Online Programs

Life Plans vs. Communication Plans

I’m a planner. From the time I entered high school and started thinking about my future, I’ve always had a one, five and 10-year plan. To date, not a single one has come to fruition. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Call me insane; I’m still a planner.

My penchant for planning finally came in handy when I entered the workforce as a Presidential Management Fellow working in communications for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Within a few days, I realized the skills I thought were ubiquitous and instinctual were in fact coveted and quite rare.

Fast-forward a decade. Nonprofits, startups and small businesses now pay me good money to create communication plans for them, and I have the distinct honor of transferring my knowledge to American University graduate students in the online strategic communication master’s program. In my Practicum course, students work with real-world clients to research, write and deliver comprehensive strategic communication plans that solve a central problem or seize a core opportunity.

It’s hard work. A lot of my students hate me around the midway point in our course. The ones that hate me the most typically deliver the best plans, and many of them end up freelancing for their clients after the course. They typically forgive me. I could teach eight courses with the content we cover in Practicum, but we only have eight weeks. Today, I give you eight bullets.

  1. You can’t overestimate the importance of research. Research grounds your plan and provides essential context. It demonstrates to the client that you understand the environment in which it operates and into which it communicates.
  2. You should know your client’s audiences better than they do. Most clients can tell you who they’re trying to reach, but they rarely know where they live, what they read, who they trust or how they spend their money. These are questions we as strategic communicators can and should answer.
  3. Don’t be afraid of other people’s ideas. Even though I do most of my work independently, I bring others into every project at some point or another. Sometimes you’re too close to the project and simply need a sounding board; Other times you’re stumped and need an injection of creativity.
  4. Speaking of creativity. Even planners like me should exercise the right side of their brains every once in a while. Force yourself to think outside the box. Press boundaries. Challenge assumptions. Imagine possibilities.
  5. Hope is not a strategy. That was one of my DHS colleague’s favorite sayings. The most creative idea in the world doesn’t pass the strategic smell test. Strategies and tactics tied to measurable objectives that outline what must be accomplished in order to achieve the stated goal transform creativity into strategy.
  6. Take a graphic design course. Clients expect – and deserve – professional deliverables. Without a basic understanding of color theory and some basic page layout skills, that can be a tall order.
  7. Become a lifelong learner. The more I know, the more I realize how much more there is to learn. Become a student of your client. Immerse yourself in each project. Expose yourself to new ideas, new technology and new ways of thinking.
  8. Don’t undersell your expertise. Our work has merit. It is valuable. Our expertise is coveted and quite rare. Thankfully, the plans my clients pay me for have a much higher success rate than my personal one, five and 10-year plans. I probably wouldn’t have a job if they didn’t, which works out, because being unemployed is definitely not a part of the plan.

Learn more about the Strategic Communication Practicum course.

About the Author

Jamie C. Higdon is a communicator by training and trade, but a teacher at heart. She has professional experience on four continents with four government agencies and owns a boutique strategic communication planning firm in Washington, DC called Cairn Strategic Communication. Jamie loves her neighborhood in northeast DC, and is an active member of National Community Church, where she met her wonky husband with whom she has the two most adorable children on the entire planet. She has taught in American University’s School of Communication since 2011, first in the undergraduate program and now in the online MA in Strategic Communication program.

Learn more about the online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication. Call 855-725-7614 to speak to one of our admissions representatives or request more information.