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Make the most of SWOT analysis for communication planning

01 Jun, 2020 Annual communication plans, Communication campaigns, PR planning, strategy, budgeting

SWOT analysis is widely used in strategic planning and can be a powerful tool for assessing your relative position on issues. 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. Therefore, SWOT analysis in communication planning is a valuable tool for you to use.

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.

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.

Benefits of using SWOT analysis

  • Simple to do and practical to use
  • Clear to understand
  • Focuses on the key internal and external factors affecting the company
  • Helps to identify future goals
  • Initiates further analysis.
Limitations

Although there are clear benefits gained from doing the analysis, some managers and academics criticize its use or don’t even use it as a serious tool. They consider it is a ‘low-grade’ analysis. Here are the main flaws identified by some researchers, according to a Strategic Management Insight article in 2021:

  • Excessive lists of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
  • No prioritization of factors
  • Factors are described too broadly
  • Factors are often opinions not facts;
  • No recognized method to distinguish between strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Achieving an overview

To achieve an overview of your organization’s activities or business, you should assess and evaluate the internal factors separately from external factors, and then bring all the pieces together in a final SWOT analysis. Start by meeting with your key team members to review and summarize in short bullet points – but make those bullet points sufficiently explanatory. For instance, “price” could be considered as a one-word factor in all four SWOT quadrants, so you need to briefly elaborate on the key reason, eg the price is too high to engage successfully in marketing comms; the product design is out of date, as shown up in competitors’ products; or if there is an opportunity to do some marketing comms by offering an incentive to purchase related to price. This reduces the likelihood of merely developing a categorized list which offers no clear path to action.

In a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, marketing professors Laurence Minsky and David Aron strongly consider that the best analysis resulting in more actionable strategic recommendations is to look firstly at the external operating conditions, and then at internal attributes. This “will generate a better set of clear-cut and supported ideas for moving forward.” Then consider each external factor’s relationship to each internal factor.:

  1. Gather an inventory of relevant conditions in the operating environment – the threats and opportunities
  2. Next, explore internal strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Then, generate recommendations using this simple sentence: “Given the condition of [external factor], our ability to [internal factor] leads to our recommendation that we [recommendation].

Key evaluating factors

Here are key evaluating factors to review, according to Felicia Sullivan in a 2019 Medium article:

Internal evaluating factors

  • Core competencies, skills, talents, expertise, and experience
  • Product portfolio and pipeline development
  • Point of parity relative to the competition, i.e., are you missing a function, feature, or trait that is endemic of the industry?
  • Point of difference, i.e., what’s your competitive advantage? What sets you apart from the competition?
  • Proprietary information, patents, and trademarks
  • Value, price, utility, quality, geographic advantages
  • Key assets in the form of talent, technology, research and development, or financials
  • Substantiators in the form of accreditations, awards, testimonials, and brand or science-backed research
  • Sales and marketing prowess
  • Customer service, care, and management
  • Operational and systems efficiency/efficacy
  • Vision, mission, beliefs, and value system
  • Company culture, organizational structure, and management

External evaluating factors

Sullivan also lists some external evaluating factors as part of the overall SWOT analysis. These are shown below. External factors are usually analyzed as part of PEST or PESTLE analysis, which reviews external factors that could impact your operating environment within a given timeframe. PEST analysis helps you gauge the trends of a particular industry and how your organization and how well you could be equipped to deal with it. Sullivan suggests using PEST as an input into your SWOT analysis. Here are some typical factors:

  • Social, economic (macro and micro), and political climate
  • Pricing regulations or market-driven pricing
  • Government or industry rules and regulations
  • Points of supply and distribution
  • Market and product trends and innovations
  • Customer trends and behavior
  • Technological shifts and advancements
  • Competitor business and brand practices, advantages, and disadvantages (also, consider “Blue Ocean” entrants—competitors that have carved out a part of your industry and redefined their business formulation and structure)

Sample SWOT analysis charts

Image: Felicia C. Sullivan.

Above: A SWOT analysis chart Felicia Sullivan created for a beauty firm’s social media department.

Image: Felicia C. Sullivan.

The big picture

You can read more about how SWOT analysis fits into communication and organizational planning in my article, “Nine key elements for building a top annual communication plan.”

If you enjoyed this article, we recommend this book

Annual Communication Plans Annual Communication Plans

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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