Every organisation relies on leadership to set goals, and outcomes for the company.

Management takes these directives, organises functions and set-up teams to execute on ideas and concepts that seek to deliver these goals and outcomes.

To achieve success, leadership will have to communicate and share these goals and outcomes with clarity, and in specific terms, using unambiguous language such that the organisation’s talent and workforce understand explicitly what is being asked of them.

This process lies at the heart of many organisations. While the terms and definitions used to describe the process differs widely, this is pretty much what strategic communications is.

The paradox in business when it comes to using communications.

While it seems rather straight forward to use communications consistently in an organisation, it is observed that leadership prefers not to complement their strategy-making, planning or sharing sessions with communications.

Somehow it seems better to keep that process opaque, and the sharing more “top-down” despite data and input being sought across all levels.

This leads to many organisations suffering from an execution problem because there is a lack of clarity, confusion and uncertainty about how strategy is to be translated into action and application by the various functions and teams, to achieve their goals.

Strategic communications teams play a vital role here in being able to reach across functions and teams, as well as play the role of advisor and sounding board to leadership during the planning sessions.

In fact, with the communications team present, business planning is accelerated as the scope of the ‘master’ plan can include alignment, co-ownership, execution, measurements and how these map to desired outcomes.

Communications teams can seek alignment on business goals through adopting cross-team and co-ownership approaches.

This supports the organisation pulling in the same direction, and provides the opportunity to identity key outcomes that benefit the greatest number of teams or that maps to the most relevant business goal.

With business goals and key outcomes clear, communications plans can be designed with programmes and campaigns showing the alignment and mapping. This plan can be integrated into the organisation master plan alongside a timeline and measurements and ownership of each stage, area or execution.

As with all plans, there must be a commitment to metrics and proxies that is transparent and demonstrates both efficiency and effectiveness in the use of organisation resources.

strtgcommsgrp - strategic communications plan: top-down management

A strategic communications plan is not about being ‘better’ than some competitor.

A strategic communications plan is about enabling differentiation.

Strategic communications is about the creation, coordination and supporting of the organisation as it promotes or defends the brand to customer against outcomes.

A commonly misunderstood concept about using strategic communication is the assumption that the activities to be executed is about being better than the competition.

Why is this an abuse of strategic communications?

Being better – whether incrementally or by leaps – is not strategic; being different from the competition is.

There is no requirement for strategy if our communications activations and campaigns only seek to be better than the previous iteration or with our competition. To be better, a brand would be better off looking for a more efficient project manager, a more productive executor or a more effective data presenter.

There is no issue with using previous campaigns as a baseline to improve future campaigns against. That is very much aligned with how data can help brands improve their efficiency or efficacy.

Being better though is not strategic, it is about improving operational delivery.

However, once your brand has optimised delivery and your competitors have caught up, the customer discussion will revert to price.

Instead, if a brand seeks to use strategic thinking to dominate a field or niche area, or to outperform the competition, they should look towards doing things differently.

The goal, objective, outcomes, that is, the ‘what’ in most plans are aspirations and a target board for the brand. They should not be confused with the direction and approach of achieving these aspirations, that is, the ‘how’.

Strategic thinking in communications is based on figuring out how to use campaigns, activations, tools and measurements differently from the competitor in order to provide a better service or value to the customer. It also involves meeting or overcoming the competitor’s response to your brand’s activity.

There are two ways of creating differentiation for your brand. The first is to do different activities from your competitor and the second is to do similar activities in a different way. Both ways ultimately must lead to your brand delivering far better or more value to a customer than the competitor.

What are the core elements a strategic communications plan must include?

As a baseline, a strategic communications programme is about building and executing against a master plan.

There should be objectives aligned against business goals, positioning and key messages relevant to desired outcomes, channels that will be used to communicate the messages, execution plans and measurements that demonstrate the plan is working. 

Execution can be presented as a summary since it will be covered in more detail within the separate project document.  

Measurements must be presented in a consolidated (overall) view so that overall progress can be demonstrated and a ‘by the execution’ view to understand whether the execution should continue or a team decision made to stop and move on.

There are other areas to consider as well when designing the plan:

Sidebar: Lead indicators vs. lag indicators.

For the communicator creating a plan, and for most managers in business, in our opinion, it is critical to understand the differences between lead and lag indicators.

Lag indicators include things that are easy to measure, that feels like data and are easy to track. Examples include: productivity, profit and revenue.

Lead indicators are harder to measure as they tend to be dynamic, and have multiple variables contributing to them. Examples include: customer impact (or happiness), leadership engagement (with both external and internal audiences), and the judicious use of resources (talent, budget, time and systems).

Many people lean towards lag indicators due to comfort and familiarity; and to be able to state objectively that the ‘data’ contributed to their decisions. However, without understanding the relationship between lead and lag indicators, those decisions are likely to fail.

Lead indicators are the measures that predict and contribute to the lag indicators. Without creating activities that grow/lift lead indicators, it will be more challenging for lag indicators to happen.

As a communicator, how can you use lead indicators to your advantage?

strtgcommsgrp - strategic communications plan: lead vs lag indicators

3 steps you need to do prior to putting together your strategic communications plan

Here are 3 steps you must do well prior to creating your plan.

Decide about the scope of the strategic communications plan

This step helps you decide how wide-ranging or narrow your plan has to be in support of a business goal.

Will this be an organisation-wide master plan, a business unit product launch plan or to support an internal communications initiative? Understanding the scale that the plan has to tackle provides insights into the resources i.e. project team, budgets and time required.

The parameters must be properly defined as it will influence all the subsequent steps, data and information gathered, and the execution thereafter. 

Conduct research and consultations with stakeholders

Use information and data to better understand impressions and perceptions of both internal and external stakeholders.

Research can be done through across audits, traditional research methods, interviews, focus groups and reports. The cumulative data and information received will help with both strategic and tactical choices in the plan. For external business goals, it is important that the customer is represented in the plans that are being made.

Use the data and information to create a situational analysis

A situational analysis combines all the various research and audits done in the previous step into a coherent understanding and perspective. It provides insights into the opportunities, threats, underlying risks and steps involved in amplifying positives and mitigating negatives.

We recommend at this stage to share the findings with management and co-owners of the strategic communications plan. With the information, their earlier assessments across various factors, for example, target audience, narrative, product timeline, pricing, etc., might shift. The strategic communications plan can take these shifts into perspective and address them specifically when it is put together.

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