Is strategic communications a competitive weapon?

Today's tough market raises the profile and value of strategic communications planning. Ignore it at your peril.

The tone of business and government has changed. With limited resources, everyone’s forced to strategically focus on outcomes and results. Strategic communications is a “must do” and no longer a “nice to do.”

With fewer contracting opportunities, a shift towards lowest cost, technically acceptable procurements, and pressure to insource services, companies that live on government business must revisit and sharpen their message to ensure relevancy with the current political and cultural environment. They must also demonstrate cost-savings and performance metrics. To do this, messages – from proposals to the company website – must consistently and clearly communicate companies’ value and differentiators.

If you listen, you’ll notice it more and more. Strategic communications is the new mantra. Executives are talking about the importance of strategic communication, whether in reference to the need for transparency, improving service, recruiting employees, ensuring consolidated programs are successfully integrated or launching a new cloud solution.

Government leaders regularly blog about the success of their programs to demonstrate their contribution to the overall agency mission – partly as a result of increasing competitiveness and pressure on budgets. The Obama Administration uses social media and online communications to connect in real-time with citizens and partners worldwide. Leaders in all types of organizations now see that employee communication has evolved from a perfunctory component of corporate communication and human resource (HR) functions to one that is firmly tied to organizational strategies and business objectives. It’s no longer just about sharing information but is seen as necessary to drive employee behavior to achieve results by helping people understand how their work influences the success of the organization.

In all of these examples, the communicator has a strategic purpose – to shape the conversation to efficiently achieve results. If objectives aren’t understood and results aren’t communicated, the communicator risks attitudes and understanding being driven by a target audience’s self-informed perception versus what was actually intended.

Demonstrate value during times of change – differentiate by including a communications plan

Strategic communications doesn’t just happen. It happens because goals are set, success metrics are determined, target audiences are identified, messages are developed and appropriate communications channels are efficiently used to communicate a consistent message.

A company can demonstrate understanding of its government customers’ needs by proactively inserting integrated strategic communication as part of enterprise IT, change management, consolidation or human capital programs – as a differentiator and to acknowledge they know communication is important.

In government agencies, strategic communications planning, also known as outreach, should be part of every program requirement, before the program is launched. It’s one thing to build a website. It’s an entirely different (and ongoing) challenge to get people to visit the website consistently over time, and to have them walk away and do something. The website – a tactic – must be part of an overall strategy and plan that provides value and inspires action. One example is how the Small Business Administration (SBA.gov) can help small businesses find information on loans and grants, as well as help citizens learn how to start a business. SBA uses a variety of communications channels to target their different audiences and build awareness for the SBA’s website.

Desired outcomes must be defined in advance and results, good and bad, need to be communicated. Poor performance can be corrected and solid performance can be repeated to improve overall results.

Overall, effective strategic communications, framed by a communications plan, will result in the audiences’ clear understanding of the value and benefit of a change in a product, company, agency or initiative. It will methodically address, using appropriate communications channels and carefully tailored messages and sub-messages, all the constituencies you must reach to mobilize support, build acceptance and remove uncertainty.

Communications as a cost savings tool

The point about being strategic in communications is to avoid lost productivity, false starts and personal loss. Effective communications equates to a cost-benefit model and can improve the return on investment.

If you understand your customers’ and stakeholders’ desires and perceptions, you will understand which programs provide value to them and what needs to be modified to provide better value. Communications with stakeholders can support decisions on how to allocate and focus resources to reduce waste.

Underutilized programs can be promoted to increase utilization and duplicative programs or services can be eliminated – if people are aware of those services. If people don’t know a program is available, they can’t use it. Why create a program that isn’t used? Remember that “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t work in baseball or in program management.

Budget pressures and a demand for efficient management means agencies are forced to do more with less, collaborate and share resources. But, people can only share resources if they’re aware of the resources that are available. If you don’t know about something, you won’t use it. Likewise, performance efficiency can be increased if workers and citizens have access to all the information they need, versus limited access to only known sources.

A variety of communications channels, such as video and social media, can actually improve the performance of traditional broadcast media and reduce the overall cost of communicating with your stakeholders. Social media in particular is cost-effective because its viral tendency will expand communications to new audiences and enhance communications to existing audiences. With our overwhelming access to personalized media channels, it is even more relevant now to communicate where your audiences are, and reduce the amount of time and resources needed to accomplish the mission.

Where do you start?

Any effective communications program includes a consistent message thread. The message must be developed after the communicator gains a solid understanding of the various internal and external stakeholder groups and an understanding of each audience’s unique fears, resistance, desires and goals. Each audience stakeholder group should have its own tailored sub-messaging.

Messaging is deployed using communications tools or assets such as websites, presentations, brochures and media releases. To strategically communicate, individuals must develop and work from a communications plan that lays out which channels are most effective to reach each audience and when they should be leveraged. The plan provides a road map that can help establish priorities and gauge performance. Planning is the difference between conducting communications activities and implementing strategic communications.

An agency CIO may develop an internal program to communicate a vision of the organization and its objectives, the implications of internal and external changes, and guidance in achieving mission results. The CIO’s external communications program may provide citizens, partners and Congress with timely, accurate and complete information about the organization’s achievements, policies, programs and services. It may also ensure that the organization is visible, accessible and accountable to the public it serves.

The importance of correct messaging and strategic communications cannot be underestimated. In changing environments, people have questions. Their level of understanding, trust and action will vary based on how many versions of the message they hear from different sources. Quash that threat by communicating consistently with a predetermined, honest message every time. Deploy communications without consistent messaging and a strategic plan, and risk wasted resources, missed opportunities and eventual program failure.

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