Why spend time and effort on planning? As communicators, we always have so much to do, so why not just get on with it? However, planning is essential to achieve better results. And this article explains why and how to make communication planning directly support organizational strategic planning for best results.
The most valuable aspect of planning is that you control activity based on the plan. There are several other good reasons for committing to plan, as Prof. Anne Gregory notes in her book, Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns:
- Planning focuses effort on the most important things to think and do. As a result, you are working efficiently and effectively. You are working on the right things, and within your agreed budget and time. You are less likely to go over budget or fall behind deadline. And you are clearer about which other less-important activities you might have to delay or forgo when you are focusing on planned priorities.
- Planning enables you to look ahead and take a longer-term view about your activities and gain greater perspective on the effectiveness of communication.
- You can demonstrate the value of past PR achievements by showing how they met planned objectives within agreed time and budget. This helps you make a case for approval and funding for future activities.
- Planning reduces the number of problems. Good planning takes into account possible problems and should indicate ways you can reduce the chance of perceived risks in the preparation and delivery of PR activities.
- The risk of possible conflicts is reduced. Planning helps you consider possible difficulties before they arise, and so you can act early to reduce and resolve potential conflicts.
- Planning enables you to be proactive. By thinking ahead, you can set the agenda for communication-related activities. This means you are not on the back foot having to respond to other people’s intentions and actions. You can decide what you want to do, and increase the chances of getting decision-makers’ approval before other people try to get priority.
Step up to a strategic level
There is no doubt CEOs want corporate communication heads to think more strategically. Feedback from CEOs and managers in various studies consistently shows this. In interviews conducted with CEOs of organizations assessed as having the best public relations / corporate communication functions, the CEOs were asked specifically what contribution comms made to the achievement of organizational goals. Their responses showed that the most effective departments participated fully in strategic management by scanning the social, political, and institutional environment of the organization to bring an outside perspective to strategic decision-marking and follow up.
However, these studies also revealed most corporate communication heads don’t participate fully in strategic planning and management due to their lack of knowledge and its application. No wonder: over half (55%) don’t prepare written annual internal communication plans, and a third (35%) don’t even prepare a written plan for key comms campaigns, according to the 2020 Gatehouse State of the Sector survey. A staggering 15% of respondents admitted they don’t conduct any formal planning at all.
Also, the perceptions of many CEOs are that the communication head focuses on communication goals and objectives without necessarily linking them to the achievement of business goals – therefore they don’t appear to contribute to the bottom line. Such comms heads generally perceive their work as fire-fighting – as ‘doing’ or implementing – their thinking is tactical rather than strategic. Thus, the intelligence obtained is not integrated into strategies at the organization level. They need to start thinking more strategically.
Loose use of ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic’
‘Strategy’ and ‘strategic’ often are loosely used terms in public relations and communication management. Communicators are prone to use the words because they sound high-level, businesslike and profound to their senior management and clients (as in ‘strategic messages’ or ‘strategic direction,’ or to describe activities, as in ‘communication strategy.’ They can be used as political terms organizationally and have connotations of power. Communicators may use the words in a tactical sense, or they may just misunderstand the meaning in a communication context, and really mean an aim, purpose or objective. The upshot is they don’t engage enough in actual strategic thinking.
Strategic thinking is the process organizational decision makers use to set direction and articulate their vision. Strategic planning is not strategic thinking. Strategic thinking drives strategic planning, which then converts the thinking into action. It is about problem solving in unstructured situations, involving intuition and creativity. Then strategic planning should be used to convert into action the strategies created by strategic thinking. Some of these include scenario planning and activities like reviewing what can be created from what you have already, discussing where you want to be, extrapolating from today, looking closely at emerging trends and events, seeking perspectives from multiple sources, brainstorming responses to technical impacts such as digital availability, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the internet) etc. Studies have even shown that some of the most effective managers rely on some of the softest forms of information, including gossip, hearsay, and various other intangible scraps of information to feed into their high-level thinking.
Case study – Amazon’s strategic thinking
One recent example of surprising strategic thinking is the way Amazon has changed its strategy for home deliveries (high-tech in reverse), as reported in the New York Times’ ‘On Tech’ email newsletter of 2 September 2020:
Seven years ago, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos predicted a major leap forward for his company – drone deliveries of lipstick and books to your door.
But since then, Amazon has transformed home delivery without as much buzz. It effectively built from scratch its own network of package centers, trucks and delivery vans that now handle a majority of Amazon customer orders.
Image sourced from Amazon: Vans being loaded in warehouse.
