Strategic thinking improves your communication value. It will enhance the value you generate for your organization and will create more forward momentum for your own career. Although communication professionals have to deal with endless low-level communication activity, it is also vital to commit to thinking and planning at higher levels. This adds the most value to organizational outcomes. As Sir Richard Branson said, “Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess,” and so your role is to take the initiative to strengthen your organization’s communication strategically, starting right from the top.
Answering key questions
There are four key questions that strategists need to answer and align their organization around – the ‘What,’ ‘How,’ ‘Who’ and ‘Why,’ according to Michael Watkins, Professor of Leadership and Organization Change at IMD Business School (International Institute for Management Development) in Switzerland. He says terms like mission, vision and strategy cause endless confusion. But we can boil them down to a simpler set of questions:
- WHAT are we trying to accomplish? This is the mission question.
- HOW are we going to accomplish it? This is the strategic question, and it includes the questions of:
- WHO needs to be involved, what resources should be deployed and what alliances must be formed.
- What people often miss is the why. WHY should we get excited about doing this? The answer to that is the vision.
Watkins believes the function of strategy is to align; it tells people what direction to take. But this has to be communicated well. A strategy is successful when the hard work of explaining it again and again has to continue until people really understand not just the strategy, but what it means for them at the local level. Otherwise, the strategy will not achieve its goals.
A good communications team is important to this – to produce ‘powerful simplifications,’ according to Watkins. We need to distill strategy down into something relatively simple but powerful and then communicate it: “Concise. Crystalline. Powerful. Simple. That’s what effective communication requires.”
Manage communication strategically
Strategic communication should help your organization to achieve its mission, to strengthen its overall performance. Strategic communication professionals focus on the management of communication. They understand and use the full range of tactical tools and channels, but in addition they use research and planning, they understand the fundamental nature of the organization’s operations, they can look ahead at emerging trends in the internal and external environment and they initiate communication actions to address those trends. They look at the longer-term point of view and seek to build on the organization’s strengths rather than merely engage in problem-solving, reactive mode.
One of the main things you need to do is review your organization’s vision, mission and goals to identify the top priorities. (You could use the approach recommended by Watkins.) Then relate every communication project or program to one or more of these organizational goals. This is important. You should document in every PR plan and subsequent report exactly which organizational goal/s it supports. Then if anyone ever queries the purpose of any PR activity you can point to the goal it relates to. Doing this enables you to focus tightly on supporting your organization’s top priorities.
Research over the years has supported a long-held view that the better an organization communicates, the better it performs. My article, “Good internal communication leads to stronger employee engagement and therefore better organizational performance,” contains significant evidence that underlines the organizational benefits resulting from strategically managed employee communication.
Good communication at the center of high-performing companies
As far back as 1984, Professor James Grunig and his colleague Todd Hunt, in their book, Managing Public Relations, confirmed that communication was a highly valued organizational function – but only if the head of PR managed strategically. The study found that the single greatest determinant of communication excellence was having the expertise required of a strategic manager.
It is well worth following through with reading that enables you to understand further how strategic thinking improves your communication value:
- The 2023 HBR article, “How to become a better strategic thinker,” by Rich Howarth, offers excellent broad insights into the effective approach you can take.
- My ebooks on developing successful communication plans offer you a generous number of helpful, practical insights. Tremendous value – just like having your own comms coach right at your side!
Article updated in Feb 2024.