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It starts with a map: How to understand your communications ecosystem

I am often asked to run strategic communications planning sessions. Anyone who works with me knows I am disciplined about starting with strategy and not tactics. The author of and evangelist for the Smart Chart, I always design agendas to spend much more time on goals and understanding how to motivate audiences than I do deciding if we need a hashtag. I made the case in Mindful Messaging that we need to know more about the psychographics of our audiences than the demographics as that will tell us more about how they make decisions. Knowing this will give us a better chance of activating them. A piece that we often touch on but don’t really dig into, is the surround sound that will impact communications, the ecosystem in which we will be communicating. 

Understanding the ecosystem you’re communicating in is essential. As author Daniel Kahmeman recently shared, noise and other factors impact people’s decisions. It’s critical to understand these factors and develop a communications strategy accordingly. These are the steps you should take to map the ecosystem in which you’re operating.

Identify your issue

To start, have an issue in mind. You don’t want to chart the ecosystem for every issue. Get a piece of paper or open up a jamboard or your favorite virtual whiteboard. 
Think about the different circles of people you want talking about your issue
Draw a circle the size that represents how robust that conversation is today for each of your possible messengers. Consider different sectors, legislators, specific businesses, organizations within civil society, etc. For example, let’s say you want to make school lunch, which was free during the pandemic to all students, permanently free. To get this done, you might need the following circles talking about why this is important: Superintendents, teachers, parents, school nutrition directors, local elected leaders and teacher unions. Each gets a circle. Knowing which circles you need to engage focuses your effort. The size of circle tells you if you are starting conversations or steering them. 

Identify the headwinds and tailwinds

Consider what the conversation centers on. List headwinds (where it is NOT going your way) and tailwinds (where it supports your assessment of a problem/opportunity and/or a solution).

For example, many circles are talking about childcare and its importance post-pandemic. From family advocates to business leaders to legislators to news outlets, there is lots of chatter. For those wanting people to see how essential high-quality childcare is for working families, the headwinds are that this is often presented as a personal issue. One a parent or guardian needs to figure out. But there are tailwinds too, like more people saying that we need more government investment if we want full participation in the workforce. Meanwhile, some politicians say that childcare is NOT hard infrastructure, making it seem less essential to our economy (headwind). 

This issue has what I call a hot potato quality to it. By that I mean that lots of people acknowledge the problem of lack of high-quality affordable childcare, but there’s a lack of accountability about who needs to solve this. Businesses look to government. Government looks to families. And families already burdened with so many other things, look exhausted. This mapping suggests that conversations need to shift from the scale of the problem to making specific sectors responsible for solving it. This assessment will guide the focus on messaging, which facts to put forward, and which stories to tell. 

For accountability communications, it is often smart to do role model communication. Instead of highlighting the magnitude of the problem and the lack of productive action, showcase the leaders who are stepping up with creative solutions. For example, Ascend at the Aspen Institute believes all solutions to spread family prosperity should be informed by parent voices. They show leaders who are listening to parent councils as they make decisions at companies and in legislatures.  

As you evaluate headwinds and tailwinds, you are thinking about what will shape the narrative, like emerging data that elicits strong responses.  What are shared experiences people might have that they talk about with friends and family? For example, folks on the west coast are entering wildfire season, which calls to mind the link between extreme weather and climate change. This offers a tailwind to people wanting to push climate solutions. Some of these are happening now and you can build on them. Others you can anticipate. 

Consider external and internal forces

As we think about headwinds and tailwinds, we tend to think about eternal influences rather than internal ones. But as we come out of the pandemic, we see the importance of internal influences. Consider those circles of influence. Are your messengers fired up or fatigued? This brings me back to Kahneman. He writes about noise and its impact on human decisions. He says the problem with noise is its variability where judgments should be identical. Take the 2020 election. There was a singular outcome. But some people question if the election was fair. That is the result of noise.

There are three types: level noise, occasion noise, and pattern noise. For level noise, are those you want to engage optimists or pessimists? Skeptics or open-minded?  For pattern noise, this is about mood or opinion about a last big decision. For example, as many courts around the world make judgments against big oil, people you want to engage with might be more open to going after big oil as it seems that is where things are headed. For pattern noise, this is how people you want to engage see the world. If they believe we need to be tough on crime, then they are going to see rising crime rates as more problematic than someone who believes we have an overincarceration problem and that’s where we need to focus our energy. Consider again the circles you want to engage, how do concepts like noise play out in headwinds and tailwinds?

