PR at BCU

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You CAN always get what you want...but you have to ask in the right way

Today we have a guest post from Stephen O'Hanlon, Communications and Engagement Service Partner at Midlands and Lancashire Commissioning Support Unit, on why a comms brief shouldn't be pants...

Recently my wife and I have been trying to help our toddler understand that he will get the things he wants if he asks for them properly. Communicating with toddlers can be trying, to say the least! Often he will stroll into the room and just say ‘hungry!’, so we’ve been doing our best to try and correct this and so far, so good.

Similarly, last night he woke up crying but, when we asked what was wrong, he couldn’t articulate what had upset him. “Was it a bad dream? Your tummy? Your head?” all of which was met with more inconsolable wailing.


What, you might ask, does my toddler have to do with communications? Well, simply this: it can be very difficult to second-guess what someone wants if they are unable to articulate it effectively in a way that can be understood.


And so it is when dealing with a client brief: what they had in mind and what they put in the brief can – and often do – vary wildly.



Your briefs can't be pants

Us creative types are just that: creative. We take the brief you give us and turn your vision into reality – so what happens if the end result doesn’t match what you had envisioned? Often this is due to what’s in your head and what’s in the brief not matching. It is important, therefore, to ensure your brief is as strong as possible. If you have specific ideas of how you’d like to see the work completed, be sure to include them, or at least discuss them, to ensure they come to fruition. Be as specific as you can about what you do and do not wish to achieve, or how things should or should not look, or any particular requirements you have. The more robust your brief, the more likely you will get what you need from the process.

Communication should be two-way

Now, it’s not all down to you: it is the job of the creative to ask sufficient, in-depth questions to ensure brief and vision are aligned. Simply taking a brief without question is sure to end in disappointment for all parties: disappointment on behalf of the client because they haven’t gotten what they asked for, and disappointment on behalf of the creative because they feel they’ve worked hard on what was requested, only to be told it’s incorrect.

So, to ensure everyone walks away happy, ensure you have an active dialogue when submitting or accepting a brief. Take opportunities to really sell your idea to each other to try and come to a mutual understanding that makes the work as powerful and engaging as it deserves to be. Trust me; it’ll save a lot of headaches and needless back and forth.


Below you'll see some sample questions you can ask of each other to make sure you both get what you want.

Questions to ask the creative:

  • “Can I just check your understanding of what I’ve asked for?”
  • “So, describe to me how you see this looking once done.”
  • “This is how I imagine it, do you think that can work?”


Questions to ask the client

  • “Based on the brief, I’m thinking of this approach – is that along the lines of what you had in mind?”
  • “How creative can I be with this? I’ve had idea X, but I wanted to run it past you before doing anything to check you were on board.”
  • “You state in the brief you want X, but I know it will work better if we do Y – are you happy with that?”



You have to spend money to make money


So the old saying goes, but you’d be surprised how many people dance around the subject of money as if it is a vulgar, taboo topic of discussion.It is important,

 when assigning budget for a piece of work, no matter the size, to allocate some money for communications and engagement, whether that be for staff, the public or your stakeholders in general. Failure to do so will mean you’re caught short and have to scramble around trying to do things quickly and cheaply and, if you’ve ever seen the quality triangle, you’ll know that if things are done quickly and for as little money as possible, the quality will suffer.

So don’t be afraid to talk money – it will make everything so much clearer for everyone involved. It is important to set your stall out early, including a budget figure, so that the creative can best tailor the support to you. I’ve seen clients ask for a “basic package” – but what does that mean? A basic package for one person could be some design work, some copy writing and some translation services. For another it could mean a website review, marketing campaign and social media training. It is much better to state, as accurately as you can, both what you want and how much you can spend. This will stop the embarrassing situation where you ask for a new website, some marketing work, social media support and you’re given a quote you can’t possibly stretch to. Better instead to say “I want X, but only have £Y in the budget – what can we achieve?” – this will lead to much more open and honest dialogue where the creative will do their best to tailor support based on your need and spend, which is ideal for everyone: they make the sale, you get what you need.



Knowing the cost of everything, but the value of nothing


Which leads me to my next point: people who don’t ‘get’ comms often don’t understand why it can cost so much to do properly, nor do they truly appreciate the significant value it can add to a programme, project or organisation. And yet, when everything goes pear-shaped, what is the first excuse that is always wheeled out? “Lack of communication”. “Well, we’d have completed our work on time, but so-and-so didn’t tell us their bit was late!”; “our bit was only late because no one told us about X!” and so on. Sound familiar?

I’ve been in a number of pitches where the client said they wanted the full package of services without really considering what that might actually mean or, more importantly for them, what it might cost. It’s wonderful to see more and more clients understanding the positive difference good communications and engagement can make, but with this comes some education around what that support is worth. The creation, build, maintenance and hosting of a website isn’t a cheap endeavour; an insight-driven marketing campaign may cost a lot, but it will pay dividends in terms of engagement and return on investment and full-service consultation takes time and costs money – but doing it poorly can have all sorts of negative side effects, including exposing yourself to judicial review!

So factor all of these things in when drafting your next brief for some communications and engagement work and everyone – including you – will be much happier with the end results.


Post by: Stephen O'HanlonCommunications and Engagement Service Partner at Midlands and Lancashire Commissioning Support Unit.




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