Editor’s note: We are re-running the top stories of 2021 as part of our year-end countdown.
Given the digital, always-on nature of work, communications professionals are moving at an insanely fast clip these days. The need to respond to colleagues’ requests requires tactical action, and that means we risk losing strategic foresight.
But fret not: it is possible to regain control of the communications function, even as the volume of work seems to grow. To learn how, we talked with Julie Baron, principal of Communication Works and Ragan Consulting Group affiliate consultant specializing in change and strategic communications.
1. Understand the organization’s business goals.
It is critical to understand the company’s mission and to have direct access to business and strategic growth plans – whether you’re at a PR firm or on the corporate side with internal clients.
Is the company entering a new market, launching a new product, or aiming to hire more diverse talent? It might be all three at once. Whatever the corporate priorities might be, comms pros need to understand them to ensure their ideas and activities ladder up to the broader initiatives.
“It’s important to educate our clients on the complexities of communications, the processes we use, and the information we need up front, and how early we need to be brought into the planning process,” Baron says. “They come to us for consulting and advisement.”
2. Ask questions.
Just like a reporter conducts interviews to write a story, communicators need to ask questions, whether you’re preparing an annual plan or working on a short-term project.
“Ask good questions and do great listening so you can understand what the goal is, making sure you have this strong understanding of the problem to be solved,” Baron says. “Problems are complex and communications isn’t always the only way to solve a problem; it’s usually just one piece of the solution.”
Asking questions helps you develop a sense of ownership, while demonstrating your strategic acumen. It’s all part of the discovery process, which takes time. Jumping into projects, on the other hand, could lead to failure. “You can’t say, “I will have it fixed for you tomorrow,’” Baron says, leading us to her third point.
3. Do your research.
Once you understand the business goals, conduct further research to validate your ideas.
“Don’t base plans on assumptions, guestimates or gut feelings,” Baron says. “Use hard data and evidence. Use a variety of research tools – it might be focus groups, surveys, interviews. Tap into existing data within your own company, such as customer satisfaction and employee surveys.”
You can also pilot communications on a limited scale to see what works.
Let’s say there has been an increase in accidents at your company’s three factories. You’ve been asked to create a communications plan to educate employees on safety protocols.
Conduct a pilot project at one factory to test the content’s effectiveness; if safety incidents decline among targeted employees, it’s a good sign the plan is working; if not, you need to test other messages and communications channels before reaching out to all three factories.
“Communicators need to ask, ‘What is available to me from a data standpoint that is insightful to feed into plans instead of creating new research?’” Baron says.
4. Learn when to say no
It can seem difficult, or dicey, to say no when a CEO or another high-ranking executive asks for a press release or a newsletter article, often with a sense of urgency.
But sometimes saying no leads to a broader conversation – and those ever-important questions. If research, data and your own experience tell you a press release on, say, a product you already promoted six months ago isn’t the right idea, stand your ground.
Sometimes you need to push back.
“Sometimes the need to do that comes up when somebody comes with a tactical request, but we haven’t done a good job of advising clients on what types of information we need to be strategic,” Baron says.
It’s important to remember your role as a counselor.
When someone comes to you with a tactical request, sometimes a no can become a “yes and.” Respond with a question: ‘What business goal is this supporting?’”
RCG specializes in corporate communications training, consulting and strategic counsel. Schedule a call with Kristin Hart to learn how we can help you improve your strategic communications plan. Follow RCG on LinkedIn here.