You know that sinking feeling you get when someone wants a comms plan but doesn't actually have a plan themselves? Don't worry. You're not alone...
“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy”.
Sometimes it just seems to be the role of the comms and marketing team to try to make the best of somebody else’s bad job.
I suspect that anyone who has ever worked in a local authority comms team has, at least once, found themselves looking at a 'client' who has just announced the launch of something, almost certainly in the next few days, and is now demanding a ‘marketing plan’.
“You know… a logo, a catchy name, a few key messages, some posters and a press release. Oh and if you can get us some pull-ups for the launch that would be great.”
What happens then is that you say things like,
“Okay. Who is your target audience”?
“Okay. What are your key outcomes?”
“Okay. How will you measure that it’s worked”?
This is the point at which it becomes fairly clear that none of the above can be answered. None of the above has even been thought about. They’re here because “something must be done”.
“Yeah, well the target audience is really sort of everyone who lives here, you know, and the outcomes are that we really want a kind of brand, to get people to sign up to stuff”…
It’s an approach to comms and marketing which means the collateral is an end in itself.
‘What did you do in the war on ignorance and disease, Daddy?’
‘I got some people to design some posters’.
‘How did those help?’
“Well, I think some people saw them”.
Baselines? Outcomes? Pah. Who needs them? We put some posters up. And did a twitter thing which is ace. We were seen to be doing something and something needed to be done. What more could there be?
It’s comms without product and comms without purpose. Comms as an end in itself. We already know the effectiveness of comms can be hard to measure in the first place, but it gets so much harder when the client has nothing particularly effective to communicate; no real product; no idea of what they are trying to achieve or for whom.
When confronted with such a ‘campaign’ or ‘product’; or worse still, an idea that “we need an umbrella brand for the whole range of stuff we’re going to do”…
(“Oh. And what is that?”)
“We haven’t actually decided yet. We kind of want a brand, and we want people to sign up and then we’ll send them things when we’ve worked them out.”
… you have that moment where you really should take the Dragons’ Den approach, put down your pen, look them square in the eyes and say, ‘we’re out’.
But it isn’t like that, is it? Because all they’re really doing is trying to deliver some cockamamie idea that probably started life somewhere else, with somebody else, designed as someone's pet project, without reference to evidence or audience, customer need or channel. It’s not thought through, and you know it’s doomed to failure.
But something must be done.
So there’s an assessment to be made, isn’t there? You have that terrible comms team choice to make - ‘do we stay or do we go’? Do we involve ourselves in this?
If we don’t they’ll only go and do it themselves; badly. But if we do it… Shudder.
Confronted with this very dilemma recently, a colleague and I worked out the answer.
It’s the local government communications team Credit Matrix.
Or the "Damned if you do; Damned if you don’t” theorem.
It looks like this:
Eddie Coates-Madden is Assistant Head of Service, Communications & Marketing at Hull City Council.