Step One: Plan

I used to think life was all about spontaneity. I still do, on some level. It always seems like the great stories are the ones that result from that time you intended to have a lazy movie night with friends in college, but on a whim, drove to New Orleans and had a powdered sugar fight at Café du Monde at 1 a.m. Is that just me?

OK, spontaneity is not a bad thing. But I’ve come to appreciate a good plan too. Since I’ve been working in PR, my friends and family have become almost annoyed with my need to map things out, know what’s going on and to answer the “news advisory questions” of who, what, when and where. It’s such a common theme that my fiancé now won’t even tell me where we’re going on our honeymoon – and it’s slowly driving me crazy.

At Obsidian, planning is a great thing. Preparation for anything is even better. When we begin a relationship with a new client, we spend a lot of time on the front end getting to know them so that we can properly plan. Our planning is extensive, but it also leads to preparation. Here are the steps I usually take with new clients:

Communication analysis

The communication analysis is sometimes fondly known as the “information transfer” around here. It consists of two to three hours of getting to know the new client. This includes learning things about their business that may be helpful for reporters to know, any news items they have coming up or how their business works. It also includes learning what they’re happy to talk about or not and leads back to the preparation. For example, some companies are willing to talk about how legislation could affect their business, but others prefer to shy away from anything of the sort. Knowing this on the front end allows us to properly communicate with reporters and be more efficient with our retainer hours.

PR timeline

The PR timeline is a process. You start out really excited about a new client and all the information you’ve just gathered from the communication analysis. Then you lay out the spreadsheet, identifying ideas for every month in what is generally a yearlong relationship. After you lay out what seems like a million of them…it turns into “Hello, my name is brick wall. I’m here to hold up your process.” That’s when the rest of the team comes in for a brainstorm. I love brainstorms because it always seems to turn the brick wall into a floodgate for new and creative ideas. At the end, the timeline is fantastic and pretty useful when you’re thinking about several clients.

Brand and message development

After building a PR timeline, you generally feel like you know the client inside and out. That is very helpful for the next step: identifying key messages and the company’s brand. When we’re lucky, a new client comes in with a pretty solid marketing arsenal. They may have internal communications support, a functional website and decent brand recognition. Of course, if they don’t have those things, it can also be lucky – because that allows us to be even more creative in helping them develop it. Regardless, having the brand ready to share with the public is an integral part of the planning process. In some cases, this step – including the research often associated with it – needs to come before the timeline.

All the plans change

It’s inevitable. It usually doesn’t even take six months for a timeline to completely change. But that’s the beauty of a complete plan. If you’ve planned well, your messages are in order and your work is solid, you’re ready for anything. Oftentimes, the best opportunities to present your company as an expert or as a solution come with the unexpected. For example, a hospital, pharmacy or other health care business can’t plan for an outbreak of a certain virus. But they can be prepared to talk about treatment and prevention if it does happen.

It took me a few years to learn to use and love the plan. If I’d loved the plan back in college, I might not have taken a weeklong road trip to seven cities in four states that involved four people and a two-door sports car. (We switched cars with my friend’s dad two cities in…or we surely would have died of being cramped on a back road in Arkansas.) Now that I do love the plan, life seems much less stressful and yet, oddly spontaneous and always enjoyable.