Use SWOT and PESTLE analysis for communication planning.

Use SWOT, PESTLE and VUCA analysis for communication planning

SWOT analysis is widely used in strategic planning and can be a powerful tool in assessing your relative position – or a competitor’s position – and for identifying priorities and areas for improvement. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It is most effective when you have defined the problem or concern that needs to be addressed and ideally have also developed your goal statement or intended end state for the project, campaign or program. It can be conducted for a range of purposes such as planning, problem-solving, product evaluation, decision making and brainstorming. It can help to give clarity between where you are and where you want to be. Overall, it is a valuable skill for you to gain when you use SWOT, PESTLE and VUCA analysis for communication planning.

The aims of SWOT analyses are to:

  • Reveal your organization’s competitive advantages
  • Analyze the potential for product development, new services and revenue
  • Alert your management early to potential problems before they become issues
  • Provide for the development of future communication plans potentially requiring issue management, crisis management, stakeholder relations management, etc.

SWOT analysis is best undertaken by a cross-functional team of 6-8 people who can provide a range of perspectives. The team should especially comprise people from areas relevant to the issue or problem for which you are preparing a communication plan. Therefore, in addition to communicators, you should include people who are broadly in tune with communication such people from your marketing branch, operations and HR, plus possible external attendees from your PR agency, your market research firm, etc.

Keep it simple

SWOT analysis is quite simple in principle, and you should keep the process simple – avoid complexity and over-analysis. but you need to beware of the danger of being tempted to merely compile a list rather than thinking about what is really important about the parts of that list in achieving the goal of the project. You may also be drawn into presenting the resulting SWOT lists uncritically and without clear prioritization so that, for example, weak opportunities may appear to balance strong threats.

You can use specialized software to show the SWOT lists graphically, which can help you to clarify the factors being considered.

A SWOT summary can be useful for strategy development in a communication project or program as well as in an annual communication plan. It is especially useful for deciding the key points in your messaging.

Bringing internal and external factors together in the SWOT model

A SWOT analysis process generates information that is helpful in matching an organization or group’s goals, programs, and capacities to the social environment in which it operates. The ‘SWOT’ itself is only the start – a data capture exercise – the analysis actually follows later, and is based on the SWOT factors.

The strengths and weaknesses are value-creating skills or assets, or the lack of, relative to competitive forces. Opportunities and threats are external factors which are not created by the organization, but emerge as a result of the competitive dynamics caused by future gaps in the market.

  • A strength is a resource or capacity that can be used effectively to achieve the relevant objective. To identify strengths, ask: “What are our advantages in this situation?”, “What do we do well?” or “What do other people see as our strength here?” Obviously, you would want to build on your organization’s perceived strengths in your communication activities.
  • A weakness is a limitation, fault or defect in the particular product, service or other matter that may be the reason for your communication plan. To identify weaknesses, ask: “What could we improve in this?”, “What do we do badly?”, or “What should we avoid?” Other areas of the organization may be able to resolve the problem caused by the weak point if, for instance, it is a financial, operational or marketing matter, in order to minimize its impact without you actually needing to communicate about it. If it does need a communication activity, then you can tailor all or part of a communication plan, particularly the messaging, to minimize the weakness, or at least have a communication response in place if something is raised against you by opponents.
  • An opportunity is a favorable situation in your project or organization’s environment, often a trend or a change of some kind or an overlooked need that increases the relevance or effectiveness of the project in question. You can highlight this in your communication implementation.
  • A threat is a danger or menace in your project or organization’s environment. Often threats are ignored until they become major problems. Threats can be identified by looking at the obstacles faced, initiatives by competitors, changing technology and changing demand or technical requirements for your products or services. As with a weakness, other areas may be able to act to counteract the problem without needing a communication response. If it does need a communication response, you should assess the likelihood and extent of the risk or threat so that if it does emerge, you are able to quickly implement a communication response.

Prioritize your SWOT follow-up

Since resources are always limited, you can’t afford to follow up every SWOT item, so you need to attend to the most important – prioritize them. The SWOT factors could be prioritized by urgency, importance, strategic advantage, cost, lead-time for completion, duration of actions, etc.

