Bringing Strategic Focus to Your Communications Narrative

The Challenge

More is Not Always More

A lot of good communicators preach message discipline. They focus on the three or four key points to drive home in the big speech or high-stakes press conference. They bring those limited points to life with facts and colorful anecdotes. They evangelize clarity, simplicity and repetition. And you know what? It typically works. The audience walks away with a memorable and manageable snapshot of your company, organization or issue.

Why, then, don’t we bring that same level of discipline to the key themes in our public narratives? I’m talking about the major platforms that define our brands and make up the big story we’re trying to tell about who our companies and organizations are. If we’re so disciplined at the micro level with messaging, why aren’t we just as, if not more, strategic and focused in bringing a level of discipline to the themes that define us?

When you get down to it, there are a lot of reasons for the lack of thematic discipline. For one thing, communications teams work with a lot of “internal clients” who all want their stories to be told, regardless of how it fits into the company’s narrative. Another pressure comes from the “more is more” philosophy that, unfortunately and incorrectly, advances the idea that any positive theme is a good one to tout, regardless of its strategic value. The list goes on about the pressures we face to talk a lot about a lot of things.

However, just as a 15-page menu at a restaurant often makes you more confused about what you want to eat, a narrative made up of too many platforms leaves your audience unsure about where you stand. And, as with the prolific restaurant menu, there’s a sinking sense that you could not possibly do all of those things well. (Is the hole-in-the wall restaurant around the corner really that good at vegetarian curry and country fried steak?)

As part of our ongoing research into understanding how companies build influence, we reviewed a single quarter of press releases for some of the leading companies in the healthcare industry. Of the six major companies we looked at, they averaged 12 distinct themes in just one quarter. That’s right, 12. A dozen. That’s one new theme every week. In a clear demonstration of the fatally flawed “more is more” philosophy, one of those companies covered everything from veterans to diabetes to fighting hunger in that three-month period. All, of course, are worthy causes, but it’s difficult for any company to be well known for leadership on such a broad range of themes.

While we as communicators all live and breathe the work of our organizations, the decision makers and influencers we care so much about are simply not that immersed. What’s more, they have a lot of other competitors, issues and organizations vying for their attention. With that level of clutter, they will have a hard time cutting to the chase to figure out why they should buy your product or support your cause.

The Solution

Strategic Focus

Your decision makers and influencers – those who will ultimately determine whether you succeed or fail in whatever goal you may have – need a clear, simple narrative from you. It will help bring order to the chaotic and complex world of the communications they receive in a way that helps them become advocates for you. We call that clarity strategic focus, and here are some imperatives that will help you find it:

  • Figure out where you can win. Strategic focus is first about identifying the themes that will successfully enhance awareness or opinion so that you can meet whatever communications goal you may have. At Hillenby, we strongly advocate a data-driven approach as the basis for every strategic communications effort because it brings rigor both to program development and execution. As part of that, we often recommend that our clients conduct research with their decision-makers and key influencers to benchmark their opinions and test key themes and messages. One of the most helpful outputs of this process is finding the one, two or at most three platforms that can meaningfully move a persuadable audience in a more favorable direction (i.e., they will buy your product or support your cause).

For example, in research we conducted for one government contractor client, we found that education was a winning platform. The company’s efforts in that area persuaded decision makers to want to work with them and caused some critics to reconsider the basis of their perceptions. Even if you don’t have the resources for a large-scale research effort, take some time to talk to your key audiences to learn what really moves them.

  • Build it into the business. Strategic focus also includes clearly tying a theme to your business. Otherwise, decision-makers and influencers will see it as public relations fluff, and it will be less likely to move the needle over the long term. Tying the theme to the business also helps secure internal buy-in, as people understand how it can drive growth for the organization.

One of the more interesting examples we’ve seen of this recently is J.P. Morgan’s work around social finance, the idea being that you can invest with altruistic motives and guidelines but still expect market-rate returns. This aligns with the company’s expertise and does some good, but still focuses on delivering results for the company and its investors. For key audiences, this is an effort that is credible. And for the company, because it’s aligned with the business, it’s far more likely to be seen as value-driven and gain support both internally and externally.

  • Show leadership at the top: The vision behind a strategically focused initiative is most powerfully and impactfully shared from the top. Everybody’s busy with a million different day-to-day tasks, which often makes it hard to devote time to a singular big communications theme. CEOs especially have tremendous demands placed on their schedules and favor activities seen as related to “running the business.” But here’s the deal: in this economic, regulatory and competitive environment, strategic communications is a vital part of “running the business.” Growth and a sophisticated external affairs operation go hand in hand.

So, find a way to get thematic buy-in and focus from executive leadership. When your CEO says it’s a priority, people take note and fall in line. The leader can also be a great spokesperson to demonstrate to external audiences what the priorities of the company are. In 2005, General Electric (GE) launched ecomagination, which was at the time a groundbreaking suite of environmentally focused products. Rather than the typical consumer-focused product launch, GE CEO Jeff Immelt announced the initiative himself in a speech at George Washington University. In that academic setting, he laid out the business case for why the company was doing this, which was seen as highly credible. His delivery of the message was also a sign that this was an indisputable priority for the company. Incidentally, Jonathan Lash, who at the time led the well-known environmental NGO World Resources Institute, also spoke at the launch, which leads to my next point.

  • Make friends and build credibility. Chances are good that no matter what theme you’re focused on, there’s already a strong network of people and organizations from advocacy groups to academics that are seen as experts and leaders in the space. It is critical to identify these influencers and build relationships with them. They can become your champions or, if they have negative perceptions about you, hopefully you can work to mitigate some of their criticism. Also, their expertise is incredibly valuable and can help you focus even more strategically on your theme. When appropriate, share your plans and get their feedback on how to make it better. It will not only strengthen your program but also your ties with the groups that feel like partners with you.

In an example I’ve seen in my research, a major theme for Exxon is economic empowerment for women in developing nations. The company works with groups like the Council on Foreign Relations and the United Nations Foundation that have great credibility on the issue, which in turn adds credibility to Exxon’s work. In a smart move, the company even lists these partners on its website (

  • Stick to it. Once you’ve spent time and effort identifying a strategically focused theme, stick to it. Create an annual plan that demonstrates how you will emphasize the theme in all of your communications channels over the course of the year. Help people throughout the organization understand how it can support their business objectives. For example, craft well-designed and written materials for your government relations team to use with lawmakers. Integrate the theme with your corporate giving strategy. Brainstorm ways to reach investor audiences with the information because, as we’re increasingly seeing, critics are talking with them, too. All of this will ensure that your decision-makers and influencers are having the theme reinforced over time and from different sources.

 One good example of this is AT&T’s theme of curbing texting while driving. Through the It Can Wait campaign – which is a partnership with several other credible companies and organizations – they have built a robust communications program. This effort includes events such as one that was done with AAA and the Wisconsin State Patrol to encourage kids not to text and drive, as well as thought leadership such as public opinion polling on the issue. AT&T has partnerships with sports teams like the Carolina Panthers and uses the platform as an opportunity to engage with elected leaders. The strategy reaches across the business, across the calendar, and across the country to tell a compelling story effectively.

There’s a lot of competition for the attention of the decision makers and influencers who are vital not only to your reputation, but also the growth that management, boards and investors expect. If you want to break through the clutter, communicate with them effectively, and inform and persuade them, your themes must have strategic focus. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with a menu of vegetarian curry and country fried steak with no one to buy it.