When Sandra Jordan, Director of Communications & Outreach for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), arrived at her job after years in the for-profit PR world, she knew just what to do first — craft a comprehensive five-year marketing plan. After all, this is the path most of us would take. And five years out makes sense as it takes time to get messages out through a bureaucracy as complex as the federal government.
Jordan’s plan incorporated all the right components — situation analysis, from a communications audit to listening tours, goals, target audience and key message definition, and rollout plans. But she ran into a glitch.
“I quickly discovered that my marketing masterpiece was far more than anyone wanted to read — so it didn’t get much attention. More importantly, as things began to change at USAID — new leadership, and an agency re-organization — I realized that my marketing approach had to change, although core communications goals and messages remained the same. It was crystal clear that depending on a five-year strategy wasn’t viable,” says Jordan.
But when the Obama administration stepped in, “the vagaries of change happen even more suddenly and quickly,” says Jordan.
Jordan is a planner — and all communicators should be. There’s no other way to ensure that you are making the best choices to advance your goals, and have the resources to bring them to life. But she clearly needed to devise another approach, one that suited the ever-changing environment at USAID.
NOTE: Most nonprofit communicators face a similar challenge in having to adapt to fast-breaking changes in their base’s interests and needs, issue arenas and related legislation. If you’re tied to a three- or five-year marketing plan, you’re going to put marketing resources in the wrong place.
Here’s how Jordan is meeting her harder-than-ever challenge: “I begin by breaking down the first year of my five-year plan into bite-sized quarterly chunks — basically a two-page action plan that allows me to keep my eye on the main prize outlined in my grand plan,” she says.
Jordan’s quarterly plans are streamlined for easy digestion. The sample I reviewed highlighted the following “to dos” for each month:
- Materials and message development in progress
- Outreach targets
- Communications production, from Web site re-design to drafting new Country Profiles
- Key conferences and meetings which USAID is attending, sponsoring or exhibiting at
- Sensitive issues
- Ideas for consideration.
Each quarterly plan is circulated with the annual list of outreach targets and the annual plan (about five pages, presenting an annual action plan in two six-month periods), to provide context for short-term activities.
Jordan has lived this approach for seven years now, periodically breaking the plan into an annual then quarterly chunks. Jordan also reviews her five-year master plan regularly, to keep on track in the bigger picture. She and her team members are now crafting the next five-year master marketing plan, which will generate, in time, 20 quarterly plans.
Breaking News — Jordan Moves to 30-Day Planning for Obama Transition
“With the transition of the administration, I’m now working on a monthly plan, because too much changes too fast. I’ll gear back up to quarterly once I know who the administrators will be, and what their needs and leanings are,” says Jordan.
These monthly plans are full of “do-right-nows,” while the quarterly plans are to-dos.
Building Awareness, Understanding and Support
To ensure that monthly and quarterly planning is on target, Jordan tracks key international events, observances and dates so she can exploit them regardless of what’s going on.
She also works closely with USAID stakeholders, including:
- Colleagues at USAID
- To hear what they think is needed. Jordan values the her colleagues’ perspective and reports out regularly to them on her results.
- Congressional staffers
- To get information on their needs, which USAID communications products they’ve put to use and train on talking points.
- Advocacy group staff members
- To review polling information on public attitudes, seek input on USAID messaging and provide monthly updates on USAID communications.
- USAID communications team members
- To solicit input and build understanding. “They have to carry out the 90-day plan, so we meet weekly to discuss what’s getting done, and how. We also assess where we are on a monthly basis, discussing whether the plan goals are achievable, alter the plan if necessary, and carry on,” says Jordan.
- Her boss
- To review progress and achievements and fine tune the quarterly plan. “My boss is much more of an action person than a process person. When I handed her my grand five-year marketing plan, I didn’t get this kind of engagement. Now, she enjoys the process, and frequently suggests great ideas,” reports Jordan.
- Partners who implement USAID programs in the field
- To provide stories and profiles that make a huge impact both in internal communications with transition team members and in pitching the media.
- Colleagues in the family planning field
- “I stay in close contact to find out what they are doing and when, and then assess if there is a way we can add value (perspective, information, experts),” says Jordan.
90-Day Planning Comes to Life — A USAID Example
Here’s how Jordan put this bite-sized approach to work following a radical change in the family planning field — the Bush administration reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy. The policy requires NGOs to agree as a condition of their receipt of Federal funds (including USAID funding) that they will not perform nor promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations.
“I knew I had to spend a full month responding to media calls and public queries, working with advocacy groups and getting information to USAID Missions in the field. Because I was planning just 90 days at a time, but in the context of a long-term framework, I was able to look at my plan and re-jigger it, without losing too much ground. To say the least, public attitudes towards USAID programs shifted dramatically, so all communications efforts were redirected to meet this new need, all without straying from our master plan focus on raising USAID’s visibility,” says Jordan.
The Obama administration is likely to rescind the policy (The policy has since been rescinded.), says Jordan, and she’s anticipating the need for new 30-day and 90-day plans any day now.
For best results, Jordan advises that “right now” practitioners do a lot of assessment on results, to get the next quarter back on track if necessary.
Here are some of the benefits USAID gets from 30- & 90-day planning:
- Makes staying on path more possible, and provides clear tracking of short-term progress
- “I’ve stayed on track better with this approach than with any other I’ve ever used,” says Jordan.
- Provides a baseline from which to track progress in her master plan.
- Enables quick re-direction of communications to follow changing politics and organization direction (vital in Jordan’s politically-charged field of family planning as in many other issue areas)
- Delivers a pithy read of Jordan’s plans to her boss.
- Highlights what USAID is doing communications wise, by breaking down the big ideas that comprise a master marketing plan into nitty-gritty execution.
“Political tides change but my goals don’t. What does change is the way I can talk about family planning issues, the outlets I use and how straightforward I can be. Approaching the plan in 30- & 90-day increments enables me to stay in tune with the vicissitudes of change and meet those demands, without straying from my master goals,” Jordan comments.
Craft a 90-Day Marketing Plan This Week
Jordan’s approach is a no-brainer for nonprofit communicators. How crazy to try to plan three to five years forward, when your working environments are changing at the speed of light. Rather than looking years ahead, then frantically attempting to re-focus when circumstances are not as you expected, try 90-day planning. Leave 30-day planning for those times when change is extreme.
90-day planning is a no-risk experiment. You have nothing to lose but the time it takes you. And frankly, this mode of planning is far less labor-intensive than traditional marketing planning, since you’re working with the real, rather than the abstract.
When you take the 90-day approach, you’ll be able to easily distinguish the vital from the “wishful thinking” initiatives. When you outline what has to happen in the next 90 days, you’ll have a much clearer picture of priorities, a realistic work plan, and the results you’ll generate.
How are you adapting your planning process to these fast-changing times?
Please leave a comment below with a brief summary of your approach today, and I’ll share with the Getting Attention community.