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Should your chief executive address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or would another venue be better?
Is it time to knock out an op-ed, or would the big cheese be better off planning a speech for that town hall?
And what—of all the many things going on in your organization—would be best to talk about?
If you are looking to improve your application of limited resources, check out the Ragan Training session “Building an Effective Executive Communications Strategy” by Rob Friedman.
Friedman is a retired senior director of executive communications at Eli Lilly and Co., where he wrote for three CEOs and other senior executives. He offers tips for sorting out a strategy that will serve you no matter what medium or topic you decide on.
“Strategy is about tradeoff,” Friedman says. “You can’t do everything. You really have to be disciplined and figure out what’s the key thing that you’re doing.”
Friedman quotes business guru Michael Porter as saying, “The essence of strategy is figuring out what not to do.”
Internally, executive communications must bring people together around a shared strategy, vision, objective or policy, he says. It must inform people about big news, major campaigns or initiatives.
Externally, your work should build the reputation of your leader, sell products, influence the environment or offer innovative thinking.
This requires adroitness at a time when even major gigs are weeding out the business leaders who can’t set aside the sell, sell, sell mentality. At TED Talks, for example, speakers are given a list of “The Ted Commandments” to keep them on track, Friedman says. Among them: “Thou shalt not sell from the stage,” Friedman says.
Here are the five elements that every strategic plan must address, Friedman says.
- What are we trying to accomplish?
- What means, capabilities or resources do we have in order to accomplish it?
- What’s your focus? Is yours a domestic organization, or is it global?
- How will you carry out your plan?
- How will you measure, so you know whether you’re succeeding or failing?
With those in mind, determine your strategic framework. Here’s how you do that:
1. Define your organizations greatest threat, challenge or opportunity.
This could be that a competitor has closed down the business (hurray!). It might be regulation that’s harmful to you (boo!) or sweeping changes coming from Congress (hmmm).
“Legislation could pass that opens the door for you,” Friedman says. “If you think about what leaders should be talking about, this is it.”
Often this first step ends up outlining a danger, perhaps the greatest existential threat to your business. Friedman draws an example from his background in the production of medicines.
“The biggest threat to the pharmaceutical industry is that people hate our prices,” he says.
The government buys half the medicines in the United States. If they don’t like pharmaceutical companies’ prices, they are essentially saying that medicines don’t provide enough value. So how do you deal with that?
2. Determine your objectives or desired outcomes.
What do you want a specific audience to know, think, feel, or do? What are the results you’re really trying to get?
In his pharmaceutical example, is your goal to get people to love the pharmaceutical industry? “No,” Friedman says, “because they’re not going to.”
Rather, you want consumers and legislators to understand that medicines offer value, he says. If they enact legislation that hurts your prices, it could delay the next generation of life-saving medicine.
“Instead of a cure for Alzheimer’s in the next five or 10 years, it might take 20 or 30,” Friedman adds.
3. Set the strategic frame for your communications.
What will help you accomplish the objective above? The strategic frame Friedman proposes in the above example is: “The value of innovative medicine.”
Bingo. Here’s the message all your executive communications will push.
4. Develop the arguments that support your frame.
Once you have figured out the first three steps, the arguments should fall into place. Friedman offers several.
There are medical arguments: Some 90 years ago, he says, if you were diagnosed with diabetes, the doctor would say, “In two years you’re going to die,” because diabetes was a death sentence. Today, people live long lives despite having the disease. For that, you can thank advancements in medical science and the pharmaceutical industry.
He also cites economic arguments: Unlike most industries that are seeing jobs move overseas, pharmaceuticals are creating them, drawing Japanese and European companies to the U.S.
Knowing these four points, you can proceed with confidence that your executive communications aren’t scattershot.
“Everything I’m writing—an op-ed, a speech, even the annual report—all those things, I’m still keeping to that frame,” Friedman says. “I could give you a dozen topics, but they all relate to that.”