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. 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:
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
Strategic planning usually has five attributes:
1. It deals with fundamental or basic issues, providing answers to core questions such as:
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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).
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:
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’.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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