That attention-grabbing drone technology has barely gotten off the ground and might never be widespread. Using remote-controlled aerial gizmos to drop stuff at our homes proved to be incredibly difficult, prone to risk and potentially more trouble than it’s worth. And drones might never be practical for deliveries when someone in a vehicle could do the same thing in a fraction of the time and cost.
While we were eager for innovation from the skies, Amazon delivered something just as innovative with nuts and bolts. It proves that banal stuff can be the biggest marvels. It was a remarkable remaking of Amazon, and in my mind it’s the biggest, least flashy change in e-commerce in years.
That’s the reality of technological changes. The fanciful stuff that we imagine will be pure and clean may never come to pass. And the biggest innovations are duller and potentially messier.
Successful strategy is not the elegant implementation of a well thought-out plan, or a choreographic dance, as some would suggest, but rather an inelegant process of going along a path while being buffeted by a strong wind.
– Ortmann & Salzman, 2002, cited in Wehmeier, 2006.
Organizational strategy is a broad concept and therefore difficult to define simply. Renowned US management consultant and thinker, Peter Drucker, thought of strategy as an indication of an organization’s positioning for the future, deciding what should be done rather than how it should be done. Another suggested view is that strategy is ‘the determination of the basic long-term goals and objectives of an enterprise, and the adoption of courses of action and the allocation of resources necessary for carrying out these goals’ (Xavier, Johnston and Patel (2005). Strategy development takes place at different organizational levels, and different stakeholders are addressed by different levels of strategy.
Why engage in organizational strategic planning?
The most obvious reason is for strategic planning at the organizational level is the need for coordination, to ensure that everyone in the organization is heading in the same direction. Plans can also be used to gain the tangible as well as moral support of influential external stakeholders. Written plans inform financiers, suppliers, government agencies and others about the intentions of the organization, so these groups can support achievement of its plans. In the implementation phase, the strategy is turned into reality through more detailed and short-term plans at progressively lower operating levels of the organization.
Strategic plans are symbolic declarations that the strategists have thought carefully about problems and have used their knowledge and power to resolve those problems. The act of making a plan is to claim expertise because planning requires the participants to know how to resolve problematic situations
Planning is a deeply political process in which it is highly desirable for the head of the communication function to participate. Yet, most of the PR literature tends to emphasize operational planning rather than strategy formulation. The dominant view of strategy found in public relations and corporate communication over the years is that strategy is planning, and that the strategic planning process is logical and sequential.
What organizational strategic planning is about
Strategic planning usually has five attributes:
1. It deals with fundamental or basic issues, providing answers to core questions such as:
- What business are we in?
- What business should we be in?
- What are we good at?
- Who are our customers?
- Who should our customers be?
- What products and services do we deliver?
- What products and services should we deliver?
- What products and services should we not deliver?
- How should we best deliver the products and services we do deliver?
- Will people profitably pay us for this?
- What is our competitive advantage—how are we special?
2. It provides a framework for more detailed planning and for day-to-day managerial decisions.
3. It involves a medium to long-term time frame.
4. It provides coherence and momentum to an organization’s actions and decisions over time.
5. It is a high-level activity because it involves senior management. In principle, only senior managers have access to the information necessary to consider all aspects of the organization. (However, they invariably lack knowledge of frontline, customer-facing issues, which can cause blind spots in decision-maker knowledge.) Therefore, it is important to maintain two-way communication between strategy levels to ensure top management know what is happening in the frontline. Also, demonstrated commitment from the top via the CEO/Managing Director or Chairman is needed in order to generate commitment at lower levels within the organization.
3 key strategy levels – corporate, business and functional
Basing strategy on three clear levels can be applied in all organizations except the largest, which may use 5 levels of strategy – typically: enterprise-level (the whole organization), corporate, business-unit, functional and operational levels. Here are the 3 most widely used strategy levels:
Image: Cascade Strategy
1. Corporate-strategy level
Corporate strategy is the highest and most broad-ranging strategy level. The scope of the corporate strategy level is about the whole of the organization, where decisions are made about the overall growth and direction of organizations. The corporate strategy will define the overall direction of the organization and the high-level plans of how it will achieve this. These plans are usually created at the top level by the CEO and top management, who have a deep understanding of the company and the strategic business knowledge needed to steer the organization in the right direction. Strategies at this level envision the future more than business and functional area strategies do, usually for around the next 3-5 years. A corporate strategic plan will generally include:
- An overall vision and mission for the organization
- Corporate values
- Corporate goals
- Allocation of resources – organizational budgets and staffing levels.
