Strategic Communications

Know the Fundamentals Before You Begin

By Mark Webster, former Director of Communication at Emerson Human Capital

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” -George Bernard Shaw

Whether your organization is a small non-profit or a large corporation, it needs to communicate strategically to get its message out. Without a strategic component to a communication plan, there is great risk of simply reacting to external events (usually criticism) in crisis-mode with offmessage communication that fails to convey your value proposition. The following seven steps should help you understand strategic communications as a fundamental necessity of any communication plan. Clarifying strategic goals, understanding target audiences, assessing existing performance and ensuring alignment among key stakeholders all needs to occur prior to communicating your message.

1. Understand the Basics

Strategic communication planning is not about creating a marketing or media plan. It is more fundamental than that; identifying and aligning critical elements before you start communicating. It is one component of a larger strategy for communicating organizational change, addressing challenges or emphasizing your value proposition. Strategic communication planning serves both internal and external audiences. It can only succeed if it follows an articulated, agreed upon strategy or vision that has the support of key organizational leaders. Even with strategy and alignment in place, many will think your effort is obvious, unneeded or finished before it really begins. Completing steps 2-7 can alleviate that, especially when following these additional basic communication tenants:

  • Recognize organizational culture and communication style
  • Use simple language, avoid jargon and stress concrete examples
  • Employ human angles and third party validation as much as possible
  • Repeat, reiterate and constantly reinforce the examples and terms you choose

2. Ask the Tough Questions

To quote Maria Von Trapp, “let’s start at the very beginning.” By asking these questions and assimilating real data you gather, you can determine communication priorities.
  • Review your current mission statement, strategic goals, vision or value statements and current messages. Are they working?
  • How well positioned are you with your target audience? If your organization has conducted focus groups or polling, make sure to review the results.
  • Are there threats to your organization? If there is a new strategy to address those threats, get a copy.
  • Who are your key stakeholders? What are their information needs? Is there a plan to keep them informed and aligned?

3. Figure Out Your Audience

Two major communication challenges prevent organizations from achieving their strategic vision. The first is failure to understand a target audience; the second is poor message development (see Step 4).

There are two roadblocks to reaching the right target audience.

  • Confusing a target audience with key stakeholders – Key stakeholders need to know and agree with the strategy and receive updates on progress; target audiences simply need to receive messages that increase the likelihood of their support.
  • Preaching to the choir, or conversely, engaging your so-called “enemies” – Neither approach will bring the result you need. Your opponents will not budge and your supporters do not need to.

Political communicators use a 1-5 scale to label voters, appropriately finetuning the audience to those who are persuadable and will mean the difference between winning and losing. Conducting an audience analysis – empirically or anecdotally – helps understand whom you are targeting and informs the development of compelling messages to influence their opinions.

4. Develop Messages

Once you agree upon a target audience and understand an organization’s strategic goals, mission and vision, challenges, position, and culture, you can begin message creation. A wellcrafted message is the fundamental building block of all successful communication efforts, including advertising, marketing and public relations. Being off message, focusing too much on answering critics or highlighting issues unrelated to message are common occurrences.

Messages need to be short, simple and easy to remember. They are the 30-second “elevator speech,” the distillation of everything into simple, compelling, declarative points. By their nature, successful messages invariably leave important information on the cutting room floor. A message should not restate everything an organization does nor should it simply repeat strategic objectives.

Message points are cheat sheets to help stakeholders remember their competitive advantage. This safe harbor is also a tool to grab the attention of a target audience. Because you should not overburden your audience with too much information, think of messages like pieces of meat used to distract the dog guarding the jewels. They are the best arguments you have to grab someone’s attention, refute weaknesses, highlight strengths – and steal the jewels – whether these gems are opinions, patronage, support or simply goodwill.

Here are some tips for developing messages:

  • Involve key organizational stakeholders to capture their insights and get their buy-in
  • Highlight strengths, advantages and successes
  • Identify potential problems and weaknesses and seek to refute them
  • Focus on human stories with local angles
  • Use a shape such a box or triangle to confine messages to three or four major points
  • Choose facts, quotes, key words and examples under major message points (or sides to your triangle or box) to buttress each argument
  • Fit your message on one side of an index card

5. Analyze Existing Tools

Take an inventory of communication vehicles including websites, direct marketing materials and other documents; assess their effectiveness. Look at other resources not currently viewed as communication tools – from the bulletin board to employee newsletters; from vehicles of affiliated organizations to those associated with key stakeholders. Listing all the communication opportunities can be an eyeopening experience.

Also, inventory and assess tools focusing on stakeholders. How do key players currently receive updates on action items? If sporadic or slip-shod (or off message), executive alignment for your strategy can crumble, competitors can gain an edge, or loyal fans can be lost. A simple status map, outlining progress and activities on a monthly basis, not only keeps stakeholders informed, but also highlights best practices giving them ideas on how to participate more effectively.

6. Create a Communication Plan

After incorporating strategy into your communications (understanding your audience, developing a message and inventorying communication tools) it is time to create a plan. Many think of a media plan, with a media list, ideas for press, features, news conferences, events, etc. as a communication plan. In reality, a media plan is just one component of an effective communication plan.

A communication plan is literally a synthesis of your communication activities, internal and external, at a very high level. A calendar approach, either annually, quarterly or monthly, provides an overview of your communication efforts. This snapshot can then inform key stakeholders about progress to increase support and alignment.

A communication plan also helps prioritize and schedule events within your control at the appropriate time. Use different colors or symbols to fill in your communication calendar with some of the following information:

  • Deadlines for internal deliverables
  • Dates for organization- wide activities
  • External events that could impact your communication
  • Planned media events or activities

7. Implement the Plan

Many excellent communication plans just gather dust. Since the hard work is over, not following through is a shame. Just get started, revisiting your plan quarterly to make adjustments and updates. Share these updates with key stakeholders, along with any clips, coverage or internal feedback you receive. There will be bumps along the way, stakeholders will get out of alignment, events will take you off track and you may be forced to react to events rather than proactively getting your well-crafted message out. Expect distractions and remain focused on your strategy.

In conclusion, strategic communication is both science and art. Understanding its role in the aligning key stakeholders, targeting the right audience and developing compelling message can often be the difference between success and failure of ideas, products, campaigns and strategic objectives.

Mark Webster, former Director of Communication at Emerson Human Capital, has over two decades experience developing messages for corporate, non-profit and political clients around the world.