Skip to main content Guiding strategic communication planning for 15 years and counting

The same week I started Spitfire in 2002, Chris DeCardy – my mentor and the first person to hire me many years earlier – asked if I could write up a memo about how to do communication planning. No problem! I told him I’d have it to him by the end of the week. As it turns out, it took a bit longer than that. Creating a clear, concise road map for communication planning proved to be more elusive than I’d thought. But with input from communication gurus, message whisperers and activation oracles who shared their tricks of the trade with me, I outlined a workable process that, if followed, resulted in communication magic.

Nine months after I started, the Smart Chart was born.

Now 15 years later, thousands of organizations have used the Smart Chart, giving the tool some serious field testing. We’ve seen firsthand how one well-thought-out chart resulted in fundraising that exceeded expectations. Another chart secured bipartisan support for children’s health care coverage. And we hear again and again how the Smart Chart gives overextended nonprofits a way to prioritize their communication strategies so they can make progress instead of careening from one half-baked tactic to the next.

  • Hundreds of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantees over the past 10 years have learned there is no such thing as the mythical “general public” helping them target their messages more effectively.
  • Grantees of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Ford Foundation, ClimateWorks Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation from the Philippines, India, South Africa, Indonesia, China and Mexico, among others, have shown that the Smart Chart transcends borders.
  • Program staff at organizations including Open Society Foundations, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, the Energy Foundation and others use the Smart Chart’s concepts to review grantees’ communication proposals and efforts.
  • Groups have used the Smart Chart to achieve cleaner air, combat child marriage, improve reproductive health and fight for human rights.

The Smart Chart has a following. Fans sing its praises. When advocates asked if they could translate it into Spanish, we said “si.” People approach me in bars, in airports and even on hiking trails to share stories of how they unlocked a decision maker’s value or created messaging that activated an audience using the Smart Chart. 

This kind of positive feedback makes me beam with pride. At Spitfire, we want people to be empowered by the knowledge that they can effectively plan communications that will lead to them achieving their ambitions.

What’s next, right now

As you’ll see in the latest online version, the Smart Chart is always evolving. When the Smart Chart was born, Twitter hadn’t been invented yet. Audience analysis focused on demographics rather than psychographics. Foundations were just beginning to explore the idea of digital annual reports. As things have changed over the years, we’ve updated the Smart Chart with the latest and greatest strategic practices, and many Spitfires have added their wisdom, for which I am eternally grateful.

With our most recent update, we’ve focused on making the online version as user-friendly as possible so people can do their planning on a mobile device, tablet or laptop (although we know some of you will still want to fill out a paper chart, and, yes, you can get more of them). The updated online platform walks you through each of the six steps of Spitfire’s proven planning tool, guiding you with clear examples and research-based tips. You don’t have to complete your chart in one sitting. Just save your unfinished chart and you can return to your account any time. When you’re finished, print your plan, assemble your team and get started bringing your brilliance to life.

As we look to 2018, here are five things I know now about communication planning that I wish I knew when I first wrote the Smart Chart in 2002.

1. Psychographics matter more than demographics.

I love seeing people segment the audiences they want to reach, but marketing experts say people make decisions based on their demographics only 2 percent of the time. That means 98 percent of decision-making hinges on people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. More than demographic data, psychographic information will tell you how to engage and activate the right people on important issues. It will also keep you from making missteps that alienate audiences or unwittingly disempower them.

2. Awareness is a trap if it doesn’t lead to activation.

I saw this analysis of the Six Americas highlighting the fact that 17 percent of Americans are alarmed about climate change, meaning they are very worried about the issue and strongly support action to address it. Yet among this group, only 6 percent are part of a campaign to do anything about it right now. Consider this: 17 percent of the U.S. population is 54 million people. If everyone who was alarmed was voting based on their climate concerns, calling Congress, showing up at town halls and demanding change from the brands they consume, our political arena would look very different. The National Rifle Association says it has 5 million members, and look at how they’re able to build and wield political power. We don’t need these climate worriers to just be alarmed. We need them alarmed and activated. Using communication solely to raise the alarm is a waste. Communication needs to focus on getting people to act.

3. Activation can’t happen if people feel like it will lead to nothing. 

Another poll that got my attention was one in Politicowhere I learned that after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, voters across the political spectrum support restrictions on gun ownership.

  • 87% back efforts to keep mentally ill people from purchasing guns.
  • 82% approve of keeping guns from people on the no-fly list.
  • 84% support background checks at gun shows.

Yet only 26 percent say there’s an “excellent or good chance of stricter gun control laws passing Congress in the next year or so.” In other words, even though the vast majority of people polled want action, they think it is pointless to act because they believe Congress won’t do anything. Even more concerning was this stat: “If stronger laws are enacted, just 40 percent say they think gun violence will decrease because it will be harder for ‘criminals and persons with mental-health issues’ to acquire guns.” So voters’ mindset is that even if Congress does something, it won’t make a difference. These two states of mind show how disempowered people feel. Why should they flex their civic muscles when they think it’s pointless? Other issues may have these same stumbling blocks, and groups need to come up with different communication strategies if they’re going to get past them.

4. Our brains aren’t the rational places we would like them to be.

Social science shows us that we each have beliefs and biases, a need to fit in and a sense of self – all of which make communicating and connecting a less straightforward process than it appears to be. Studies and books, some of them very user-friendly and others not so much, come out regularly. Communicators need to keep up with this new information, because it impacts everything from audience analysis to messaging to execution. There are ways to have this research spoon-fed to you, rather than feeling like you’re drinking out of a fire hose. Listen to podcasts like “Hidden Brain,” follow smarties like @danariely, @alexismcgill and @annieneimand on Twitter and read summary publications like Mindful Messaging.

5. “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” isn’t a guilty pleasure, it’s strategic.

When I am getting ready to communicate about an issue, running a media analysis to see how it’s playing out used to be my go-to strategy. Then I started running social media searches to track conversations online. And about two years ago, I started considering how the issue was presented in pop culture. What we see on TV and in movies shapes how we think about an issue. Your audiences’ viewing habits impact how they perceive issues from immigration to women’s equality to mental health. Ignoring this influential force that shapes perceptions will leave communicators with a big blind spot and missed opportunities to use pop culture moments to engage audiences in mind-changing conversations. Alfred Ironside of the Ford Foundation wrote a compelling piece about why it’s important to get people’s attention using pop culture they’re already watching. Check it out, and while you’re at it, check out andACTION

You know what you need to do. Now go do it. Happy Smart Chart-ing.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 14, 2017 at 11:14 am and is filed under Communication planning and Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.