What to consider when you’re developing a communications strategy
Gwen McGuire + Andrea Herman
Aug 30, 2018
A communications strategy is a plan of action aimed at motivating an audience to think and behave in a manner that supports a broader business objective. When you’re faced with developing a communications strategy, it can be easy and sometimes tempting to immediately start with tactics – the “what” (a press release, social post, an infographic, etc.) and generalized results (media coverage, increased followers, an intranet story, etc.). But if the plan of action hasn’t been thought through in terms of the “why” (what your broader goals are) you’re at risk of needlessly exhausting resources and generating results that may be appealing on the surface but don’t actually serve – and may even contradict – what you ultimately need to accomplish.
The term “strategy” is often thrown around in business contexts. When it comes to strategizing for communications, there are key planning elements that will help ensure your plan is truly strategic.
Having a well articulated strategy allows you the bandwidth to get creative and thoughtful about what types of activations will help advance your goal without being overly prescriptive about what specific tactics will get the job done. Consider the following:
- Business goal
What ultimate business goal are you trying to achieve through communications? Are you launching a product? Is your organization expanding into a new territory? Are you trying to build, maintain and/or repair your company’s reputation to support sales efforts, investor confidence, or talent attraction and retention? Are you trying to galvanize a group of stakeholders around a major industry or organizational change to ensure they behave in a manner that supports – instead of detracts from – that change? Understanding this goal first and foremost and ensuring all key decisionmakers within your organization are aligned to that goal, is the first step toward creating an effective communications strategy.
- Communications objectives
Your communications objectives pertain to the thoughts, sentiments and behaviours you are trying to encourage in support of that broader organizational goal. Perhaps you are trying to build awareness for your product and cut through the clutter to ensure your brand stands out among all the rest. Or maybe you need to educate people about decisions or strategies the company is pursuing, to make it easier for them to understand and therefore embrace your value proposition. Maybe you are trying to attract the best and brightest talent to your business, but your company isn’t recognized as a strong employer. Once you know what you want people to think, feel and do in response to your brand or initiative, you have your communications objectives. It’s okay to have more than one objective, and it’s likely (preferable, in fact) that your objectives are interrelated.
- Target audiences and stakeholders
Your identified objectives should be built around “who” you are trying to influence with your communications program. Unless you’re trying to reach “everyone,” broadly generating awareness without a focus on key audiences and stakeholders is not particularly strategic and is unlikely to yield the desired outcomes. Once you truly understand and articulate who your audiences are, you may find that success looks quite different than what you initially envisioned. Clearly establishing this target group will be instrumental in selecting the appropriate communications channels and messages you employ. It will also inform sub-elements of the strategy including how you deliver key content.
This is where you establish in broad terms how you plan to reach your key audiences, to meet your communications objectives – to ultimately achieve your business objectives. Where do your audiences get their information and what is the best way to grab their attention? Will a representative of your organization effectively persuade them? Or would a third-party expert or influencer be more credible? What assets and communications platforms (e.g. website, marketing and sales collateral) do you have at your disposal that you can leverage and/or align with? It’s imperative to be clear on these aspects before developing your tactical plan – to ensure your outputs both reach and resonate with your targets.
- Core narrative
An important step in developing your approach is to confirm your core or master narrative. In the communications field, we also sometimes call these our key messages. What is the big picture story? Why is it important and/or unique? How does your product, announcement or business plan positively impact your stakeholders – and/or the broader industry in which you operate? What experience, expertise, research, or performance metrics make your organization a reliable and credible source of this information? Establishing this core position is integral to the strategy and will ultimately inform all other content and ensure consistency when you get into execution mode.
Defining success and identifying meaningful Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) at the outset will later help you determine if your approach has been effective. You can then track your progress against pre-determined milestones or benchmarks, course correct and reallocate resources along the way if needed, and ultimately evaluate the overall success of the strategy (which will hopefully give you a reason to celebrate!).
Impactful communications mandates can be complex and multi-faceted. Ultimately, maintaining clarity on your overarching objectives, who you’re trying to reach and with what story, will keep you on track as you determine your tactical plan and outputs – and maximize your success and return on investment.