23 Oct Four Steps to Building a Strategic Communications Capability
By Georgia Everse for Harvard Business Review, originally published on hbr.org
Do you have the confidence that every message and experience that customers have with your organization rings true and leaves a positive impression? Developing an integrated communications capability within your organization will give you just that. It will also enhance your reputation and the value of your brand. It’s essential to your business. But it’s not a simple task. The effort requires a combination of four things:
1. A strong strategic foundation: Many organizations view their communication teams as a service resource or as process enablers. Instead, communications should be viewed as a strategic imperative for high performance and growth. Leaders need to set the stage for the importance of communications with a clear mission, a statement of purpose, and objectives that convey the benefits that an integrated communications capability will bring to your organization. The obvious benefits are that you will communicate more effectively, saving time and money. But it gets better than that. Within the first year of building out her communications capability with this mindset, one CEO said a less expected — yet most valued — benefit was alignment and improved decision making for her leadership team. Ultimately — better results.
Managing communications in an integrated or system-wide way will require a new set of behaviors at all levels of your organization — behaviors that embrace a process and apply set standards for all communications efforts. This discipline can be difficult, so you’ll need a strong foundation with executive-level alignment and endorsement to get where you hope to go.
2. The right set of tools: The next step is to develop a set of tools that guide the planning and creative efforts of your internal team and their external partners, using a What/How/Who model, described below. I recommend starting with a mapping tool and a model that defines the messages and experiences you want to create (What), the means of communication you use to create them (How), and the people you need to reach to successfully do business (Who). This What/How/Who Model might seem simple, but making it visible and mapping your initiatives against it shows how complex it can be, and builds the case for integration.
The What/How/Who Model requires that plans be developed at each of the following levels:
The What of your communications requires Category Plans. This captures decisions about the nature of different corporate and product messages. Simply put, reasons why a consumer should buy your product, or information about your company. I recently worked with a CMO in a large organization who wanted to challenge his team to create consistently-integrated branded content. Category plans are the best way for this content to be made precise.
The How of your communications requires Channel Plans for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of alternative channels for delivering your message. For example, you might favor social media over traditional media if you’re hoping to reach a Generation Y audience.
The Who of your communications requires Audience Plans for the targeted audience you want to reach. This identifies specific objectives and strategies for a particular group — investors, for instance. It will allow you to plan and measure explicitly for them, while simultaneously ensuring integration with other audience initiatives.
Communications plans coupled with calendars that give an overview of corporate and marketing initiatives are vital to good coordination. One CEO described it as his “air traffic control” capability. With both in place, the benefits of integrated planning will become clear, including:
- An increased ability to resolve conflicts
- An increased ability to leverage opportunities to combine efforts for cumulative impact
- An increased ability to generate a higher return on investment
Planning needs to be further supported by a toolkit of communications standards that set the bar for creative excellence for all team members, regardless of location or function, and regardless of whether they have responsibility for internal or external communication. The tools will vary depending on the size of your organization, the degree that brand management is embodied in the decisions you make, and the number of people actually involved in the development of communications. At a minimum, you should have brand standards that give “rules to create by” for your creative team. But don’t stop there. Everyone in your organization communicates, and many of your people come in contact with customers. They can also benefit from explicit tools such as message frameworks that help them deliver strong content related to your brand position and principles of communication that will help guide their behaviors.
3. A development process: Planning and tools alone will not ensure the best results. A process that is embraced company-wide will be needed to make sure that each initiative is on target, gets off to a good start, and is reviewed at key points in its development. Enterprise-level initiatives, departmental launch initiatives and individual projects can all benefit from a disciplined communications development and launch process. It should include explicit tollgate phases such as plan approval, project initiation, concept development, creative development and production and distribution. Budget requirements, cross-functional scope, governance and performance metrics should also be woven into the process. This will allow you to prioritize efforts, keep them true to your strategy, and reduce costs by cutting wasted efforts. Process and tools enable your teams to work well together, develop their talents as communications professionals and increase their ability to materially contribute to the company’s success.
4. A team of people with the right spirit and skill set: This brings me to the final and most important requirement — assembling the right team with the knowledge and passion to do the job in an exemplary way. More often than not, I come into contact with communications leaders and team members who are miscast. They may have been high-performers in other roles, but they are not experienced in strategic communications, either through their education or their professional background. Start by appointing a person who can bring this type of leadership, who has the heart to understand the essence of the company, and who can mentor and motivate employees. Give them an executive-level position to signal the importance of this role to the organization. Recruit new players and external partners who can bring you the newest strategies, methods, and technologies, and who have the zeal to create communications that will make your company proud and help you achieve your goals.