A manifesto for strategic communications


Yesterday, I had the privilege of presenting a workshop on Becoming a Strategic Communications Rock Star at the IABC Canada West Conference in Victoria, British Columbia.

We had very lively and thought provoking conversations not only about the real frustrations that are endemic in the communications business, but also about some creative solutions to help us break free from the parts of the job that drive us nuts.

The concept for the workshop came from the realization that after working through the Results Map process with thousands of communicators across Canada, and around the world, there is one remarkably consistent trait that pops up in our community – A shared frustration that is absolutely universal to communicators whether their organization is big or small, public or private sector.

It is the feeling of confinement. Of being stifled creatively and of having little opportunity to work to the full scope of our abilities.  It’s that dreaded feeling of being trapped in the role of order-taker where we are reduced, for all intents and purposes, to the role of being short-order cooks.

You know what it’s like – people barking orders at us all the time, changing their minds at the last minute, expecting us to produce immediately, with no questions asked. We’re constantly putting out fires, and basically, getting no respect.

Of course, none of us went into communications wanting to work this way.

What we want… what we really, really want is to be a rock star!

We want to rock the communications profession. We want to do work that matters. We want to work to our highest potential, do our best work, make a difference, and hopefully have a little fun while we’re at it.

It was thinking about these chronic challenges that compelled me to put together this Manifesto for Strategic Communications. My hope is that it can help spark an honest conversation about the issues we face as a professional community, and propel us to think creatively and strategically about solutions.

I’ll start things off with this: In my experience, there are three main obstacles faced by communicators: 

  1. Communications is seen as overhead. The structural, organizational and cultural positioning of the communications function tends to be very limiting.  In a private sector context, it’s the idea that communications is a cost centre, not a profit centre, as marketing (our sister discipline) tends to be. In a public or NGO environment, this makes the function seem optional, rather than mission critical – which is why it’s often the first on the chopping block, facing a death by a thousand cuts. This somewhat negative perception of the function is reinforced by the fact that it is often under-funded and under-resourced. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in action –people are disappointed with their communications team because it’s been crippled by resourcing cuts, making it impossible to meet the organization’s needs with the tiny shreds of budget and staff it has left.
  2. Under recognition of the value. Connected to the idea of overhead is the overwhelmingly systemic under recognition of the value of the communications function. You know how it goes – when things go well, it’s seen as someone else’s win, and when things go badly, it’s so often seen as the communicator’s fault. It’s my opinion that this under recognition is very much our responsibility. I think it stems from our Achilles heel which is the tendency to be weak at evaluating and reporting on communications results. If we want this under recognition to turn around, that has to be the place to start – you can be sure that if we don’t take control of measuring and reporting on our success, no one else will.
  3. Ghettoization. It may sound dramatic, but the ghettoization of the communications function is a very real phenomenon that I come across almost daily. It’s the sense that the function is somehow cut off from the centre of the action in an organization – that it is relegated to a back office utility of tactics, or churning out production, rather than contributing at the level where it should be – right at the heart of the enterprise. If you find that you can’t get your internal clients engaged in projects, that you are chronically under utilized and under valued, it may be because something bigger is going on in the structural positioning of the overall communications function. In that case, your day-to-day experience is merely symptomatic of a much broader issue, and may be at the root cause of some of your frustrations.

So what’s a strategic communicator to do in the face of these stubborn and ubiquitous challenges?

It’s simple.  Do not accept conditions that set you up to fail.

You must take deliberate, careful steps to ensure that you are set up to succeed. That’s what you deserve, and what your organization will most benefit from.

Typically, this has to do with zooming in on your consultative skills and on the way you set up your relationships with internal clients.

A good place to start is with a strong project management framework that establishes productive, positive, collaborative relationships with your internal stakeholders. You’ll get better results guaranteed, both on a personal and on a professional level.

Next is to get very clear about the value proposition you bring to your organization. It goes without saying that if you’re not clear on the value you bring, there is no hope that anyone else will recognize it either. Consider your value proposition carefully, both as an individual, and as a team. You can use this Value Proposition Worksheet to get things going.

And finally, spend some time sharpening up these 5 essential skills for a strategic communicator:

Drive alignment. Communicators have to be fully aligned with the organizational or corporate objectives. Too often, we are vulnerable to being reactive and going off in directions that are actually disconnected from the organization’s mandate and target outcomes. And that is a slippery slope to irrelevance. You need to deliberately align your function, your decisions, your investments of time, energy and mental space to whatever the organization has determined to be its top priorities and targeted results. That’s the space that matters, and where you need to be in order to make a difference.

Adopt a strategic state of mind. Whatever you’re doing on a day-to-day basis needs to focus on the end state – on “What does success look like?”  This is in contrast to having tactical tunnel vision and to focusing only on the reality of the daily churn. Being strategic, and bringing that value to the table, means constantly thinking about outcomes. This results-based mind set is at the core of being a strategic, valued communicator. It’s the escape hatch from being a tactician stuck as a short-order cook. Consider also the importance of strategic communications planning as a vital core competency for our profession – developing tight, insightful plans that connect business objectives to communications leading to measurable outcomes is critical. (You can get some tips in our Best Practice Paper on Strategic Communications Planning.)

Outside-in thinking.  Having the skill and insight to frame an issue or initiative so that it hits the sweet spot of what’s relevant to both your organization and your audience is a hallmark of a strategic communicator.  Outside-in thinking is the ability to read your audience or clients – to understand what makes them tick – and to act in a manner that speaks to their vantage point.  By becoming an expert in public environment analysis and in “wearing the hat” of the stakeholders you serve, you become the glue between your organization and its audience.  A go-to internal resource equipped to consistently add unique strategic value to your team.

Connect the dots. When clients are recruiting senior communications talent, I’ve noticed that one of the most important and difficult skill sets they’re looking for is the ability to integrate. Connecting the dots means you have the savvy to use big picture thinking to see that this change management activity is connected to that employee video, which in turn might be connected to an upcoming stakeholder event. Thinking in a creative, integrated fashion – constantly looking for opportunities that happen at the points of intersection within your organization – is a highly valuable skill to cultivate and promote.

Ask questions that count. The ability to ask high gain questions is the centerpiece of great consultative skills. It is vital to establishing strong internal client relationships, and there is no quicker, easier way to add immediate value than by asking insightful questions that generate clarity and simplify complexity. This approach immediately sets you up in a helpful, constructive posture and it is also the most elegant way I’ve found to diffuse a tense situation that might otherwise degenerate into conflict or impasse with an internal client.  Asking questions that count instantly adds value.  Here are my suggested Top 10 Questions in Strategic Communications.

After all is said and done, the reality is that as communicators, we often work in a sea of chaos. There are waves of new demands, changes and requests to deal with that come crashing in at a relentless pace, and to be honest, that can be a pretty overwhelming experience to navigate.

On the other hand, there’s also something exhilarating about living on the edge, and about not knowing what comes next.  It’s that rush that attracted us to the communications business in the first place.

Either way you look at it, the one thing we know for sure is this: In communications, there are going to be waves. So we’d better learn to surf, and enjoy the ride.

What are your thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing communicators today?

The top 10 questions in strategic communications

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