The success of a communications strategy is in large part dependent on sound planning. Corporate communicators need to ensure that their function is fully integrated in the business. It needs to be capable of both proactively planning the year ahead whilst remaining sufficiently nimble to react to unexpected and hard-to-predict circumstances that often present communications challenges in the short term.
There are a number of components that make up the blueprint of an effective communications planning cycle.
AMONG THEM THERE ARE:
- Timely actions to support business strategy throughout the financial year
- Insightful inputs to maximise chances of conveying a comprehensive message
- The involvement of appropriate internal stakeholders
- The right balance of aligned and unified internal and external communications
- An ability to adapt to the unexpected
In this sitting of the Reputation Council, we’ve explored what the key factors are in successful communications planning, the most important changes in how corporate communicators work and the future of the function. In addition, we touch on other hot topics of debate, including the balance between internal and external communications and the timings of the communications planning.
FIVE KEY FACTORS IN SUCCESSFUL COMMUNICATIONS PLANNING
GOOD CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS PLANNING IS DESIGNED IN CLOSE COOPERATION WITH THE BUSINESS IT SERVES. THERE ARE A NUMBER OF SOURCES OF INFORMATION, BOTH INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL, THAT MEMBERS CONSIDER WHEN PLANNING:
01. BUSINESS OBJECTIVES
Business strategy and priorities for the year ahead are at the heart of communications planning. The overall organisational strategy both short and long-term (i.e. five- or ten-year strategies) shapes both the overarching and tactical comms initiatives.
“Business strategy from the management department. And financial information from the finance department.”
02. SENIOR LEADERSHIP
Top management and senior decision makers often have an active voice in shaping the communications strategy of the business. They input their views at any stage of the design and/or signing off the final version of the plan.
“First and foremost, it’s from the general manager and board leadership of that business. We don’t plan anything until we’ve sat down with them and discussed their strategic priorities for the year ahead. I very much view corporate communications as supporting that strategic roadmap rather than telling them what their strategic roadmap should be.”
03. BUDGET AVAILABLE
Financial constraints are a key factor to consider and corporate communications are often required to maximise impact with limited resources. This is an essential factor in determining the day-to-day execution of the plans.
“There’s the budget process, which is happening now. The amount of money you have to spend dictates some of the things you’re going to be doing – so budget dollars.”
04. EXTERNAL SOURCES
Specialist opinion research, brought in from third party sources to understand the perceptions and expectations of various stakeholder groups, or test the validity of specific campaigns or initiatives is also a common input. It’s objective nature makes it particularly powerful in some businesses, as it brings clarity when conflicting internal points of view.
“External analysis – strategy and insights. What is happening in the surrounding culture, what are the pressures coming at you?”
It is often the case that corporate communicators discuss the challenges and opportunities facing their businesses with their networks of peers in the sector. Confidentiality certainly plays a key role here, but Council members often see this as a key way to validate current approaches and discuss fresh ideas.
“External stakeholders, inside market intelligence, customer intelligence, – several sources are integrated.”
“Business operating strategy dictates priorities; research with consumers for the business; financials (opportunities and threats); business performance.”
THE MOST IMPORTANT CHANGES IN HOW CORPORATE COMMUNICATORS WORK
The past decade has brought deep transformations to the way organisations are expected to interact with their stakeholders. From day-to-day execution to overall strategies for stakeholder engagement, here are some of the changes most commonly mentioned by Council members:
The 24h news cycle requires corporate communicators to react quickly to news stories and have a point of view on critical issues with the potential to affect their organisation’s reputation.
“I think the more we globalize, there will be much longer working hours. Especially in communications, the reaction is important. If something happens somewhere it needs to be dealt with. If there is an increase in overseas matters that cannot wait until the next day, I wouldn’t say we need to be in operation 24 hours but monitoring them will be tough.”
