Communicators: It’s Time to Shift Into Planning Mode for 2024 

By  Alan Shoebridge, Associate VP  of National Communication, Providence 

As communicators, our work can be unpredictable. Every day can be an adventure, and it often is. Yet, there is real value in developing an annual communication plan with clear goals to guide ourselves, our teams and our business partners.

During the last few years while responding to COVID, social issues, natural disasters and much more, many of us have been in a constant “always on” mode. In some cases, that’s made it difficult or impossible to spend time setting goals and building long-term plans.

If you fall into that camp, don’t worry. You still have plenty of time to develop your personal and professional goals for 2024.

Why having clear direction matters

Responding to the crisis of the day or hour can be exhilarating. There is an adrenaline rush; however, without careful consideration this can lead to managers and leaders using crisis response as their standard mode of operating.

I’ve seen some people seemingly create crisis situations – made-up deadlines, self-imposed standards, goals that can’t be reached, competition with other business units in the same organization, arguments with peers, etc. – because they have come to need chaos as motivation.

As you might suspect, this makes planning ahead almost impossible. In turn, that has a major impact on morale and work product.

Dr. Geri Puleo writes, When managers refuse to plan, their subordinates often receive sketchy or even wrong information — information upon which they depend in order to do their jobs well. When managers create chaos, it changes the priorities and schedules of everyone around them by turning important things into important and urgent crises.”

In the short-term, leaders who create crisis situations do raise productivity and bond people together in a common cause. However, over time those leaders burn out their teams. Morale suffers. Most people are simply not wired to be in crisis mode 24/7 for sustained periods of time. The adrenaline rush is valuable in short intervals, but becomes toxic when it never ends.

Avoiding the creation of a toxic work environment is not just the morally correct thing to do, it will also help you avoid losing your best team members. As Dr. Puleo remarks, “When workers believe that they have no control over how they do their work, they will often seriously consider where they are working. This type of turnover can be directly attributable to the downward spiral of burnout resulting from poor planning.”

Thankfully, there is a way to avoid this. All it requires is some reflection and a modest time commitment.

As you read this, today might be a busy, stressful day. However, look to block out some time coming up soon for long-term planning and focusing on strategic issues. If you can’t seem to step out of crisis mode, do some self-analysis to see if you’re working through a legitimate, immediate crisis or creating one. If it’s the latter, you need to course correct right away.

A place to start: four simple questions

If you already have a plan or goals that just need to be updated for next year, great. But what if you don’t have any type of direction set? Where do you start? In that case, the first step is to quickly conduct an audit of what you are doing and why.

Ask yourself these four questions.

  1. What are you doing?
  2. Why are you doing it?
  3. Can you do it better?
  4. If so, how?

The beauty of this framework is that it can be applied to your personal or professional life in so many different ways. On the work side of things, it can be applied to a single aspect of your work or your entire plan for 2024.

The universal application of these four questions struck me after listing to an episode of the Ezra Klein podcast where he interviewed Michael Schur who was a creator of The Good Place on NBC, and Pamela Hieronymi, a professor at UCLA specializing in the subjects of moral responsibility, psychology and free will.

It’s an interesting episode as the three discuss what it means to be a good person. Schur used the four questions above to help assess the “am I good person?” philosophical debate that we’ve all probably had with ourselves at some point. To me, this four-question framework seems as effective for that personal purpose (if you’re feeling especially deep and reflective) as it is for assessing your professional work.

How to leverage your answers for goal-setting

If we know why we’re doing things and have really evaluated if something can be done better that’s a huge component of being successful. Although the answers to the four questions above around any specific issue won’t always be simple, they are worth asking.

Running areas where you spend significant time through those questions helps build a culture of continuous improvement.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you don’t have a good question to the second question – why you are doing something – it provides the perfect opportunity to stop that task or body of work and shift your focus to something with more value.

Building your annual plan

Once you’ve taken a step back and evaluated your current state of working, you can shift into building a proactive, forward-looking plan. There is no single answer for how long your plan needs to be with supporting information and context, but at minimum, it should define and address all the following areas:

  • Goals and objectives: What is your organization trying to achieve and how can your team’s communication efforts support those?
  • Target audience: Who are you trying to reach and what actions do you want them to take?
  • Key messages: What do you want to say?
  • Strategy/tactics: What channels will you use to communicate your messages to your audience?
  • Timeline and budget: When will execute major components of the plan and how much will all it cost?
  • Evaluation: How will you measure success and share information with stakeholders?

You may also want to include a SWOT analysis, competitive analysis, and crisis communication elements in your plan.

Once you set your goals and build your plan, it’s important to broadly socialize it. On a quarterly basis – at least – you should check your progress on the plan and update it as needed.

Closing thought

UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

That’s great advice, yet we all know there will be times when our ability to carry out part of the plan will be interrupted by a crisis. The significance is in having something to return to when the chaos subsides. That’s the true value of having goals and plans in our profession.

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