Lessons learned: Simple, smart ideas for better communications

Tom Reynolds
May 11, 2016 · 5 min read

Plenty has been written about how President Obama’s campaigns and his Administration changed the nature of communications. For politics, to start, but also for businesses, startups and the advocacy world. While some criticized the use of new tactics, or the strategy of communicating directly with the American people, most applauded the expansion of digital platforms and innovative use of non-traditional media.

Regardless of your position in this debate, it’s hard to dispute that the President’s inner circle and his key advisors re-wrote the playbook on how to successfully connect, communicate and advocate in the face of a rapidly changing media landscape and a news cycle that operates in real time.

Yes, I am biased. Having worked for the President for the past eight years, only recently departing, I had the privilege of watching up close and learning firsthand from some of the best strategists and tacticians. Here are some of the very simple, but very successful, lessons that I took away:

Have a message, stick to it — this straightforward but smart approach applies to anyone communicating anything. Develop a message. Fine tune. Deploy. Do it again. And again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Blue chip companies and advertisers have sworn by this adage for decades. It explains millions spent on TV ads (though that is a dying breed) and slogans that stick in your head. But too often candidates, issue campaigns or newer companies change messages before they have a chance to work. Message penetration takes time. Adjusting, tinkering and refining, as situations dictate, is fine and oftentimes necessary. But a strong core message is the foundation on which your entire communications strategy is built. Make sure you have one.

Be proactive — whether you are a candidate, a tech start-up or a Fortune 500 company, it’s critical to tell your story early and often. Define yourself before others — competitors, the media, regulators — have the chance. It sounds so easy, but not enough companies, organizations or industries take this to heart. If you don’t tell your story on your terms, a vacuum develops. If you don’t fill it with your message, someone will fill it with theirs. And once a narrative is in place it can be difficult to change.

Play offense and defense — it’s not enough to proactively tell your story, then sit back and hope for glowing press coverage and great reviews from customers. At the same time you must be prepared to deal with negative media, or attacks from competitors or opponents, and respond accordingly. You must play offense and defense simultaneously. This approach is hardwired into political operatives, but businesses and advocacy groups can sometimes be flat-footed or clumsy when managing this two-track approach. Its solid implementation and execution is important to success.

Be aggressive — this is not to be confused with combative. But communicating about an issue, a product, a company or a crisis is not the time to be timid. It is important to recognize the massive deluge of information people consume — or have available for consumption — on a daily basis. To succeed you need to break through the noise. That requires many things, including an assertive approach. Whether it is media relations with reporters or producers, or digital engagement with your customers, a forward leaning posture will bring better results.

Be strategic — this is perhaps one of the most over-used clichés in business and politics. People often talk about strategy with little understanding of what it truly means. Strategy is not a goal or a tactic or a plan. It is all of those elements, combined. A successful strategy means playing 3-dimentional chess. It involves timing, key messages, targeted audiences, anticipating outcomes, stakeholder engagement, allocation of resources and assets, and many other pieces. It means identifying opportunities and understanding vulnerabilities. It is calculating risk and taking steps to mitigate those risks. A Snapchat story is not a strategy.

Be smart —stating the obvious, right? But how often do companies or candidates get in trouble over an errant tweet or ill-conceived ad campaign? When it comes to successful communications, living by the “First, do no harm” mantra will often work wonders and help avoid unforced errors.

Do things differently — the fractured and growing media landscape has made communications more challenging than ever. But the rise of digital engagement platforms offer massive advantages to creative content and innovative ideas. A great example is President Obama appearing on Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns.” It was a non-traditional interview, to say the least, with the President working to promote increased enrollment for Obamacare. The White House came under some criticism for the move, largely from the mainstream media, but the appearance got results: the day after the President’s interview web traffic on Healthcare.gov was up 40%. So go out and find your Ferns.

Seize on a crisis — “In case of emergency, break glass.” Well, when it comes to a crisis, sometimes companies and organizations are slow to realize what they are dealing with and to actually break the glass. This was a problem more than a few times during the Obama Administration. For me, while head of communications at EPA, it was a sluggish reaction to a mine spill in Colorado that turned a river yellow. A delay — even a small one — can be a big challenge when developing a response. It’s important to quickly assess, decide and execute when facing true crisis situations. Time is not your friend. At this point, some argue to circle the wagons and say as little as possible. I disagree. Obviously every case is different, but in most circumstances taking proactive ownership of communications during a crisis allows you to drive, or at least balance, the narrative. As noted above, times of crisis are also the last place you want to be passive.

Few of these ideas are revolutionary or break new ground, I admit. I also recognize not every concept can be applied to each communications challenge. There will always be exceptions, caveats and concessions. But far too often it’s plain to see where companies and organizations could benefit from these principles. For me, these are examples of communications methods I saw get real results over the past eight years and some of the simple, smart lessons I will take with me.

Tom Reynolds

Written by

I’ve held various communications roles at the White House, EPA, the Energy Department, and on both Obama campaigns.