At a Loss for Words

It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words.

But that’s precisely what happened recently during a workshop I was hosting on best practices in strategic communications planning.

The theme of my presentation was that as communicators we are being asked to do more with less and that there has never been a more compelling time to be strategic, contribute and measure value. And the place to start – and end – is a solid, sophisticated strategic plan.

A gutsy participant raised his hand in front of hundreds of peers and superiors to ask a question that had me gob smacked. “I hear what you’re saying that communications strategies are important and that we should be clear on the results we’re targeting, rather than just pumping out tactics.” He went on “What do you suggest I do when our political masters have categorically told us they do not want to see any communications strategies – all they want are the tactics?”

KAPOW. In ten years of running a consultancy specializing in strategic communications planning, this was a new one for me.

I was baffled. In a rather hushed room, I stammered a reply “ Umm… well, perhaps an analogy would be helpful to your colleagues. Would it be responsible to invest significant monies and staff time in building a house by just starting by laying a bunch of bricks? It’s it essential to first understand the environment, get clear on the goals and outcomes then design some plans to ensure that the structure is sound and will meet the users’ needs?”

What followed was a fascinating, and brutally candid conversation about some of the challenges of being a communicator, particularly in today’s Canadian public sector environment.

Having had some time to reflect on the circumstance, I’ve come up with a few more suggestions that may be helpful to the brave soul who sparked that thought provoking conversation.

First, while a strategic plan is traditionally the centerpiece of a results-based approach to communication management, ultimately the process of analysis, consultation and planning is more important than the document. It is possible (though certainly not optimal), to lead a strategic communications planning process without producing an actual document.

Secondly, it’s important to keep in mind that a strategic communications plan is ultimately about contributing maximum value and return on behalf of our organizations. That should be every communicator’s imperative, every day – it’s a mindset that transcends the parameters of a communications plan.

Finally, in a workshop setting, we are working to contribute to a desired future state. We are not training to the current state. Political winds are ever shifting and while the current climate for this communicator seemed to be highly resistant to strategic communications planning, we know that the only thing that remains constant is change itself.

Next week, next month or next year, things will be different. You will have bosses who demand strong strategic communications planning – it’s worthwhile to invest in your career growth so that you’re ready to hit the ball out of the park when the opportunity arises. For now, here’s a best practice paper in strategic communications planning to have in your back pocket.