Three conversations that enable strategic communications

Careers in business communications frequently start with the development of tactical communications skills, like writing, video production or social media. But tactical skills don’t deliver strategic business solutions. Senior communicators go on a longer journey to develop more skills, along with industry and business expertise. Eventually, many senior communicators become strategic generalists managing a team and/or advising leaders on best practices.

However, this journey is often derailed when communicators fail to have some crucial conversations with clients about what really makes business communications strategic. After many years working with, for and managing many communications professionals, here are the key conversations I've had (or at times, not had!) that enable truly impactful communications programs.

The ‘where’s the non-communications objective?’ discussion. Our clients value us for our expertise. And often, they know (to their credit) that communications interventions are key to their success. Unfortunately, we often lack the confidence or business expertise to push back when their primary goals are to "get the word out" or "develop awareness." Too often, we are presented with the dreaded "I have a great idea for a video/newsletter/web site/other media" with a mandate to deliver to client specifications...and that’s what we do.

We know that communications should be a means to an end, not the end itself. Strategic communicators ask the tough questions that reveal the business objective behind the desire to communicate. If you want to make a strategic impact with business communications, you have to find the courage to have these conversations. Until you do, you'll likely be stuck creating beautiful media that ultimately does not deliver significant value for your organization.

The strategy versus plan versus tactics conversation. Communication strategies define the approaches, desired outcomes, success criteria and metrics that inform media selection, audience targeting and messaging. Plans describe how a strategy will be translated into actions that will achieve business results. Tactics are the methods and tools we use to achieve those results. That's pretty much how business strategies, plans and tactics are defined as well. Yet many consumers of public relations, employee communications and even social media support services seem to forget these definitions when it comes time to engage us. While it sounds great to say, logically “We need a Twitter strategy” makes about as much sense in real business terms as saying, “We need a conference call strategy.” Confusing the ends with the means of reaching those ends is a recipe for ineffective communications.

The ‘more is not necessarily better’ dialog. There’s plenty of research and anecdotal evidence that tells us that repeating the same message over and over again after a certain point can have a negative effect. Yet there are still many enthusiastic business leaders who want to “wallpaper the walls” with the latest PR campaign, leadership message or open enrollment announcement. Regardless of the channel, repetition only works up to a point. Just think of that obnoxious television commercial you’ve seen one too many times. Bringing this and other non-intuitive findings from scientific communications research to our clients is a vital part of being a strategic, trusted communications advisor.

These are hard conversations. And any veteran at an agency or in a corporate communication role can tell you tales of when these discussions have gone well and not so well – myself included. But it’s worth the effort to keep trying. Master these communication crucial conversations and you’ll build a reputation as a more strategic – and valuable – trusted communications advisor.