Communications teams spend a great deal of time in advance of a product launch, media or investor day, or major business announcement on vetting talking points, creating collateral, reaching out to reporters, and making sure customer-facing teammates are prepared to answer questions.

I’m sure we all have a Captain Ahab memory of the white whale that spoiled a great communications plan and derailed our efforts to help the company execute an important initiative. 

Sometimes it’s the person who sends back dozens of ticky-tacky edits and insists all must be incorporated. It’s the critical platform that someone doesn’t understand and therefore is not relevant. It’s the person who goes on a two-week vacation and doesn’t provide an alternate approver or respond to your pleas as the deadline looms. Or maybe it’s the person who’s in love with a product description that makes little sense and refuses to let you position the initiative in terms of the problem it solves, preferring corporate chest-pounding instead. 

My white whale attacked back in 2011 when Bank of America announced a $5 monthly debit card fee that we learned with relief would apply to only a small percentage of unprofitable customers.

We developed great talking points for the media and customer-facing and phone representatives. The news release was about as good as you could expect for what we were announcing. But a senior executive balked at our proposal to have a simple online landing page that customers could access to see if they were subject to the fee. This was something the entire team—particularly the digital guys—thought was critical.

I still remember the glare I received (and the kick from my boss seated next to me) from that executive when I decided to die on that hill and told him we’d regret it after he said the Internet wasn’t going to be a “big deal.”

I’m sure our competitors appreciated the focus-group feedback that included a 22-year-old from Washington D.C., who launched an online petition that gathered 100,000 signatures within a week and 300,000 within a month. Other big banks quickly said they would not follow suit, as they saw successful efforts by smaller community banks and credit unions to recruit irate customers who swore they’d move. And then, a month later, we dropped the fee.

In most cases, communicators move on to the next project because of other pressing deadlines or because they’ve lost the attention of leaders they support. The good news here is that my boss agreed to let me create a “post-mortem” process to assess what went right, what didn’t, and what could be learned for future programs. 

A formal communications post-mortem, however, can pay dividends in the short term (identifying whether you’ve left opportunities on the table) and in the long term (creating a better plan for next time). Going through the process can yield changes that make it easier to survive a crisis or open lines of communication that may not have been explored in the heat of battle.

Here are the post-mortem questions I developed (with partner input), and here’s a downloadable template. Most of these are self-explanatory and are designed to identify minefields and opportunities to streamline processes in the future.

5 Post-Mortem Assessments

1. Objectives

  • What were our goals? 
  • Were they measurable?
  • How did the communications goals align with the company’s and the Line of Business’s mission and goals?
  • Did we communicate Line of Business goals to teammates?
  • Did we achieve our goals? Why or why not?

2. Partner Involvement

  • Who was involved? When did we involve them?
  • In retrospect, would we have brought them in earlier in the process (or engaged them later)?

3. Approvals and Decision-Making

  • How did we do with including governance areas in the process?
  • What changes were made as a result? By whom? 
  • Was feedback provided quickly? How about final decisions/approvals?
  • How did we overcome speed bumps? Could they have been avoided?

4. Messaging

  • Did we create different messages for different audiences? In retrospect, do we regret that decision?
  • Was everyone happy with the final messaging?
  • How did it “work” with the target audiences? How was that determined?
  • Was the message simple? Did audiences share the messages as intended?
  • Did we use social media? Owned, earned, or paid?

5. Timelines

  • Did the initiative launch on time?
  • If it was delayed, how did that impact communications?

And a final critical question is: What would you do differently next time?

Tips for Optimizing the Post-Mortem Process

1. Include Everyone

A post-mortem works best when everyone involved in the project (that means partners outside communications and agency partners if you have them) is included. You can include people who were not involved (or peripherally involved) to get fresh perspectives.

This helped us do a better job of creating meaningful metrics around certain PR activities. We pushed our agency partners to focus on engagement (actions taken) over eyeballs in dashboards prepared for senior leaders (parenthetically, a landing page would have given us critical data). 

We also became more thoughtful about who we involved in the creation and review of messaging (e.g., call-center managers); took more time to explain the goals behind initiatives to legal, compliance and governance (they can be your best friends or worst enemies); and identified (and marginalized) people who were barriers to doing good work (i.e., those who consistently derailed the approval process by failing to respond on deadline or insisting on changes based on their own editing quirks).

A post-mortem should not be designed to criticize individuals or other parts of the organization. Focus on how you can improve, not on who you can blame. The emphasis should be on learning and uncovering flaws in your process that will continue to undermine your efforts if you leave them unaddressed. You need to make this clear right from the start to achieve maximum involvement, openness, and honesty. Once you’ve done one of these reviews, it will have a reputation that will be difficult to change. 

2. Consider developing two communications plans

If you’re not already doing it, create a one-pager that highlights key components for business executives and people outside the core team to set expectations and a more detailed plan for team members. Assess later whether the one-pager needed more information.

3. Don’t wait to schedule the post-mortem

Some suggest doing it within a few days, but you need to delay long enough to assess how results are trending. I suggest doing it within a week so you can rip off the bandage while the experience is still fresh in everyone’s minds. That also gives you time to make sure every organization involved in the project gets a voice. We actually ended up scheduling the post-mortem at the beginning of project planning. If the launch date shifts, you can always reschedule. 

4. Distribute a pre-meeting questionnaire

This will help you identify key issues that need to be addressed during the meeting. This might include three things that went well and three things that didn’t. Consider using something like Survey Monkey to gather feedback anonymously. I recently did this for a client and received detailed responses from three people who likely would not have said something on the Zoom call but it helped me do a better job facilitating the meeting. And I received a few comments about the project manager that I shared separately in a way that protected the respondents.

5. Share an agenda before the meeting and ask for input on additions

If there’s an update, send it out beforehand. The meeting should include – and perhaps start with – shoutouts to team members who went above and beyond to make the project a success. It should include a review of the project goals and outcomes, particularly if you include team members who weren’t involved in the project.

6. Assign a moderator and a scheduled note-taker

You can also record the meeting and get a transcript from an organization like Rev or Otter, where you can ensure comments are assigned to the right person. The moderator can then focus on ensuring the meeting stays on track, everyone has a chance to speak, and all key issues are addressed.

The moderator should most likely have played a part in the project but shouldn’t be someone who might bring bias into the conversation (i.e., the project leader may be a potential lightning rod for criticism). A third-party facilitator could be brought in, particularly if any of the “problems” can be laid at the feet of the project leader, and the meeting should be structured so that different people can lead different parts of the discussion. Use open-ended questions and keep a close eye on the body language of other participants to see if you need to pull the string on responses. This would be a good time to identify whether there were surprises that could have been avoided.

7. Send a meeting recap to attendees

This ensures everyone is on the same page and that all key issues are addressed…and who specifically owns resolution. The recap for this and other projects should be used to ensure you identified best practices and identified opportunities for the next project. It’s also a good way to bring new members of the team up to speed on your processes and potential minefields.

Peter Osborne

Peter Osborne is the founder and principal of Friction Free Communications. He creates negotiations tools and differentiated long-form content that resolve customer pain points at each stage of the buying process and helps leaders communicate game-changing ideas to audiences hungry for a fresh point of view.

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