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How you can be strategic in planning communications

The reason why communications strategies fail is that they never get implemented. They are among those documents that gather dust in some shelf in some manager’s office. Such strategies are usually a non-consultative desk-job.

Public Relations with Lenox Mhlanga

I have deliberately decided to take an academic approach in order to go back to basics. Being part of a communication consultancy for a major project has revealed certain deficiencies in the client’s communication efforts.

Delta Milayo Ndou, one of the experts at a workshop leading to the launch of the client’s strategy animatedly described the clients’ communications as, “All over the place, the right foot does not know what the left foot is doing; a lot of twerking really!”

If you know what “twerking” is then you will get the point she was making. The communications strategy we are talking about was developed through a robust consultative process that will ensure that it has a transformative impact. We will have the opportunity to discuss that strategy when it is launched at the end of the month.
We have shared in these pages the relevance of the public relations or communication function in contributing strategic value. Being strategic as a communicator elevates one from the status of taking orders, a trap that we all rue to the core.

Being strategic refers to the art or science of directing a systematic plan of action toward a specific, intended result. It entails linking clear objectives to actions, evaluated to assess the result.

Strategic communications planning, then, is the process of driving alignment between the communications function and the organisation’s core objectives. It is about deliberately engineering plans, tactics and messages to help fuel an organisation’s performance.

The communications strategy gives the communications person direction and also relevance. I have found this document essential when starting off in a new job or when launching communication campaigns.

“Being strategic is a state of mind — it’s about the discipline of taking a step back from the noise to consider how communications activities contribute to an organisation’s desired end state,” writes strategic management guru Henry Mintzbeg.

It is also about finding creative solutions to help an organisation maximise positive opportunity for profile or good will, while minimising potential risk exposure.

A strategy thus follows principles and best practices that provide direction also highly applicable to day-to-day communications management.

Effective communications do not happen by accident. The key to successful communications is through effective planning. The temptation has always been using communications in a responsive or reactive posture, what is referred to as “fire-fighting.”

However, proactive communication generates more impact at less cost and less risk to the extent that it is planned.
Communications should be designed to deliver a measurable result. One of the challenges facing communicators is justifying the budget that is invested in their activities.

Investments of resources (human or financial) in communications activities should be subject to transparency and accountability for delivering an observable, measurable result.

Communications should be focused on results, rather than activity. Often, communicators are in the business of generating stuff — speeches, media releases and promotional materials.

The communications function is much more effective when it is driven to generate results, such as increased rates of awareness, product sales, improved stakeholder relationships or strengthened internal alignment.

The tactics are important, but they are fundamentally secondary to the primary alignment of the communications function toward solid outcomes.

Communications is a support function. The worst thing an organisation can do is to put communications in a compartment or silo, such as marketing.

It’s also important not to communicate for the sake of communicating. To be strategic, communications must by definition be aligned to support and propel the organisation’s mandate and objectives.

Plan communications from the inside out. Communications planning should always include consideration of employees as a key audience. Staff can greatly contribute to communications efforts, excluding them from communications activities can be erosive to internal engagement and trust. They also make great ambassadors for the organisation.
When planning communications, consider the concept of starting from the inside, then moving out to stakeholders, such as the board of directors and other key stakeholders as priority audiences, even if ultimately a communications activity is directed toward an external audience base.

In summary, a successful strategic approach demands that you have facts to back up your recommendations. This ensures that the strategy is realistic and can be realigned to changing circumstances and environment.

Internal engagement and alignment around the strategy is essential for its success. There has to be buy-in from everyone.

The strategy should build a process for regularly assessing progress against the strategy, and reporting on achievements. It also integrates the communications into regular operations of the organisation.

And last, yet definitely not the least, a successful communications strategy demands robust investment and budgetary support for it to succeed.

l Lenox Mhlanga is a specialist communications consultant with experience working for the World Bank Group on business environment reform communications. He can be contacted at lenoxmhlanga@gmail.com.

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