By defining a clear corporate strategy, organizations can improve decision making and motivate their employees. Without clearly defined strategies at a corporate level, business and functional level units will perform less effectively. The broad decision making at the corporate level will produce better results at other decision making levels, and help employees to feel their organization has a clear direction and purpose.
2. Business-strategy level
Image: Cascade Strategy.
The business-level strategy is the second-highest level in strategy, converting high-level strategic goals into the needs and capabilities of specific business units for organizations with more than one business unit. The business strategy level turns a corporate-level strategic goal such as ‘increasing market share [of the product or service] in a given region or demographic,’ into a more specific, practical goal-based on business level knowledge and experience. Business level strategy is heavily focused on customers, as well as the core competencies of a business.
Who creates business level strategies?
These strategies should be developed by the heads of business units and their middle managers. It is important to include managers from each unit to participate in the strategy process because this increases their support, and they feel included in the process of decision making. Therefore, they are more likely to accept the strategy and take responsibility for its implementation. If your organization only has one business unit, you don’t need to worry about this strategy level – and can head straight to the functional strategy level.
Business-level strategy points to opportunities to provide value to customers and gain competitive advantage in individual business areas. This is in contrast to corporate level strategies which might look at several markets and broader concepts that apply to the entire organization.
While the corporate-level strategy is concerned mainly with defining the strategic direction of the entire organization – business level strategy is focused on market potential for a specific business unit. The example below shows how a bank would use strategy levels in their organization:
Image: Cascade Strategy.
Cascading business-level strategy to functional-level strategy
Ultimately, business level strategy is where the broad strategic directions developed at the corporate level are converted into meaningful, specific initiatives – turning ideas into real-world value. The business strategy needs to be cascaded down to functional departments, so functional-level strategy can be created. Your functional-level strategy will start to address the specific actions that functional departments will take to achieve strategic objectives and projects in the business strategy.
The business strategy should first be shared and communicated with the heads of functional departments, who will then need to use the strategic goals and objectives and projects from the business strategy that relate to their department, to feed into their focus areas. They are then able to develop their own strategies and tactics to achieve in these focus areas, which should flow up to help achieve the strategic objectives and projects in the business strategy.
3. Functional-strategy level
At the functional level, strategies and goals from the corporate and business level are turned into meaningful, functional results that ultimately determine outcomes for the organization. This level relates to the operational or tactical activities of the organization, where lower-level, practical decisions and concerns are reviewed. Functional strategy should be the last strategy level created, because it defines the how, after corporate strategy has defined the where, and business strategy the what.
In simple terms, this strategy guides the day-to-day work of employees and will ultimately keep the organization moving in the right direction. The functional strategy level is probably the most important level of strategy. This is because, without effective functional strategies, your organization can quickly lose traction and ‘get stuck’.
The function level can include marketing, finance, production, IT, HR, corporate communication, etc. An example of the functional level in place is when a retail company might have regional, district or even store managers responsible for functional decisions and activities relating to their area of the business.
Image: Cascade Strategy.
The functional areas contribute to the other strategy levels in a two-flow of information. Typical functions are noted above. The scope of functional strategy is fairly limited, with goals for each function. Ultimately, the success of functional level strategies directly contribute to the success of your organization’s corporate level strategy. Even the most well designed corporate level strategies will fail to produce results if functional level strategy is insufficiently well addressed, poorly aligned, or poorly executed (or all three).
Two-way information and influence flow enabled by good communication
Aligning functional strategy with corporate strategy
Ultimately, functional level strategy is a core component of any corporate strategy. Strategic plans at the corporate level are slightly abstract, generally containing a broad-ranging vision. The resulting high-level organizational goals and objectives can be difficult to convert into reality. For organizations to implement their corporate strategy and achieve these high-level goals (and ultimately their vision), they need to further split these goals into clear and concise actions. This is where functional strategy enters the picture. Taking the time to understand functional level needs and goals/objectives will pay off in the long term. Developing successful functional strategy can be difficult. Fortunately, you can take these 5 steps to ensure successfully aligned functional strategy:
- Share and communicate corporate strategy with functional unit leaders. A strategy explanation meeting should be held between organizational and functional leaders to put everyone in the picture.
