FCN Reflections: Building an Effective Communication Strategy

by David A. Kosub, Ph.D

On a beautiful DC spring morning last Friday, I attended my first FCN event with like-minded federal communicators buzzing around the coffee station. As the caffeine kicked in, our attention focused on the issue at hand—building effective communication strategies. In my short tenure in federal communications, I have already checked out a variety of plans and strategies, some that are quite detailed and elaborate, some that are streamlined and straight to the point. But were they effective?

It was refreshing to hear that, generally speaking, such planning and strategy tools are a critical part of an agency’s success. In using them, we drive home important points. Folks stay on message. Goals are clearly stated. And their effectiveness can be evaluated.

As a good bureaucrat, I appreciate having a clear process to follow, and the keynote speaker, Mark Phillips, the director of strategic communications for National Defense University, delivered one such process. He shared tips and advice in the form of a checklist to consider when developing your comms strategy. Key to recall is the mantra of “Research, Plan, Implement, and Evaluate.” You need to understand where you are, where you want to go, how you will get there and what stands in the way. Moreover, the strategy must reflect organizational messages and tell how to engage staff, set targets, establish budgets and create a timeline with a plan of action and milestones. Oh, and we must remember to socialize them early and often!

When strategy is presented with clear, logical and compelling narrative, senior leadership is more likely to accept your approach, especially when conveying how it is in their best professional interest and agency mission. 

I thought the dynamic discussions around when and how to be strategic in reactive environments quite useful. Panelists suggested that agencies develop generic plans to help think through scenarios and prepare for potential stakeholder reactions. Such generic plans should be tested and socialized often within the team , not simply put on the shelf to collect dust. Perhaps we, as a community of practice, can share some examples of generic plans already developed to help other agencies build on and implement them. These generic plans could add to the Next Gen Communications Planning discussion, too.

Many questions swirled in my head throughout the morning. Principal among them was how success is defined for communication strategies using an empirical and unbiased approach. Many may not consider embedding SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound) metrics when crafting communications. Moreover, “success” can be an amorphous outcome. What defines a successful communication outcome may be specific for an agency, specific on behalf of the plan’s purpose and specific to those who need to implement it. To address this, I believe having a toolkit of available metrics, outputs and outcomes—both targeted to individual cases and others more general—shared by FCN’ers could help us all better grasp this issue.

The idea of a “communications audit” intrigued me. This concept was raised a couple times during the panel discussion, but what goes into such an audit? Why would one be called for? Who is involved? What exactly is assessed, beyond the cache of communications tools available to one’s group? Maybe this is a topic for a future FCN session?

Finally, as I listened to the many conversations, I gained a better appreciation for the need for more strategic communications with the public and even those right down the hall – especially for topics which are not top of mind or do not garner press attention. However, I felt an important stakeholder was missing—our friends on the Hill. When developing an effective communications strategy, how often do communicators consider Congress, and to what extent? Just as federal communicators should use the same language when talking to each other, as was mentioned on Friday, I believe the same should go when considering Congress members, too. Success here likely comes in many forms, but chief among them is maintaining cordial, civil and hearty working relationships through clear communication channels.

It would be great to hear some others’ reflections on my reflections. See folks at the next event in May!

About the Author

David A. Kosub is an eleven-year veteran at the NIH who is strongly committed to achieving the mission of his agency. He has served in many diverse policy-oriented roles across the NIH Office of the Director and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In his current position with the NIH Office of Extramural Research, he  analyzes and interprets legislation impacting the grantee community (such as that stemming from the 21st Century Cures Act and appropriations language), responds to a wide array of comments and questions from the  public, distills intricate and detailed policy guidance into clear and comprehensive written materials (like the NIH Open Mike blog), and interviews subject-matter experts for the next All About Grants podcast to further share useful information to our applicants and awardees. In addition to his drive to help researchers unlock the mysteries of “all things NIH grants”, David is passionate about using administrative data to better inform decisions at NIH, which will inevitably affect the wider extramural research community.  Prior to these communications and outreach roles, he focused on planning for, evaluating, reporting on, and coordinating trans-NIH research priorities, particularly those addressing infectious diseases. He earned his doctorate in Immunology from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas in 2007. This research experience, which involved exploring how HIV disease progression adversely alters the innate immune system over time, strengthened his passion for biomedical science, and also inspired an interest in how public policy decisions propel research to address health concerns. When David is not deciphering the many NIH grant and research policies out there, you can find him pounding pavement across the District of Columbia while training for his next marathon somewhere around the world.