Thinking strategically will increase your value in communication management
Thinking strategically will enhance the value you generate for your organization and will create more forward momentum for your own career. Although PR 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 strengthen your organization’s communication, starting right from the top.
Manage communication strategically
Strategic communication should help the the 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. 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 challenges the purpose of any PR activity you can point straight to the goal it relates to.
Research shows the value of strategic communication to organizational success
Research supports the long-held view of PR professionals that the better an organization communicates, the better it performs. For instance, the communication ROI survey conducted in 2008 by international consulting firm, now named Willis Towers Watson, echoed the results from its previous similar surveys when it found organizations with the most effective communication programs enjoyed a 47% higher total return to shareholders compared with organizations that communicated least effectively.
Same with the findings in the Generally Accepted Practices surveys by the USC Annenberg center, which used to be conducted regularly until 2014. For instance, the 2014 GAP survey of senior US corporate PR professionals in corporations, government agencies and non-profit organizations. found PR/Communication to be “an increasingly strategic contributor to organizational success.”
Characteristics of top communication departments
A seminal US study conducted by Professor James Grunig found the main five characteristics of excellent communication departments are:
- They are run by managers who make communication policy decisions and accept responsibility for the success or failure of their communication programs.
- They contribute significantly to the organization’s strategic plan and organizational decision making.
- They work with top management to solve organizational problems that involve communication and relationships.
- They facilitate two-way communication between top management and key stakeholders, helping them understand each other and developing win-win situations.
- They use formal and informal research techniques to understand the environment inside and outside the organization to identify key issues.
The GAP studies provide valuable information on common patterns within US corporate PR departments. The studies have found the 5 most important factors in PR/Communication management contributing to organizational success are:
- When the PR/communication function has access to the C-Suite (Chairman/CEO/and COO [Chief Operating Officer]), it is in a stronger position to help define the overall business strategy, identity and core values of the organization.
- Greater internal integration and collaboration are associated with greater internal influence for PR/Communication.
- Greater internal influence for PR/Communication will improve its ability to influence organizational policy and behavior. Therefore, it is important to have the organizational, business and professional skills to use that influence wisely and effectively.
- The ability to influence organizational policy and behavior will strengthen PR/Communication’s ability to influence internal and external perceptions of success, reputation, etc. Therefore, PR/Communication staff, processes and procedures should be strengthened to successfully take advantage of the opportunity.
- PR/Communication’s access to the C-Suite will enhance its potential contribution to defining the overall business strategy, identity and core values of the organization, etc.
GAP studies have found that the PR/Communication head who is responsible directly to the C-Suite is likely to report that:
- The C-Suite takes PR recommendations seriously.
- The PR manager enjoys substantially greater support for the PR function from the C-Suite.
- PR and reputational considerations are factored into organizational strategic decision making and planning.
- The PR function is invited to meetings dealing with important issues that may have communication implications.
- The CEO believes that organizational reputation contributes to organizational success.
Best-practice PR to support organizational goals
Best-practice PR departments have real, measurable impact on the achievement of strategic organizational goals because they:
- Increase the C-Suite’s understanding of PR’s current and potential contributions to the success of the organization.
- Measurably contribute to organizational success.
- Establish an effective social responsibility strategy for the organization.
- Establish an effective digital-media strategy for the organization, usually in conjunction with Marketing.
- Establish an effective issue management strategy for the organization.
- Increase integration and coordination within the PR/communication function, and between it and other organizational functions.
- Encourage highly ethical practices across the organization, beginning with communication.
- Encourage the organization-wide adoption of a long-term strategic point of view, beginning with communication.
- Optimize the integration of PR and reputational considerations into top-level organizational strategies.
But low-level PR focus holds many PR pros back
The Grunig study found communication is a highly valued function in the typical organization – but only if the head of PR manages strategically. The study found that the single greatest determinant of communication excellence is having the expertise required of a strategic manager.
The Grunig study, and more recent studies, have found that CEOs and the ‘dominant coalition’ of senior managers generally understand the strategic role of communication and wanted to involve the communication function in strategic decision-making. Unfortunately, the greatest barrier against this has been the knowledge level, or the perceived knowledge level, of the top communicator. Too many senior PR practitioners still perceive themselves to be technicians or communicators concentrating on the technical rather than the policy, or strategic, aspects of the function. They also allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of low-level activities.
When the team’s focus is tactical, they concentrate on immediate tasks to be accomplished, often at the direction of others or in response to situations that arise. They are reactive, not pro-active. And in justifying their effectiveness, they tend to use outputs as a way of evaluation rather than the more meaningful outcomes or results.
Many PR managers find it difficult to understand management issues beyond the level of communication concerns. However, to be fully accepted by top management, practitioners need to think like managers generally, to understand management issues from the management’s perspective, to talk like managers (not use PR jargon) and to figuratively put themselves in the shoes of operational managers in looking at their problems.
Results of 2014 GAP survey
The results of the USC Annenberg Center’s 2014 GAP survey by show the PR role is not sufficiently respected or trusted, as reflected in the practitioner responses to these survey questions:
“PR/Communication plays an active role in organizational strategic planning”:
- 40% of respondents agreed
- 15% strongly disagreed
- 45% were neutral.
“PR/Communication’s recommendations are taken seriously by senior management”:
- 59% agreed
- 9% strongly disagreed
- 32% were neutral.
“Senior leaders believe PR/Communication contributed to financial success”:
- 44% agreed
- 6% strongly disagreed
- 50% were neutral.
