Communications Strategy

dreamstime_xs_54104060I have recently had several conversations with colleagues and clients about the importance and value of a strategic approach. One former colleague, and now friend, who leads the communications efforts for a large multi-national organization was complaining about the lack of strategic thinking from her team, many of whom are mid-20s to late 30s. She was wondering what she could do about it and whether strategic thinking can be taught.

I said that I believed that it could. It takes effort and, wait for it – strategic leadership on her part – but I think that part of the challenge of today’s fast paced, 24/7 connected world is that we don’t provide enough time to develop strategic thinkers in the workplace.

My friend was saying that she sees an excellent work ethic, strong integrity and great intentions from her team, but that their solutions and approaches are tactical in nature – and are often reactive. The conversation was interesting because in the past several months, we have had clients come to us with exactly this type of challenge. We have been asked to review communications plans, campaigns and other initiatives because what they feel is missing at their organization is the team’s ability to see the big picture, recognize opportunities – and risk – and to frame solutions or their approach within the broader organizational strategy.

Supporting people to incorporate strategic thinking is a commitment to your team – and it’s one that should be taken seriously. To begin with, it is important to encourage individuals to think things through and not just react. But, let’s be honest, this is not an easy thing to do these days with fast and furious conversations happening on social media – which is why a social media content, distribution and issues strategy is crucial. Asking for several solutions to a challenge or for an opportunity and helping people to identify the one that offers the best long-term benefit for the organization is important. It’s easy to step in and do it yourself, if you are a strategic thinker… but if you want to help develop this skill with your team, your role should be to support and provide feedback as they work through this process themselves.

Creating a culture where your team is encouraged to ask “why” and “when” questions is also a key element. The “how” usually comes out in the tactics once you have answered “why” and “when.” And when showcasing a solution or idea, having the person presenting explain what underlying strategic goal it serves and what impact it will have on internal and external stakeholders also helps to shift the thinking to the bigger picture.

Strategic thinking is a crucial skill to have in any professional role – especially in communications and, of course, in leadership. Helping your team develop and increase their strategic thinking ability is an excellent investment in the people and in the organization. The benefits of helping your team develop this skill are well worth the time and resources it takes.

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Screen shot 2013-08-13 at 8.15.04 AMI had an interesting conversation last week with someone who is doing quite a bit for his organization in the world of social media. Without giving away too many details, I will discuss his approach and my questions/response to his approach here.

This person works in a high risk, high potential for negative response environment. He is very active in pushing information out via social media and yet when I asked how he manages responses and the potential for negative responses, he laughed and said: “We don’t respond at all – and if they are negative, we just delete them when we are able.”

In our conversation, I asked him what his organization’s objective was in using social media. His response was that it was for providing information to stakeholder groups.

I asked how he identified which stakeholder groups were on which social media sites. His response was that they took the most popular and used those (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). I asked how he measures success. His response was that he doesn’t measure anything on social media, but measures how many people open his e-newsletter.

I have to admit, it was quite a disjointed conversation. I kept asking about his objectives and how these objectives would form his strategy, and I focused on the importance of measurement. He kept trying to convince me that using social media as a distribution system is a strategy. (For the record, I believe that using social media as a distribution system is a tool – not a strategy.)

There are many social media networking sites that can be of value to you in your communications planning. It’s important that using social media – even if it just means that you are monitoring it so that you know what is being said about your organization – be included in your overall communications strategy. It is only one component of your strategy and your tactical plan.

In our view, the development of a communications strategy needs to start with answering some key questions, including:

  • What is my overall objective? (What do I want my stakeholder group to know, do or think after I have informed, educated and engaged with them?)
  • Who is my target audience/community/stakeholder group?
  • How do they want/expect to receive information from your organization?
  • How interactive and engaged are they?
  • Where do they gather online and on which social networking sites?
  • How often will I communicate with the stakeholder group?
  • What will I do if there are negative responses?
  • What are the risks I am taking by reaching out? (How do I mitigate those risks?)
  • What are the resources (human and financial) that I need?
  • How interactive should my communication outreach be, relevant to specific stakeholder expectations and tools used?
  • How will I measure success? (What are the tools I will use? What are the metrics or baseline I will measure against? How often will I measure and what type of analysis will I use to understand the actions or non-actions of my stakeholder group in response to communication from my organization?)

These questions are just the start of what needs to be defined in order to develop a strategic plan for your communications outreach. And throughout the year, it is crucial that you review the success of your campaigns, initiatives and projects – and refine or even change them if you aren’t getting results.

I don’t know of any communications professional who doesn’t struggle with tight budgets or limited resources. We must be strategic to generate the most valuable results possible for each outreach. In this wired world, it just doesn’t work to simply push information out and hope someone is listening or reading. And, in my experience, pushing information out and not engaging in conversation is an issue or crisis waiting to happen.

It’s crucial to develop a strategy that clearly defines your objectives and outlines how you will measure success.

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