- Functional leaders begin formulating strategy. Department heads should be given the time to interpret the goals and objectives they have received from the corporate strategy and to begin formulating a functional strategy for achieving these goals and objectives. In the process of creating functional strategy, department heads should pay special attention to the support they will need from different departments. The key components of functional strategy should include:
- Goals and SMART objectives
- Projects or work plans for each goal and objective
- Ownership and accountability for every action and decision in the strategy
- Timelines and milestones
- Actively promote communication. Two-way communication is vital to the success of corporate strategy. Horizontal communication, as well as top-down communication is generally easier to achieve than truly two-way vertical communication. It is important to consider the needs of the various parties involved, as well as clearly defining which parties should be involved. Taking the time to cultivate this communication is important in creating an effective functional-level strategic plan.
- Revise functional and corporate-level strategies. At this point in the process, corporate and functional leaders should meet again to share and review functional strategy and how it aligns with corporate strategy. Important questions to address are: Are functional goals and objectives too narrow or too broad? Are your goals and objectives optimistic? How does this functional objective contribute to the corporate strategy? Asking these questions can create the difference from a cohesive relationship between corporate and functional strategy, and one that is poorly aligned and ineffective. Corporate leaders should provide feedback and recommendations to ensure close alignment between the strategy levels.
- Implement proposed changes to functional strategy. In the review process, some objectives in the functional strategy may not clearly align with corporate-level objectives. Therefore, even if departments successfully execute and achieve these objectives, they won’t lead to successfully achieved corporate objectives. In this case, the objective probably needs to go. Having objectives that don’t align with corporate goals and objectives will take time and attention away from the goals and objectives that do contribute to the success of the corporate strategy. Everything done has an opportunity cost, which is why alignment between strategy levels is so important. Functional leaders should change their strategies based on the feedback from the previous step.
Communication is complex, fluid and often misunderstood. It is a function, but it is also a constitutive part of organisations and organising in a way that other professions are not. It is perfectly possible for organisations to operate without buildings, money or products, but it is not possible for them to exist without communication.
– Professor Anne Gregory, former Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management
In the same way as organizational strategic thinking takes place before strategic planning, public relations / corporate communication strategy should start with the strategic thinking that should be held before the strategic communication planning starts. The strategic thinking process involves blending – putting the pieces of the puzzle together. It involves decisions on why communication is necessary, what is the aim of the communication, who needs to be communicated with, what needs to be communicated. It is not about identifying the specifics of programs and campaigns because these belong in the operational analysis and planning. Instead, it should be about thinking how communication can be used to solve organizational problems or to capitalize on opportunities. It includes thinking through whether societal/stakeholder problems or issues or risks or opportunities are organizational matters (and if so, whether the PR function can make a contribution in solving them) or whether they are a communication issue (where the PR function definitely can make a big difference).
Communication planning should directly support organizational strategic planning for best results
This section builds on Steyn’s 2004 article, “From strategy to corporate communication strategy.” Here is how strategic communication planning fits into the organizational strategic planning process:
- Analyze the organization’s key elements of vision and mission, corporate reputation, corporate branding (what the organization says about itself in public), as well as the corporate values, culture, mission, purpose, policies, strategies and goals.
- Identify key stakeholders / publics in the internal and external environment.
- Identify, describe and differentiate key strategic issues in the organization’s internal and external environment, for example, mergers and acquisitions, changing regulations, response to COVID-19 impact on employees, etc.
- Identify the implications of each strategic issue for each of the stakeholders, eg, employees will feel confused about the changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and will be scared of losing their jobs or being furloughed, etc.
- Formulate the corporate communication strategy; ie decide what must be communicated to solve the problem/capitalize on the opportunity created by the key strategic issue. In the case of a merger, information must, for instance, be provided to employees about how the changes will affect them and their future employment there.
- Develop a strategic communication plan and action plans around communication goals.
Corporate and operational managers need to be aware of the context that will influence their decision making, and the external impact or acceptability of various product, investment or process options and stakeholder relationships. In this way, the communication function can be seen as a key enabler or service, sitting alongside other traditional enablers such as IT and HR.
A role in the corporate strategic planning process enables the head of corporate comms to understand the strategic viewpoint of top management. The comms head is then well equipped to provide advice and support to other senior operational managers and middle managers so they can use the range of communication techniques as an integral part of their front line presence. In addition, the comms head can be instrumental in crafting the wording of important statements and will be responsible for planning the subsequent communication to all stakeholders as well as much of its internal implementation through ‘strategy communication’.
Not an afterthought
Participation in organizational strategic planning meetings can determine the effectiveness of the comms function. If comms is excluded from the annual planning process it will be difficult to ensure that communication issues will be integral to executive decision making. Communication then becomes an afterthought and therefore it becomes more difficult to play an effective role. Most of the time, if comms staff attend planning discussions and decision making, communication becomes integral to the strategy-making process, which is much more valuable than being called in after others have already made decisions that need changing or adjusting.
