January 30, 2014—Generations of journalists have been taught to write inverted pyramid stories with the first paragraph focusing on the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why.
Many communications professionals come from the ranks of journalists or imitate their best practices in writing news releases and in other content areas. It’s not a bad practice – to sum up succinctly the essence of a piece of content in one paragraph. That’s valuable in this hectic, compressed world that we inhabit.
While the 5 W’s are important for anyone who’s writing, for communication strategies one of the “W’s” is more important than all the others combined: the “why” in any equation.
As strategists, we are often called upon to work with clients who already think they know what they want in a communications plan. At a first meeting they might state, for example, that they need to have a Facebook page for their company. Or that they need to create or raise their profile on Twitter. You get the picture.
When I ask “why” they feel that they need a Facebook page or Twitter profile, there is sometimes a sheepish look and a confession that “my teenage daughter told me that’s what we need” or “well, everyone else has that, don’t they?”
That’s when I try to begin at the beginning with the client, usually by going through a series of “why” questions to help us both understand the core issue at stake.
ME: “You say that you want to sponsor public events with your company’s name prominently displayed alongside that of other sponsors. Why?”
CLIENT: “Because it’s a good way of associating our name with another brand.”
ME: “True, but why do you want to associate your name with another brand?”
CLIENT: “Because we think our brand isn’t that well known.”
ME: “That may be true, but if it is, why do you think your brand isn’t well known?
CLIENT: “Because we haven’t invested very much in outreach or corporate communications.”
ME: “Interesting, but why haven’t you invested in this in the past, and why do you want to do it now?”
CLIENT: “Because in the past our product pretty much sold itself, whereas now we have more competitors. And now we have a budget to spend on communications.”
Which is when I suggest that instead of immediately plunging into one of many communications channels or using one of many tools, it would be smarter to use funds to conduct a proper baseline communications analysis or audit.
That would mean defining the message(s) that the company is trying to get out. It would mean identifying the various audiences or customers that the company is trying to reach. It would mean really understanding the interests and needs of those audiences. And, it would mean using the resulting evidence to determine which communications channels, used at which times, would best resonate with those audiences.
Furthermore, it would mean thinking about whether the company wanted a one-way information flow to its audiences, or whether it wanted to engage in a more meaningful and sustainable way with them.
At the end, it would be clear which communications levers to push to begin to have a desired impact. It wouldn’t be a shot in the dark, it wouldn’t be spending money on communications because someone told them it would be a cool thing to do. It would be smart, data-driven, strategic.
It would, in other words, lead to an ability to answer those pesky “why” questions easily and confidently.
Why would you do anything else?