To say that Anne Marie Downey is an advocate for strategic communications planning would be an understatement. She’s a one-woman marching band! With the glamour of an Oscar presenter (minus the full-skirted ball gown) and with the vocal delivery style of an evangelist, Anne Marie is impossible to resist.
Sharing stories from her 25-year career, Anne Marie provided evidence, repeatedly, of the power of planning in strategic communications…with the occasional cautionary tale to show what can go wrong if a plan is neglected.
“A strategic plan aligns with an organization’s vision, direction and priorities,” says Anne Marie. “It allows us to make tough choices. No, it forces us to make tough choices.”
There were tough choices aplenty when Anne Marie worked as a consultant with a municipal client a few years back. The municipality had zoned residential developments in an area adjacent to an oil refining site. Unbeknownst to the municipal planners and the hapless residents, the ground soil was contaminated. Anne Marie arrived on the scene as the health authorities issued a warning to residents not to plant their gardens in polluted soil, just days before the May long weekend, a traditional green light time for gardeners.
You can imagine the panic that ensued! Luckily for Anne Marie as consultant, the city administration had a strategic communications plan. They knew their role. They knew how to respond.
There was pain, but they executed their plan. It was difficult work. They evacuated neighborhoods. They sold property. There were formal hearings. There was a two-year reclamation and recovery. In a follow-up citizen survey, the city administration was vindicated. “The citizens said that the city did all it could in the circumstances,” said Anne Marie.
“Plan the work, work the plan,” is Anne Marie’s mantra.
As an example of working the plan, Anne Marie recalls her first job in communications many year s ago at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton. This was decades ago in the times of premier Klein’s massive government downsizing in wake of a provincial deficit due to catastrophic falling oil prices. The Royal Alec (as it is colloquially called) was in trouble. They were admitting 92,000 patients in a facility that could accommodate only 30,000. Intense patient demand was coming from all across northern Alberta. Forty ambulances a day had to be turned away. Imagine if you were having a heart attack and the hospital turned you out?
The Hospital had been working for 10 years to make major changes. In response to the Hospital’s demands for increase d funding, the Klein government proposed a closure.
“We had 10 months until the next provincial budget,” explained Anne Marie. “Do we repeat the same strategy of the prior 10 years? Continue to ask politely for more money and get no for an answer? Or do we tick off the whole damn world?”
Something had to happen. We asked, “What is our planned future and how are we going to get there?”
The planned future did not include hospital closures. But it did include a strategic plan.
What was Anne Marie’s strategic plan? Go public. “Get government ticked with us. Front page headline: Patients stacked like cord wood at Royal Alexandra Hospital.”
We went across the north of the province to every mayor, every town hall and every strip mall,” recalled Anne Marie. “Our message was ‘Your health is at risk unless government pays up.’”
“We had to give the government every reason to say yes (to increased hospital funding),” said Anne Marie.
Of course today, the Royal Alexandra Hospital boasts ungraded rooms and well-appointed facilities. Would that have happened without a strategic communication plan? “Strategic planning requires a picture of the desired future. That was our future plan for the Hospital. We see the results now, decades afterward.”
It takes time to create a strategic communications plan. It takes time to execute the plan. It takes time to see the results. “A strategic plan drives daily decisions,” explains Anne Marie. “What you do in the short-term impacts the long term.”
On another consulting contract, Anne Marie was asked to advise a company that was merging 15 different organizations in a very tight time frame. She called for a meeting of all communications staff (many who would have no jobs at the completion of the merger.) We need a plan. The most senior staff member said we have no time to plan. “Can you imagine merging 15 organizations without a plan?” asked Anne Marie.
Time is one barrier. Another barrier is fear. Fear of accountability. Yet, referring back to the example of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, the fear of closure was greater than the fear of government disapproval. That’s why the senior leaders and the communication advisor (Anne Marie) were able to summon the courage to take a difficult stand against government. “We would never get away with it today,” reflects Anne Marie.
Anne Marie Downey is a colleague of mine in Edmonton, Alberta.