Views: Strategic communications comes of age

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STRATEGIC communications as a concept may be less than 20 years old, but there is growing recognition that disconnected, inconsistent messaging is undermining business perception and value, writes Anthony Monks, director, ITPR. A dedicated, sophisticated communications role, that pulls together stakeholder understanding, corporate objectives and measurable messaging to deliver consistent communication and continuous insight into business perception both internally and externally, is fast becoming a corporate essential.

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Strategic communications evolution

There has been a profound shift in the way business leaders view communications in recent years. Instantaneous global communications combined with the rise in stakeholder influence is accelerating C-suite awareness that communication does not operate in a vacuum.

What is the impact of a speech by the CEO to a group of city investors if it preempts key employee news yet to be delivered by the internal communications messaging campaign? Does the PR team understand how to respond to urgent events, such as the crisis in Ukraine, if there is no defined corporate communications strategy?

Initially proposed almost twenty years ago by academics such as Hallahan et al in 2004 and 2007, strategic communications reflects the expansion of communications disciplines across businesses in recent years.

Individual functions such as marketing, advertising, PR and corporate communications share both common purposes and strategies for meeting objectives. 

They differ primarily in the use of diverse communications tools and tactics – but varying levels of success can create inconsistency in message content, tone and timing.

Media convergence and technological innovation, not least the ability to collect and collate deep insight into the perceptions of different stakeholder groups, have accelerated the need to coordinate these diverse communication efforts. 

With a strategic approach, a business can deliver a consistent, consolidated methodology for communicating with and influencing all business stakeholders – both internal and external. 

In essence, strategic communication is about developing and implementing a consistent, business wide communication strategy. By leveraging big data to both understand the needs and expectations of different stakeholder groups and achieve sophisticated measurement, an organization can continuously refine and improve engagement across diverse audiences.

Purpose, intent and value

The quality of a company’s communications has an increasing influence on the bottom line. Fundamentally, the goal of strategic communications is to embed effective and consistent communication decision making and delivery to all stakeholders. Get that right, and a business can reinforce its brand, boost employee morale – and hence retention – and present a compelling organization that attracts both business partners and investors. Get it wrong, and messages are misaligned, crises are mishandled.

Strategic communications enables an organization to entrench its purpose and goals into every stakeholder communication. It ensures the diverse needs, expectations and perceptions of the audience are identified and considered. 

It assesses the constraints and opportunities, threats and environment around every source of messaging – from sales to marketing, investor relations to internal communications – and ensures every part of the organization employs the optimal tactics for each audience.

It also provides a key source of professional communications to support essential strategic decisions – and ensure they reflect the true goals of the business. Fashion brand Paul Smith, for example, has experienced a swathe of negative publicity on social media since it was revealed its shop is still open in Russia many months after the invasion of Ukraine – despite the fact that the shop is actually run as a franchise operation by a third party.

Given the increasingly interconnected global trading environment, a strategic communications practitioner will play a critical role in questioning the degree to which communications are aligned with organizational strategy, the effectiveness of communication strategies and campaigns, and the role of the organization and its stakeholders in society. 

Strategic communications’ responsibilities

The effective, consistent delivery of communication to all stakeholders can only be achieved if an organization can place every part of the target audience – internal and external – at the very heart of the communications strategy. The role of the strategic communications practitioner, therefore, is broad and demands senior level insight into business operations.

As trusted advisors to the C-suite, practitioners must create and implement strategies and initiatives to raise awareness of the organization’s impact, successes, and results. They must ensure that professional communicators within organizations are a part of strategy formulation – and undertake analysis of organizational communication to highlight areas of good and bad practice and create a more consistent, holistic approach.

A critical part of the role is to undertake stakeholder mapping and management. Every business experiences a complex mix of interconnected influences. How does the organization influence stakeholders? 

What is the stakeholders’ influence on each other, with respect to the business? What is their influence on the business? Add in the influence of competitors on stakeholders and vice versa, and strategic communications practitioners need to understand how, where and when stakeholders receive and consume communication. What are they reading? What are competitors doing and saying? 

