Views: Strategic communications on the cusp of reinventing itself

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STRATEGIC communications isn’t just the “what” you say. Of course, the message is important. But anyone can throw together some communications tactics and call it a day, writes Jennifer Lemmert.

When I’m planning a communications strategy, I look at who do I want to reach (audience and stakeholders); what do I want them to do or know (call to action); how do they receive information (channel audit); when is the best time for delivery; who should be sending this message; how will this strategy fit into the long-term vision; and finally, most importantly, why should anyone care?

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Successful strategic communications will almost always be proactive, rather than reactive. As communicators, it’s our role to plan, evaluate, pressure test and refine the strategy and messaging to address the issue at hand and any potential problems that may arise.

Strategic communications marries both art and science – and is getting more precise every day. With the rise of metrics-driven social and digital media, combined with the potential of AI-enhanced opportunities, our field is on the cusp of reinventing itself yet again.

Internal and external strategic communications 

From an internal perspective, strategic communications is the cornerstone of building employee engagement and ultimately, employee loyalty and satisfaction. Well delivered communications for internal audiences are transparent, authentic and take the employee experience into consideration. Employees that regularly hear from their managers have a better sense of their place in the organization, building critical trust within the workforce. And in the reverse, when employees have the opportunity to share their honest feedback and receive a response, they feel valued and respected. 

On the external side, strategic communications is key for maintaining and enhancing an organization’s reputation and credibility with stakeholders and the general public. Organizations that are upfront and clear when communicating with boards, media, customers and shareholders are seen as more trustworthy – even (and maybe especially) in the face of crisis. An organization that communicates well is more likely to be successful in the long term than one that keeps information close to the vest. With a solid reputation in place, organizations that value strategic communications also are more effective at reaching top talent. The best and most qualified candidates will seek out an organization that is clear about its mission, vision and value proposition. 

Leadership counsel

Strategic communications experts should be prepared to offer counsel to their internal stakeholders (typically, senior leadership). Communicators should be ready to be brought into major organizational decisions after they’ve been made. In my experience, very few organizations bring communications in in the early stages of an initiative.

That’s where experience kicks in. When providing counsel, communicators have to rely on their own professional experience, market research, industry case studies and other metrics-driven guidance. 

Again, anyone can write an email or a press release. But it’s the responsibility of the strategic communications expert to evaluate and plan for every possible scenario; share the good, bad and the ugly with leadership; and pivot as needed to address any issues that may arise.

Trusted advisor 

A strategic communicator enhances the C-suite and is a trusted advisor to leadership. Executives are extremely busy running their organization day-to-day. They may even be excellent communicators. But frankly, they just don’t have time to write every speech, memo, and article that they need to produce.

Strategic communicators assume the role of researchers, content creators, producers, project managers, analysts – just to name a few. They do the end-to-end thinking about every aspect of a program, initiative or announcement to achieve maximum impact and buy-in. 

The burden is on the communications team to build trust and develop relationships with the executives they support. Communicators should be enabling senior leaders to look, sound and show up at their best – no matter the audience.

Ongoing strategic communications is effective in enhancing an organization’s brand and the reputation of its leaders. The messages that resonate with core audiences build trust in the organization over time, which in turn, increases sales, stock price, employee satisfaction, and so on. 

Prioritizing communications

It’s pretty clear when organizations don’t prioritize strategic communications from the beginning of a program or initiative – particularly when there will be negative blowback. As many major tech companies have begun shrinking their workforces, social media is full of stories and complaints: now-former employees received the news of their termination through a terse email or bizarre Zoom call. Or worse, just heard nothing at all but their company access was revoked. A truly strategic communications team would not allow a CEO to appear on camera with an ill-prepared message, then later try to mitigate his or her delivery with a press statement (like in recent memory!).

If an organization overlooks communications, they typically only answer criticism (or don’t answer at all) and only respond through their own channels. That approach undermines trust from stakeholders and customers, negatively impacting trust and the bottom line.

AI – the end of creativity?

On the new frontier of AI in strategic communications: we’re at a unique point in our industry, where some believe that AI spells the end of creativity. One reason I’ve been in strategic communications for so long is that our role is constantly changing. There are always new tools and new ways of thinking to adopt.

I’m old enough to remember when social media first soared and clients resolutely refused to be part of it. But now, social media is an essential element of any communications strategy. Anyone who is not willing to learn or adapt will certainly be left behind. Part of being strategic is looking ahead and evaluating what is best for our clients, how we can advise them based on what we’re seeing and hearing from our counterparts and trusted experts.

While AI is the latest “shiny object,” leaders will still look to us for what to say, and when and how to say it. The core principles of strategic communications have not changed for several decades; but we must constantly reinvent ourselves and our approach in order to provide the highest value to our stakeholders. And I believe that we will. 

Jennifer Lemmert is the founder of Jennifer Lemmert LLC, a communications consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. She specializes in creating transformative brand strategies, helping leaders and companies inspire action in their industries and beyond. Jennifer has nearly 20 years of experience advising international corporations and small start-ups in launching high-impact PR and communications initiatives. A mom of 3 young boys, she’s passionate about connecting with and helping other women business owners and female founders thrive.