02. THE SHIFT TO DIGITAL
New communications channels, social media in particular, require corporate communicators to adapt their skillset and nurture more multi-disciplinary teams. There is also the need to coordinate the messaging across platforms and interact with stakeholders in a more direct way than in the past. Ensuring consistency and a single voice is of paramount importance.
“Communication process has changed tremendously, there are fewer journalists, print has decreased in importance, development in fields of digital, social media, podcasts, videos and so on, a new audience is being addressed, the middle man (journalist) is cut out.”
Standard press releases are no longer good-enough to get a company’s point across. Stakeholders increasingly expect creative story-telling for press officers to stand out from the crowd.
“We’ve changed how we think about external communications. We’ve gone from ‘press release happy’ to storytelling outside of the traditional press release. We can’t just check off ‘press release’ – we need to be more creative.”
These days, communications teams are expected to work closely with other internal departments. Externally, the communications process has moved from ‘broadcasting’ to ‘dialogue’, with stakeholders expecting a higher degree of interaction than in the past.
“There is a breakdown in silos within business and this reflects a merging of communication disciplines. It used to be that internal communications, marketing and corporate communications were really separate areas but with so much blurring of boundaries between those and that has forced a greater degree of collaborative and integrated working which then becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy because you then get more blurring of boundaries, it just keeps feeding itself as a way of working.”
“Really acting like an agency; bringing the full amount of expertise within the team. You could be working on something that you don’t support directly. We try to be as collaborative as we can and bring the expertise that we have in-house to any number of initiatives that we’re working on.”
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN THE COMMUNICATIONS PLANNING PROCESS
As the role of the corporate communicator becomes increasingly complex, Council members discuss some of the obstacles they face in their jobs today. The most important are:
01. ALLOWING TIME FOR THE UNEXPECTED
Increased scrutiny of an organisation’s activities and a global remit often lead to reputational crises that need to be dealt with decisively. Time commitments vary depending on their severity, but Council members agree on the need to carve out time to cope with unexpected challenges in a volatile environment.
“It’s being in such a reactive environment. There are issues and crises that we’ve had to deal with here. We have protesters. We have environmental issues. We have animal welfare issues. These things tend to pop up relatively quickly and you have to react to them. That, unfortunately, gets in the way of some of the more proactive things that we’d like to do to talk about our reputation and show how we’re activating on purpose.”
02. DECENTRALISATION AND COORDINATION
With increasingly complex organisational structures and competing priorities, coordinating processes and messages is a common challenge that needs to be considered. Equally, balancing short and long-term priorities is frequently a difficult exercise.
“Changing priorities, short term objectives…Once we have the strategy and plans, we have to change it.”
03. LOCAL IMPLEMENTATION OF GLOBAL STRATEGIES
With Council members normally being part of leading global organisations, they often find that transposing global messaging into their local context is a delicate process that requires careful consideration to account for cultural differences.
“The biggest difficulty is aligning each global business strategy with each region. The difficulty is that what you see at headquarters is different from what you see locally, so I think it’s very difficult to get this alignment. The most common thing is the fact that we have a global team and the local team brings the raw information from the locals.”
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL COMMS
The distinction (or lack of) between internal and external communications has been a hot topic of debate in the industry for a number of years.
On the one hand, the need to tailor communications to the different needs of internal and external stakeholder groups makes the case for separate work streams. For example, employee communications require a different approach to that needed with investors. Whilst the company needs the support of both groups to succeed in the marketplace, their experience of an organisation is vastly different. It is also a ‘fact that it is easier for the company to control internal communications channels than it is to shape the message in the outside world, thus tactical adjustments are often required.’
On the other hand, there is a strong argument in favour of having a consistent approach irrespective of the remit of the communications. Both internal and external audiences expect a degree of consistency that boosts confidence in what the company stands for and what it is trying to achieve.
Leaving differing corporate structures and channels aside, Council members feel that there needs to be a communications backbone underlining the way the company presents itself to stakeholders, both internal and external.
