Mary Deming Barber

Ask These Questions to Gain Better Communications Results

By: Mary Deming Barber | January 24, 2019 | 
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Communications ResultsAs strategic communications professionals, PR practitioners, or whatever you want to call yourself, we are sometimes our own worst enemies.

There are many days when we experience whiplash from those pulling us in all different directions.

Send a blog post! Write a news release! Get on Facebook! Write me a speech! Place this advertising!

There will be times when these directives are proper and necessary.

But most of the time, we do ourselves and our profession a disservice when we blindly act on the direction given.

We’re not short-order cooks. And trying to act like we are means, ultimately, we’re most likely not moving in any direction at all.

If you don’t understand where you’re going, you can’t possibly understand how to get there. Or even know when you arrive.

By the same token, if your boss or a client tells you to write a news release but you have no idea of the broader context, it will not succeed except through blind luck.

Even worse, your boss or client won’t understand the value you bring to the table.

As strategic communications professionals, we must ask better questions that will help us understand how our toolbox of skills can gain better communications results.

Hence, there are two ways to go about this.

Reframe Your Questions for Communications Results

Option one is to act from a child’s perspective and continue asking “why” until you get the answers you need to be smart.

And while you might get your answers, you might also gain a bad reputation at best, or more likely, a trip to the unemployment line.

The more promising option is to frame your questions more professionally:

  • What do you hope to achieve from this news release?
  • What is the story you want me to tell?
  • What is the news? What are the facts?
  • What does success look like?
  • Whom do you want to know this information?
  • What’s the timeline?

I’m focusing on media coverage. But I hope you’ll see that by getting more answers and information you’re in a position to offer suggestions which increase your value to management as a strategic partner.

You are now able to discuss opportunities available in paid, owned, and shared media, and potential partnerships—not to mention communications results that prove your work is an investment.

Ask and Get the Information You Need

There are a number of different questions you can ask to get the information you need.

The idea is to have a conversation showing your interest. By doing this, you can teach your manager about what information you need to be most effective.

Consider this scenario. The CEO asks you to write a news release about a new senior vice president of sales for your company.

You have two choices:

  1. Write a basic “new hire” news release that gets sent to the local paper and tossed. Or a better bet, it’s listed on their website or buried in the business news.
  2. Ask the CEO if there’s a particular reason or project driving the hire of the new VP. Gain an understanding of those reasons and the skills the new hire brings to the company. Now you have the information you need to pitch the story to the editor of the business journal. Now create a feature story about the VP for the company website and newsletter. Secure a speaking opportunity for the VP at the local Chamber of Commerce. You should then offer to be part of the planning team for rolling out the project to the target audience. And that’s just for starters.

To be successful, not only do we need to see the “real story” but to also see beyond it and how communications fit into the bigger picture.

We need to be able to listen to what’s being said and hear how it affects communications results.

When we do this, we gain respect as professionals and earn our seat at the table. When we don’t, we remain the order takers.

Asking Better Questions Aids Consultants

Consultants or agency professionals can find themselves in a slightly different scenario but seeing the same drastic communications results.

Outside consultants may be caught in the middle because they don’t have access to the C-suite.

Likewise, they receive their tasks from a mid-level manager who has an unimaginably busy day.

And, if that manager can’t provide answers, the contractor is under pressure to complete the assigned task with little to no direction.

This time, the process outlined above is effective, but it’s handled differently.

Furthermore, it makes the client look good in the eyes of management, oftentimes resulting in more paying work for the contractor.

And now, the client will push for inclusion in more decision-making meetings.

Here’s how it works:

  • Use questions to make sure they understand how management perception of them will change if they can show their strategic side more fully.
  • Explain how much more effective you can be with an understanding of the full picture. You’ll be able to write a better release and be able to recommend tactics to meet business goals more effectively.
  • Become a partner with the client rather than an order taker. Work together to make everyone look good and help the company achieve its goals.
  • Do this, and you’ll increase your billings with the client.

In short, ask questions. Actively listen. Hear the responses. Then, you’ll know you’re moving in the same direction as management, with communications results to prove it.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

About Mary Deming Barber


Mary Deming Barber is a strategic communications/PR professional who understands how to integrate new media into traditional communication programs. Mary has worked with a variety of commodity boards, companies, and agencies during her more than 40 years in the industry. After 23 years in Alaska, she returned to Washington state where she's enjoying the area and especially being closer to family.