Identify windows of opportunity

As you consider the headwinds and tailwinds, note where windows might open to offer a chance to communicate about your issue. Windows are where attention may suddenly be on your issue or something adjacent enough that you can establish the connection. Ask yourself: What might these windows be, and do you actually want to take advantage of them? Take rising crime rates. As these statistics get reported (and possibly exaggerated), does this offer an opportunity to talk about criminal justice reform in a way that is useful, or will it put you on the defensive?   For those looking to change workplace practices, does the focus on “hybrid workplaces” post-pandemic offer an entry point? Use squares and add these to your virtual white board, surrounding the circles of people you want talking about your issue. 

Critically assess these windows of opportunity

All windows that open may not be ultimately beneficial. Think this out in advance and before you decide to communicate.  A heaven and hell exercise is a good one to use here. First you consider heaven. What does it look like if everything goes your way and you have exactly the conversation you want, headlines are perfect, and you draw more people towards your solutions? Then consider hell. What if everything goes wrong and your issue is misrepresented, and would-be allies turn into vocal skeptics?

Let’s look at the Shecession as a window that is open. Every time a jobs report comes out now, the media will look at participation of women in the workforce. If your issue is women’s economic development, this is a strategic window to take advantage of. Are there downsides to engaging in this? Maybe you work on young men issues, and you don’t want to pit populations against each other. You coming out and saying “what about young men?” may garner press but do the exact opposite of what you want. You may want to find other windows to move your point of view. Consider the best-case scenario. What’s the best chatter you could start around this? What would it focus on that would build support and action for what you want? Consider potential consequences too. Where can this go wrong? Could conversations turn unproductive? Could the population you are championing get stigmatized? Could there be pushback that sticks, and you find your self two steps back instead of two steps forward?

You’ll never be able to anticipate all the windows that open, and you want to be open to the unexpected. By doing the windows exercise though, you’ll likely be able to respond faster when an unexpected window opens.

Assess your virtual whiteboard

Now your virtual whiteboard should be filled. It should have different sized circles that represent the groups of people you need talking about your issue to get momentum and action. It should list for each circle headwinds and tailwinds you may need to navigate. It should have squares with windows represented where you can take advantage of focused attention, and a sense of if these windows are ones you want to be ready for or avoid.

Add in predictable timing

Finally, you want to capture predictable timelines for conversations around your issue. Put a timeline at the bottom and annotate it for the next 12-18 months. 

Decide where to focus energy

Once you know what the current state of play is and where there are strategic opportunities, you can decide where to focus energy. Maybe you want to advance conversations among circles where people are already talking about your issue, and you want them to talk about it a certain way or coalesce behind a specific solution. Maybe you want to get one of the tiny circles to take the issue more seriously. This is a bigger lift but might offer a bigger reward. Ultimately you want to know when you can engage each circle that is important and take advantage of predictable times to gain momentum around your issue, as well as take advantage of some windows that open. Assess your bandwidth, decide what is most strategic to focus on when, then let this guide your efforts. 

Repeat the process

This exercise is one you can, and should, come back to every few months. Think about the people that need to be talking about your issue. Are there new circles to add? Do the circle sizes change in the right direction or the wrong one? Are there new windows to anticipate? Anything to add to the predictable timeline when you know your issue will be front and center on people’s minds and in the media?

You are never communicating in a vacuum. The more you know about the landscape in which you’re operating, the better your chances are to productively shape conversations, so they lead where you want to go. 

Check out an example of an Ecosystem of Influence

This is for the Census in 2020. This was a snapshot of the ecosystem for advocates trying to protect it, and make sure hesitant populations felt confident in participating. 

You’ll see circles of people that needed to be talking about keeping it fair, accurate and safe. Nonprofit organizations around the country mobilized to encourage folks in their cities and states to get counted. This included civil rights groups who represented historically undercounted populations, Congressional representatives charged with oversight of the process, the staff at the Census bureau, and the platforms like Facebook and Twitter that could help or hinder efforts. For each of these, it’s important to note headwinds and tailwinds. A tailwind might be platforms’ existing content moderation rules that could be used to shut off the spigot on disinformation. A headwind is notions of free speech online, requiring a compelling case that disinfo is harming democracy, in this case, participation in the census. For the windows, we had litigation. Court cases were moving all the way to the Supreme Court on issues like the citizenship question. When there were arguments or decisions, there was a window to talk about a fair and accurate census. But we had to decide if these were windows where we could have our say or where we’d be caught up in oppositional or negative messaging. We also had some predictable timing where we believed it would naturally come up. This included a big report by the Knight Foundation, as well as start dates and end dates for counting. 

Ecosystem of influence


This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 9, 2021 at 09:07 am and is filed under Campaign planning, Coalition, connection and network building and Communication planning. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.