What do you think could stand in the way of success of this communications/PR strategy, both inside your business and outside it?

  • What does success look like to you in concrete terms? (Note: ask this when you’re first developing your thinking, and then again when the strategy is being discussed with the business leader. The answer very often will evolve)

  • What are the short-, medium- and long-term goals of your business? What assumptions are those goals built upon?

  • How, directly, do you expect this strategy will help your business achieve these goals?

  • What is your tolerance for experimenting with communications/PR approaches which have not been tried before by you or your business?

  • How would you feel about the failure of a single tactic if it teaches us something to the benefit of the overall strategy?

  • Aside from budget, what can you and your organization commit to helping this strategy succeed? For example, who else in your business could be a great spokesperson for this strategy, either internally or externally?

  • Who else in the business can I turn to regarding this strategy and any support we will require to achieve success?

  • What else do you think I should know in addition to what I’ve just asked you?

You’ll notice two things: first, these are very broad and each could elicit a fairly lengthy response. It’s the communicator’s job to then sift through and determine what’s relevant. And second, on a related note, not a single one is a yes-or-no question. Avoid those!

This list is far from exhaustive, but I believe it’s a great starting point in gathering the context necessary to deliver a truly effective communications strategy. It has served me very well in this regard and I hope you find at least a couple of these questions are worth adding to your own arsenal.

I hope you enjoyed the post, and if so, that you’ll take a moment to like, share or leave a comment below!