It is all very well to work out your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, but what do you actually do with these insights? SWOT analysis is not much value unless you actually use the key factors identified to contribute to your communication plan. To keep all this manageable, the factors should be prioritized. You could note the top three factors from each of the four quadrants to form a total of list of 12 factors, and then reduce the total list to the top 5-6 factors that would have a bearing on your communication strategy. Be careful to evaluate which factors are the strongest and focus on them. As noted earlier, don’t get drawn into presenting the SWOT lists without clear prioritization so that, for example, weak opportunities may appear to balance strong threats.

One strategy is to cross-link the four quadrants of factors to identify how strengths can be used to take advantage of opportunities and to tackle threats. Similarly, the weaknesses can be examined to ensure they don’t compound the threats or stop your organization from exploiting the opportunities relating to the project.

Image: Sample SWOT analysis template by WordStream. You can download this template, and also an adjustable-size blank template as a Google sheet based on this one, which you can use for your own SWOT analysis – made available by WordStream.

SWOT analysis can be divided into internal and external factors. Strengths and weaknesses are internal elements while opportunities and threats are considered external elements. For review of internal elements, many organizations use a PRIMO-F subset of SWOT analysis, and for reviewing external elements they use another subset of SWOT analysis – PESTLE analysis.

Internal SWOT factors – the PRIMO-F model

Questions in the PRIMO-F model:

  • People: What do they do? Do they have the skills we need?
  • Resources: Do we have the right resources, and are they enough?
  • Innovation: Are new ideas important to us in all parts of our organization?
  • Marketing: How do customers know what we do/produce?
  • Operations: How do we manage all of this?
  • Finance: What are the prices, costs and investments?

External SWOT factors – the PESTLE model

Use both SWOT and PESTLE analysis for communication planning. PESTLE analysis is basically a review of an organization’s operating environment as an input into strategic decision making. The aim is to conduct an environmental scan in order to assess potentially significant information that management can use in responding to changes. In a similar way to the well-known SWOT analysis, PESTLE is an acronym that stands for various review criteria:

  • Political – international, national, State, local and community trends, changes and events such as new taxation policy, changes of government, etc.
  • Economic – world, national and State trends, changes, events such as economic cycles, inflation, interest rates trends, unemployment, etc.
  • Social – developments in society – culture, behavior, expectations such as population demographics, income distribution, lifestyle changes, aging workforce etc.
  • Technological – developments in computer hardware, software, applications, systems, other equipment, materials, products, processes such as new discoveries, speed of technology transfer, rates of obsolescence, etc.
  • Legal – international, national and State legislation changes and potential changes such as industrial relations changes, climate change laws, occupation safety and health laws, etc.
  • Environmental – global, national, State, local issues, pressures, movements such as environmental impact, energy consumption, waste disposal, climate change, etc.

PESTLE analysis tends to address external factors while SWOT analysis is used more for review of internal factors, although they cover similar ground at various points. It is generally advisable to use SWOT and PESTLE analysis for communication planning. When you conduct both types of analysis rather than just the one you achieve a more comprehensive overall review. A PESTLE analysis will reveal the external factors that are outside the direct control of the organization, and is therefore better conducted before a SWOT analysis so that its findings can be used as a key input into a SWOT review.

The strengths of a PESTLE analysis are that it is a simple technique conceptually, covers major environmental factors, can generate much information about influences and can identify the long-term reasons for trend changes.

Such an analysis will be of limited use unless management acts on the trends revealed, and the extent to which various trends may interact to nullify each other through to creating a combined impact.

It is important to clearly identify the subject of a PESTLE analysis and to stay focused on it, because an unclear subject has the potential to lead to vague conclusions.

Also use VUCA analysis, especially for better issue management

VUCA is an acronym standing for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity, and VUCA analysis is used to describe key characteristics of the external environment. You can use VUCA analysis as a tool for better issue management.

VUCA types of factors are not new. They have always been integral to scenario planning and in PESTLE analysis (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental) of the external environment in issue management.

Two key questions VUCA analysis can help to address are:

  • How much do you know about the situation?
  • How well can you predict the results of your actions?
Useful VUCA articles

How to use SWOT process in planning

  • Invite contributors to participate in the SWOT process
  • Explain the process and establish ground rules
  • Identify strengths – using the PRIMO-F listed above
  • Identify weaknesses – using the PRIMO-F listed above
  • Identify or list the opportunities and threats – this may well have been identified from a PESTLE analysis previously
  • Establish priorities – from your mission, vision and values work
  • Question each list
  • Plan for action.