Other staff underestimate PR capability
Preoccupation with the tactical level creates that managers from other business units perceive that PR is a low-level activity. Many of these people only perceive PR in a tactical role sending information outwards, largely through publicity, publications, social media, and event organizing. Staff from operations, accounting and finance, administration, human resources, legal, sales and marketing really don’t understand the PR function. They are not well informed about what their PR colleagues do.
Due to the widespread misunderstanding of the capabilities of PR pros, there is a never-ending onus on us during the normal course of our work to educate management and other staff at all levels about the changing nature of the role – those others often see it merely as an ‘add-on’ to the real job of running the business. As a result, we need to communicate, communicate, and communicate about our achievements.
How to develop strategic communication capability
Build the right team
You need to bring together a team with the right knowledge and skills, with the potential to develop their capabilities. Corporate communication and PR consulting both require plenty of energy, but that energy needs to be directed at the right level. It needs to start with taking a strategic approach and then following through with energetic application of tactics with a good amount of common sense and problem-solving application.
Build on a strong foundation
Lead the way by setting a clear mission, goals and objectives for the communication function, outlining the benefits that a strong communication capability will bring to your organization. When these factors are in place, you can start to review your options for strategic management of the PR function. These options need to be considered in relation to available funding. You need to work back from the available funding to determine the activities you can initiate. Funding will also affect resources like staffing, management of the function, and paying for external consulting support, if necessary, as well as the sharing of joint activities with other functions such as HR and Marketing.
CEB Communications (now owned by Gartner) have drawn up a useful “Communications Activity Map,” which shows the most common corporate PR activities, including administration and management. This gives a broad view of the scope of the role.
Use a good set of communication management tools
Develop a set of tools that guide the planning and creative efforts of your internal team. One option is to use a What/How/Who model. Define 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). Document this What/How/Who model and map your coordinated initiatives on it.
Use a communication calendar for creating an overview and coordinating your communication initiatives. You can use sources for these, such as HubSpot, CoSchedule and Bananatag, depending on your market.
Also develop these communication tools:
- Corporate identity manual (example here), and brand guidelines (50 great examples from Canva).
- Messaging framework that shows the value promises your organization, product or service is making to its target audiences.
- Corporate style guide, which is a set of principles on the words to use – so your team writes with consistency and clarity, with your communication objectives in mind. Readers can refer to a couple of the best style guides – the AP Style Book, for US readers, and The Economist’s Guide to English Usage.
- Keep or maintain access to up-to-date lists of your target audience/recipients, as well as lists of particular key segments of those audiences.
Initiate a planning and implementation process
To ensure each initiative gets off to a good start, is on target, and is reviewed at key points, use a communication-development-and-launch process. It should include milestone points such as plan approval, project start, creative development, production and implementation. Also to include in the process are approved budgets, cross-functional reach, governance, and performance measures. This will allow you to prioritize work flow, keep on strategy, and control costs. Process and tools enable staff and any relevant consultants to work well together. Conducting your overall strategy in this way will help your team to develop their skills as communication professionals and make a tangible contribution to organizational success.
Tackle overload in your team
Another factor in working in the high-stress profession of PR/corporate communication is that people can allow an excessive workload of low-level activities to overwhelm them at the expense of time focused on higher-level activities. This greatly reduces their effectiveness. You can address this by asking your team to identify their key activities and how much time they spend on them in a typical week. Use that information to assess workloads and priorities. Consider which tasks the team could stop doing and which might benefit from rethinking the process involved. Look closely at low-value activities that need to be done but take up excessive time. Can you simplify the workflows to reduce the amount of time your team spends on these activities? Don’t forget to look for tasks that can be done more simply, or in allocating resources such as artificial intelligence for media monitoring.
Demonstrate good performance
With your planning and implementation of communication activities, ensure you document the strategic intent behind your work. This means you can refer to documented material when communicating with people from other areas. Ensure they understand the strategic intent. Doing all this means you should achieve your goals with various projects. When you do, communicate this to your stakeholders so they can see the outcomes for themselves. Don’t overdo the self-congratulations, though, because this will backfire on you.
Develop measures of PR value
Ensure you include measures in your communication activities. Decide what your goal is in each case and set SMART objectives at the starting point so you can compare at completion of the activity, and then you can demonstrate achievement of your intended results. This is important in proving the value of the PR role.
With some thought beforehand, you can prove the return on investment (ROI) from communication activities. You can focus on the business areas where communication can produce the greatest results in support of business goals. At the micro level, the ROI in communication can be measured on a range of communication activities. You can calculate this by simply determining the financial value of relevant operational improvements and estimating the extent to which PR contributed to the improvement. Divide this figure by the cost of the communication effort to produce the ROI. In most cases the result is a spectacular return on investment in PR. You can use this as proof of the value of PR to the bottom line.
Gain more professional knowledge
Your team members should join the local PR association and gain more professional knowledge from networking with other members and attending professional development activities.
Corporate PR areas in which you should strengthen your knowledge are stakeholder relations, reputation management, trust, ethics, government relations, social media, team management, project management, strategy development, corporate social responsibility, change management, etc.
Don’t just focus on PR professional development. Most decision-making at the higher levels of the organization involve financial decisions. You will earn respect from senior managers if you can use financial terms and show understanding of financial processes they use. At a minimum, you should learn about the financial terms and common jargon used in decision-making. Either go to a structured course on finance for non-financial executives or enroll for online equivalents. PR people tend to stand out for their poor understanding of financial concepts, so senior executives will be pleasantly surprised to find you talking their talk.
What’s more, you should increase your knowledge of these disciplines because communication is, in fact, a central part of their work:
- HR areas like employee engagement, values, culture, staff recruitment and retention
- Marketing concepts like branding and employer branding, social media marketing
- Management concepts like vision, mission, strategy, business goals, organizational leadership, performance management, decision-making.