This insight, demographic and sentiment analysis, as well as an in-depth understanding of the power of different communications disciplines, is the foundation for a strategy that proactively embraces the power of different communication styles to craft the right message for each and every audience. 

Strategic communications practitioners will also require a number of soft skills – not least the ability to navigate large organizations and act as a vital conduit between the C-suite and internal and external stakeholders. 

As an emerging discipline, individuals with a master’s degree in strategic communications are still in short supply; but talented heads of internal communications and corporate communications are rapidly expanding their expertise and experience to deliver this strategic role.

Delivering C-suite value 

With a complete and up-to-date view of every communication and engagement within and outside an organization, strategic communications can transform the C-suite’s understanding of business perception across multiple stakeholder audiences. This insight provides vital support for key strategic planning and delivers tangible bottom line benefits in key areas including employee recruitment and retention.

In times of growth, an organization with a consistent brand, persona and culture is an extremely attractive employer to work for, providing a competitive edge when talent becomes a scarce resource. 

When, as now, the economy is more challenging, this strong culture and sense of community, combined with good channels of communication, helps a business to build confidence throughout the workforce. The ability to communicate effectively and quickly to ensure employees understand decision making and feel part of a committed business, is extremely valuable in maintaining morale, sustaining productivity and avoiding the risk of losing vital individuals.

Stakeholder mapping and sentiment analysis are core components of strategic communications, providing the C-suite with unprecedented insight into the evolving experiences and perceptions of each stakeholder group, including their interactions and influence. 

This ability to understand and connect insight from different audiences is hugely powerful: for example, combining recruitment and retention data with sales, brand awareness and financial data will reveal new correlations that can transform management understanding and support proactive relationship building and management.

This continuous feedback loop transforms C-suite understanding of how a business is perceived, highlighting both risks and opportunities, across internal and external audiences. 

Overlooking strategic communication is high risk

In contrast, companies that take a reactive or tactical approach to communications are playing a dangerous game in today’s hyper-aware, hyper-connected global economy. Without strategic planning, there is no risk identification – and no plan in place to respond if and when a problem occurs.  

Indeed, the lack of cohesion between essential business disciplines/ departments itself raises the risks of problems with inconsistent timing, tone and messaging creating perception issues between different stakeholder groups.

With a purely tactical approach to communication, an organization will always be firefighting, always one step behind. Who are the stakeholders? What is the best way to communicate with each audience? What is the approval hierarchy for message creation and delivery? Has messaging been received and, if so, what is the response? 

From a lack of audience engagement to inconsistent messaging and an inability to match communication with corporate strategy and culture, this tactical approach is inefficient and ineffective for ordinary day-to-day stakeholder communication. For crisis communication, it is potentially business threatening.  

How much time is wasted while individual departments try to decide on a message and achieve consensus? Does the C-suite know how to ensure crisis messaging reflects corporate goals and culture? The wrong message or tone will go viral quickly, devastating the business’ reputation with employees, business partners, investors and the media.

Communication is strategic

Communication does not exist in a vacuum. Companies globally are now increasingly aware of the need to pull together diverse communications disciplines. They understand the power of highly considered and well planned communication. They recognize the influence of technology both to transform the timeliness and targeting of communication and to identify and track stakeholder sentiment. 

As a result, strategic communications is fast evolving from an academic discipline to a corporate essential. As organizations recognize the importance and power of communication to engage with every part of the stakeholder community, the onus is now on strategic communications practitioners to get it right.  

Over the next decade, as communication channels continue to expand and the depth of stakeholder sentiment data increases, strategic communications practitioners are set to play a vital role in transforming company perception and proving the bottom line value of this discipline to businesses of every size.

Anthony Monks is director at ITPR, a UK-based B2B technology PR consultancy.

Monks has spent almost 15 years working in corporate internal communications roles, delivering complex internal communications strategies in national and international organizations. He has successfully researched and delivered internal campaigns in the private, public and not for profit sectors, including the NHS.

Championing the importance of two-way symmetric communication, Monks is passionate about all things internal communication and advocates best practice strategic communication within organizations, of all sizes and sectors. He is an active member of both the CIPR and IOIC.