Many strategic planning concepts would be ineffectual without good communication involvement. And very few business decisions don’t require communication. For instance, in planning major new projects, which necessarily support the organizational vision and mission, it is clear the corporate communication function can make a valuable contribution. Various processes managed by the communication function are vital to the future of the organization. These processes include issue management (which is really a form of risk management), stakeholder relations, crisis communication, government relations, marketing communication, community relations and internal communication.
Why good communication planning is essential to major organizational commitments
Let’s think for a moment. Taking into account that these communication processes or techniques are interconnected, a useful example would be the planning for the construction of a major new manufacturing plant not far from a residential area:
- Regulatory approvals would be necessary; for example, town planning and environmental approvals, perhaps an export license. This should usually involve government relations support service from the PR department.
- Community relations activity would be needed to help the local community, including the local Council, understand and accept the need for the plant, and to obtain valuable feedback from them. Otherwise they might delay its construction or even force the plans to be shelved through political action if they don’t believe the project will have a positive impact overall.
- Ongoing stakeholder relations would need to be initiated with local, State and possibly national regulatory officials as well as a range of other government stakeholder groups with an interest in the plant
- Extensive employee communication incorporating change. communication techniques would be needed to explain the need for some or all employees to shift from a previous location to the plant. Or, if starting totally from scratch, communication for all employees would need to be planned early in the process, with implementation starting from the recruitment stage.
- There are likely to be issues to identify beforehand and resolve during construction and operation of the plant.
- During construction and when the plant is operational, a crisis communication plan would be needed.
Thus, when assessing the key factors involved in establishing the plant in this example, it is clear that lack of strategic communication planning would cause great problems—possible delays in construction and operation, higher operating costs or even cancellation of the project. The same principle also applies to smaller projects.
A more flexible approach is needed these days as the operating environment is so much more volatile than in the past. Various people advocate using an Agile approach in PR planning. It involves working on each phase of the project in the short term and running a feedback loop that may or may not change the entire process over again. An Agile approach can help you adjust regardless of these changes.
One of the main reasons for progressively reviewing the planning and preparation of projects is because hardly any significant project is ever 100% successful when it is reviewed only at completion. Therefore, it is better to detect potential problems before launch rather than find out later, when the project is operational. You can read more about this in my article, “Why your PR strategy requires an Agile approach.”
Real-life case study showing the importance of corporate-level strategy
Some years ago I was public affairs manager of the famous government-owned Snowy Mountains Scheme, which produces electricity through 9 interlinked hydro-power stations and 16 dams. One part of the massive scheme is the Jindabyne pumping station, which pipes water up from Lake Jindabyne to an underground tunnel which feeds into a reservoir where the water is used for electricity generation by Murray 1 and Murray 2 power stations. The pumping is done at low cost during off-peak periods, and this water is then used for generating and supplying electricity at market prices for major customers.
The Snowy River and its feeder tributaries flow into Jindabyne Lake/Dam. After this part of the Scheme became operational in 1969, only 1% of the Snowy River’s usual annual water flow was released downstream from Jindabyne Lake/Dam. Experts said the flow should be at least 28% to keep the river healthy. The absence of the annual snow-melt flow allowed sediment to accumulate, and weeds and algae grew in what was now a shallow, meandering channel. The mighty Snowy of great folklore had shrunk to little more than a regulated trickle.
Above photos: (left) Jindabyne pumping station, (right) Murray 1 hydro-electric power station.
I understood the extent of this lack of water in the Snowy River and the other related river systems it joined on its 352 km course to the sea. The problem was causing big ripples among the downstream stakeholders – the community of farmers, residents and irrigators – so I recommended to my fellow executive committee members that the Authority should seek community feedback, initiate more balanced water releases, and keep stakeholders informed of proposed changes.
However, the committee decided not to act on my recommendations. Coincidentally, I was offered a higher-paid job with an interstate electricity producer. What I learned after my departure was that the Snowy stakeholders lobbied federal and State politicians to force action to increase water flows from Jindabyne Dam down river, and therefore reduce flows to the two other dependent hydro power stations upriver. This would have caused significant problems for the scheme’s future operating and financial performance. The governments who owned the scheme were obliged to compromise with the locals, at a cost of millions of dollars to the scheme’s operations. This was a high-profile, organizational-level case demonstrating the importance of maintaining active, positive relationships with stakeholders.