Make the most of SWOT analysis for communication projects
SWOT analysis is widely used in strategic planning and can be a powerful tool in assessing your relative position. 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. In this way it helps to give clarity between where you are and where you want to be.
SWOT analysis is best undertaken by a cross-functional team of 6-8 people who can provide a range of perspectives, especially 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, your PR firm, your market researcher, a representative from operations and HR etc.
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.
Many issue managers tend to use SWOT analysis more for internal issues, although it can also be used for external issues. They often use PESTLE analysis for external issues. You can read in more depth about the combination of SWOT and PESTLE analysis in my ebook on How to write a strategic annual communication plan.
The concept of VUCA analysis has become used in some management circles, especially in the finance sector. VUCA is an acronym standing for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity, and is used to describe key characteristics of the external environment. It is another analytical tool that can be used in issue management, as discussed in my article, “You can use VUCA analysis for better issue management.”
Back to the SWOT team! 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.
- A strength is a resource or capacity that can be used effectively to achieve the project 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 issue 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 tactic, 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 it 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.
We should remember with SWOT analysis that life is never simple
Keep in mind that SWOT analysis simplifies the complexities of real life into 4 simplistic quadrants. Therefore, it is important to keep the big picture in mind. Take the factors from the individual quadrants into context so you avoid discussing single variables in isolation.
Paul Schoemaker, expert on decision-making and uncertainty in business, says to include soft issues in your assessment, such as culture, organizational climate, leadership capacity, etc, rather than just dealing with physical or intellectual factors. Also, he says don’t forget to review any external changes your organization missed in the past, and try to learn more carefully to scanning the external environment for early or weak signals of forthcoming change.
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.
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.
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.
Different perceptions on threats and opportunities in complex issues
Paul Schoemaker. Image: Inc.
Paul Schoemaker noted in 2018 that managers often perceive complex issues differently from each other. The initial framing of an event or trend as either a threat or opportunity can have a big impact on the eventual organizational response. Where one leadership team might see a threat and adopt a defensive attitude, another team in the same situation might see a possible opportunity. The initial framing is likely to be further reinforced by “selective perception”, since what we pay attention to is shaped by what we expect to see.
Also, people may have a confirmation bias that lures them to seek evidence to support their initial views. Although framing issues in terms of threat or opportunity is common—and is recommended in strategy frameworks such as SWOT—it can lead to a distortion of reality. The fact is, most complex business issues have components of both. Schoemaker observes:
Human nature usually pulls us towards one of the four corners to make the issue more manageable, and that in turn may lead to different judgments and choices than under a more neutral or complete framing.
How issues are framed, and what language is used to describe them, clearly influences people’s attention and may raise challenges for leaders. Research by Jackson and Dutton found that managers tend to view strategic issues as threats unless there is strong evidence to do otherwise. Perhaps many threats are indeed disguised as opportunities, and setbacks or failures may have silver linings. But usually, managers must be convinced of the presence of inherent opportunities, since this view seldom arises automatically.