What is a communication strategy?

So often we can get caught up writing the editorial, tweeting, designing websites, creating events or any one of the miriad of tactics available to a communication professional, we can forget the importance of a sound and effective communication strategy. I’ve had a few conversations recently with other communication professionals about strategies and plans so I’ve put my thoughts together here.

Why do we need a communication strategy?

A communication strategy provides a clear link between the business objectives and communication planning. It can help to explain what and why we are doing something.

It gives direction to the activity and can be used to explain how communication will make a difference and help the organisation achieve its objectives. It also provides consistency across tactics and messages.

If everyone understands what the strategy is, their work and efforts can be focussed on delivering it.

Effective communication strategies can keep the tactical plans on track over a long period of time, and across different teams.

A clear and effective strategy is lead by objectives. Objectives give you the measures of success so you can demonstrate what you have achieved. With this, you can evaluate your communication outcomes and show the value you will gain in allocating resource to communication.

Having a strategy will help you plan, mitigate risks, explore new opportunities and adapt to change more effectively.

What do we need to include in a communication strategy?

Sometimes it’s easier to approach this as a series of smaller more easily defined questions.

What is the problem, challenge or opportunity the organisation faces?

What are the key considerations of this problem, challenge or opportunity?

What decisions or choices have you made to reach this strategy?

And what has informed those decisions? Was it customer feedback, employee surveys, media profile…?

What do you need to deliver the strategy? Expertise, time, resources, business support, technology…?

What are the key stages of the strategy? Often in long term strategies you need to move through different phases in order to get to your ultimate aim. What are those phases and how do you know when you’ve got there?

How do you know when you have achieved your objectives? How will you evaluate your success? What is your measure? Sales, profile, calls in, survey results, reduced accidents at work…? It’s good to tie this back to what informed your strategy and objective creation.  By using the same measures used at the start you can clearly show if you have achieved the objectives.

When is a strategy not a strategy?Strategy and planning

When it is a plan. Strategies and plans are often confused, but they needn’t be. The difference is simple, although not always easy to demonstrate.

Strategy is all that’s explained above. It doesn’t include the details of activities. It is created in the wider business context and it often takes a long term view. Most commonly there will be a communication strategy which overarches the whole communication activity. This could be live for a year or more. A strategy is a living document that can change, and is available to everyone. Otherwise it won’t be adopted, and therefore delivered.

A plan is tactical. It’s about what you are doing and when. About how you will deliver the strategy. Individual project communications plans and tactics will spell out the detail for those projects but should fit under the umbrella of the strategy.

What should be included in a plan?

Again, break it down into questions which will form your headings.

Who are we talking to? Audience

What do you want them to do? Response

Why should they do it? Reason

What are we going to say to them? Message

Where will we reach them? Location? Physical or digital?

When are you going to reach them? Timing. Planning and scheduling activities is really helpful to keep on track and synchronise activities

(I like to plan my large projects into daily or weekly actions. I normally just use a spreadsheet for this, while others prefer to use a project management tool. But I like excel for scheduling, it’s infinitely adaptable and is easy to show what has been done, is being done and will be done.)

What tactics will you use? Tactics. Press, Social media, blogs, e-flyers, events… the list is long – the choice is yours and often based upon experience, business knowledge and instincts.

What will it cost? Budget

What happens if it goes wrong? Contingency. All the best laid plans… may go wrong. What will you do? If you don’t take charge of a crisis it quickly takes charge of you, so consider how the organisation will respond.

How will you measure your results? Evaluation. There are many ways to measure your results. From surveys, to ad hoc feedback with customer teams, tracking sales figures against your communication activity… There are many different and not always costly ways to demonstrate your success.

I hope that helps to clarify the difference between communication strategies and communication plans.

If you need a communication strategy or plan written and delivered, get in touch.

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