Advantages of SWOT analysis

  • Simple four box framework.
  • Facilitates an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the organization.
  • Encourages the development of strategic thinking.
  • Enables a team to focus on strengths and build opportunities.
  • Can enable an organization to anticipate future business threats and take action to avoid or minimise their impact.
  • Can enable an organization to spot business opportunities and exploit them fully.
  • Flexible.

Disadvantages of SWOT analysis

  • Some users over-simplify the amount of data used for decisions – it is easy to use scant data.
  • To be effective this process needs to be undertaken on a regular basis.
  • The best reviews require different people being involved each having a different perspective.
  • Access to quality internal data sources, this can be time consuming and politically difficult (especially in more complex organizations – parent company etc).
  • The pace of change makes it increasingly difficult to anticipate developments that may affect an organization in the future.
  • The risk of capturing too much data is that it may make it difficult to see the wood for the trees and lead to ‘paralysis by analysis’.
  • The data used in the analysis may be based on assumptions that subsequently prove to be unfounded (good and bad).
  • Lacks detailed structure – easy to miss key elements.

This article may be useful for you to read: “Beware the limits of SWOT analysis,” by Paul Schoemaker.

Example of a simple SWOT analysis

This analysis is about a children’s charity. The style and detail of the analysis will depend on the goal of the project. The key points emerging from the analysis can be vital to public relations professionals for developing their communication material.

Strengths

  • Creativity and imagination of staff
  • Active support of children and parents
  • Good track record in engaging children and play-based work
  • Experience of community work and working with difficult to reach communities

Weaknesses

  • Staff turnover
  • Short-term funding
  • Few IT resources/skills
  • Organizational infrastructure
  • Inexperience in financial management

Opportunities

  • Potential future funding
  • Real funding for play and developmental work
  • Improved guidance to meet requirements of regulation
  • More external support for play, e.g. opportunities for training

Threats

  • Future funding not guaranteed or secured
  • Competition from other providers (public and private)
  • Increasing regulation (impacting play, staff and buildings)

The value of SWOT lies mainly in the fact that it constitutes a self-assessment. The problem, however, is that the elements appear deceptively simple. Actually deciding what the strengths and weaknesses of an organization are, as well as assessing the impact and probability of opportunities and threats, is far more complex than appears at first sight.The risk of making incorrect assumptions when assessing the SWOT elements often causes management to procrastinate when it comes to deciding between various strategic alternatives, frequently resulting in unnecessary and undesirable delays.

SWOT is an infinitely flexible framework, which is made easier to apply when PESTLE is used to review and shortlist external factors and PRIMO-F to review and prioritize internal factors.

The concept of SWOT analysis is so ubiquitous that many people tend to take it for granted without actually going through the process and applying it seriously. A SWOT analysis in a sense is more a summary of a set of previous mini-analyses such as PRIMO-F and PESTLE of various factors than a full analysis in its own right. The analysis, or interpretation, really comes after the SWOT summary has been produced.

It is most effective to define the problem or concern that needs to be addressed and ideally have also developed a goal statement or intended end state for the project. This helps to give clarity between where you are and where you want to be.

SWOT analysis can be used by your communication team to review many variables ranging from the overall perception of the organization in the marketplace through to more specific subjects such as an existing or potential product, brand or service, or a business idea.

The communication department can benefit by analyzing its own performance. It can review its outputs, for example:

  • the quality of what it is producing for others
  • its processes (how well it goes about producing those outputs)
  • its stakeholders (whether it is taking sufficient account of its own departmental stakeholders)
  • its finance management
  • its administration
  • its creativity.

A SWOT summary can be useful for strategy development in a communication project or program as well as in an annual communication plan. It is especially useful for deciding the key points for messaging.

It is all very well to work out strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, but what is done next with these insights? SWOT analysis is not much value unless the key factors identified actually contribute to the communication plan.

Another matter to think about is how supportive the internal environment may be for follow-up to the analysis – whether there are any obstacles or bottlenecks likely to be encountered in completing the communication strategy, which is based on the analysis. How can they be overcome?

Further reading

My ebook, Annual Communication Plans: How to get the results you want!, offers you 123 pages of helpful, practical insights. Tremendous value – it’s like having your own comms coach immediately available by your side!

Image: Shutterstock_400174768

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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