“Increasingly, we’re trying not to draw a distinction. We have an external and internal comms team but we’re trying to blur those lines.”
“It is entirely consistent, so we do not draw distinctions. But how the strategy is executed may be different with external and internal audiences.”
“There are certain things that have a greater lean in one area or another. But primarily we look at the story and how are we building reputation. Employees are a key driver of our reputation internally and externally. Our employees are the best potential advocates that we have. There are very few moments where we’re able to separate the two.”
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL COMMS
WHEN DO REPUTATION COUNCIL MEMBERS BEGIN AND FINALISE THEIR PLANNING?
The diversity of Council members and the various industries in which they operate means that there are no typical approaches to timescales and deadlines, with company calendars starting and finishing at different times of the year.
“Completion [of the planning] is done up to the first quarter of the following year. Why? We have a long-term planning [cycle]. So, when you look at the plan for the next year, you have to evaluate the current year and then there are a lot of things (…) that were a little bit late… because there was a lot of change, new government, changes in the law. Laws that impact our business directly and this has had a major impact on our planning. And you have to adjust it over time. That’s why the process is long. It’s not one planning session and that’s it, we can check next year. No, it’s constant, it ends up being monthly.”
THERE ARE, HOWEVER, SOME COMMON THEMES THAT ARE USEFUL TO CONSIDER:
- It tends to be an annual process with different stages across the financial year, which means that communications adapt to the needs of the business at certain points in time.
- The initial round of planning normally lasts for a quarter, implying that setting a forward strategy requires time to consult with various parts of the business.
- The third and fourth quarters tend to be the periods when planning for the year ahead begins, suggesting that evidence, for example from the external market and opinion research, needs to be captured before then.
- Council members see the communications plan as a live document, continuously up for improvement as the company navigates the year and new circumstances present themselves, meaning the job is never fully complete.
“We’re kind of in constant planning cycles. We have our one-year planning, which happens in August, September, we have three-year plans. We’re always trying to make sure that we’re doing a mix of short-, medium-, and long-term plans.”
“We have a clear sense of what we want to do by the turn of the year but after our trading update and prelims we then start to finalise it.”
WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS
Council members expect the main changes and challenges they’ve identified to evolve and even become more prominent in the near future. Whilst the essentials of communications, such as building long-term, trusted relationships with key stakeholders or considering the views and expectations of various stakeholder groups will remain a constant, the environment in which corporate communicators are expected to deliver will go through further transformation.
“It’s always going to have the same principles of what is an earned story that is at the core of your strategy. That’s a timeless skill and applying those stories and choreographing them. I can’t really envision what the technology or the channels of the future might be, but the same disciplines around strategy and smart narrative are timeless.”
Some of these changes will be driven by technological innovations, such as new channels and platforms for companies to get their voices heard and compete for attention, or processes for collaboration, with remote working among global teams being a prime example.
“The approach is likely to remain the same, but the actions, channels and forms will have changed to accommodate the dynamics of communications and technology.”
Other changes will relate to stakeholders’ expectations, particularly around the need for companies to have a clear strategy in areas such as sustainability and climate change. Finally, a more insights-driven approach to communications, and the availability of vast amounts of data, has already started to have a noticeable impact in the way companies communicate.
Corporate communicators are required to have a structured yet flexible communications process to navigate a complex and crowded environment. The initial planning phase is mostly useful to set the overall strategy for the year, but it inevitably needs to be adapted as circumstances and expectations evolve at an increasingly fast pace. Currently, there are already multiple inputs to consider, both internal and external. The successful corporate communicator is able to blend them all into a cohesive narrative that will support the organisation in achieving its goals.
With these trends set to develop further in the next five years, communicators need to make the case for the value of increased investment in multi-disciplinary teams and comprehensive skillsets, to ensure corporate communications continue to support and add value to the business.