I once worked with a client who felt like their approach to external communication wasn’t working. They were unsure as to why, much less how to fix it. Their public relations efforts just felt “off.”

This is not a unique problem. At some point, every business or organization will realize something is not working when it comes to telling their stories or trying to make meaningful connections in the community. This is especially true for those in growth mode. Fortunately, a strategic approach can help get to the bottom of these issues.

Here are a few practical steps for getting external communications back on track.

1. Name the problem.
“A problem named is a problem solved.” It is impossible to fix something when you don’t know what is broken. The first step for an organization, then, is to work to identify the problem: what exactly isn’t working? Are our public relations programs irrelevant, off-target, or otherwise misguided? Are we talking to the right people? Expending
resources on the wrong things? Even if we are on track with all of the above, are our messages coherent and appropriate? An internal deep dive combined with old- fashioned research should root out the problem.

2. Consider all parties’ points of view.
It’s easy for management to skip this step and go right into identifying solutions. That’s a mistake, however. People who feel like their perspectives were not considered on the front end are unlikely to accept decisions on the back end. In other words, it’s time to listen. Be sure to ask all stakeholders for their unique perspectives and whether anything has been missed in the process so far. One of my favorite questions, delivered earnestly, is, “Can you tell me something I don’t know?”

3. Identify potential solutions.
Here is when the ideas really start flowing. In this step, any idea is a good idea, and every suggestion, even ones made in jest, should be recorded. Team members should be encouraged to think big and worry about practicality later. The goal for now is one big list from which to start working. It is also important that ideas be kept separate from any evaluation efforts at this stage.

4. Identify the pros and cons of each option.
Now it’s time for a closer look at the plusses and minuses of each idea. The less practical ideas will quickly develop a long list of cons, and vice versa. Brutal honesty is the name of the game. Anything less than complete candor about the positives and negatives of each idea can easily push bad ideas forward and leave good ones on the chopping block.

5. Make a decision, and make a plan.
After careful analysis, it’s time to pick a winner. Often times, the chosen solution may roll several ideas into one, omnibus idea. This is the tangible upside of developing a long list of potential solutions and looking at the pros and cons. Many of them could work, and sometimes it makes sense to combine them.

Once an option has been selected, it’s time to get busy putting a plan together. The best ideas with no plans behind them tend to remain ideas, so action is required. Of course, plans that are specific, time-bound, and measureable are the most likely to be followed. If team members know what it is expected of them, including when tasks are due, the greater chances of success.

6. Measure progress, and adjust as needed.
Congratulations, you’ve made changes. Are they working? Public relations programs that don’t measure progress are bound to be ineffective. It’s important to tie activities to some kind of desired results (Increased sales? Improved attitudes? Fewer complaints?) before starting.

Of course, measurement will also indicate when programs are not working as intended. That’s actually a good thing, because no situation is static. Change will become necessary as new information becomes available or the dynamics change. The key is to keep watching and making adjustments, not just implementing tactics because they appear on a “to do” list.

Our world moves quickly these days. It’s easy to understand why organizations may feel occasionally like their efforts to communicate with various audiences are not resonating. Groups that invest the time to follow the steps above and figure out where and how they need to evolve will be rewarded with effective public relations programs that deliver intended results.