Communications strategies: What’s right for your organization?

Photo: Gisela Giardino, Flickr

It goes without saying that strategic communications is essential to organizational and professional effectiveness and impact.

Without strategy, your communications will lack focus and direction and may be perceived as inconsistent and unreliable. Non-strategic communications may even end up undermining or contradicting an organization’s overall mission and vision.

Communications strategies are fundamental for every organization, entity and brand – large or small, for- or non-profit.

However, I contend that not all types of communications strategies are essential for every organization and brand. For example, larger organizations working across the globe will have more communications needs than smaller organizations, and may therefore require not only an overall communications strategy, but strategies for internal communications, social media, content, etc. The communications strategies your organization needs will depend on its size, budget and overall mission, vision and objectives.

The must-have strategy for all organizations

An overall communications strategy is an absolute requirement for all organizations, entities and brands aiming for success and impact. Your overall communications strategy lays out exactly how your communications will be used to accomplish organizational and professional goals. It sets out your communications mission and vision and clarifies your audiences and niche, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, the communications resources you need, governance mechanisms, the communications channels you will use, and other important aspects. This strategy should also address all of the important communications functions and needs in your organizations, such as promotion, stakeholder engagement and fundraising, public and press relations, internal and crisis communications, digital and social media, and content strategy. Non-profits: Click here for an excellent resource for developing a communications strategy and workplan.

Additional strategies: Must-haves for medium-sized and large organizations

In my view, organizations that are defined as ‘medium-sized’ or above should be those with dozens or more employees, substantial budgets and investments that are five figures or more, and large stakeholder bases spanning sectors, nations and/or continents.

In this context, the stakes are higher than for smaller organizations. Working at this scale means that media and public scrutiny is likely higher. And if your organization is working at this level, ensuring your stakeholders and partners deliver your message in a unified and consistent way is a bigger challenge. As such, medium-sized and large organizations need to go beyond the overall communications strategy and develop more detailed strategies on specific communications focus areas. The overall communications strategy should be the foundation and reference point, and any new strategy should always link back to the overall communications strategy. With that said, I recommend developing additional strategies for:

It’s worth noting that smaller organizations can also reap substantial benefits from public relations and social media strategies.

Supplemental strategies to boost effectiveness

Lastly, all organizations can benefit from more focused and specialized strategies covering:

  • Press/media relations
  • Content
  • Digital communications
  • Marketing communications
  • Stakeholder communications
  • Fundraising communications 
  • Departmental communications

I don’t consider these strategies essential, but if you want to take your communications game up a notch and really deliver impact, I’d recommend developing them. But do keep this in mind that most of these strategies are interlinked. Some objectives will overlap, so be careful not to duplicate efforts.

Bringing it all together

Developing most or all of these strategies might seem daunting, and getting caught up in developing ill-informed strategies for months on end is just procrastination and not at all effective. Your strategy development process should be systematic and efficient, and the final product should not be a long-winded dissertation. Simple one-pagers or short PowerPoint presentations can suffice for specialized strategies, as long as the work to develop a clear strategy has been done, and the strategy document itself is clear, tangible and actionable.

I would recommend having one master document linking all the strategies, with the overall communications strategy as the foundation and main reference point. In fact, specialized/specific communications strategies can be sections within a 10-page communications strategy document.

Look out for future blog posts where I’ll be exploring each of the additional communications strategies mentioned above.

What’s the difference between a communications strategy and plan?

Photo: Andy Tyler (Flickr)

If you check some thesauruses, you’ll find that ‘strategy’ and ‘plan’ are synonymous. This might explain why so many consultants and organizations assume a communications strategy and communications plan are one and the same, misusing and misappropriating these terms quite frequently.

Communications strategies and plans are inextricably linked and can have similar components, but in order to deliver effective communications, they should be distinguished.

At its highest level, a communications strategy (e.g. a corporate communications strategy) sets out your organization’s communications mission and vision, which must be in line with your organization’s overall mission and vision. In this sense it is a high-level strategy to guide all of your organization’s communications initiatives and activities. Communications strategies for specific initiatives and projects, content strategies, media strategies and other communications-related strategies should all fall under and be in line with your organization’s high-level communications strategy.

communications plan is a tangible plan for how a communications strategy will be taken forward. It highlights key communications activities and milestones, timelines, budgets, and resources allocated to delivering the strategy. On the one hand, one can speak of a communications plan for the high-level communciations strategy mentioned above. Or one can speak of communications plans for specific projects or initiatives, which may or may not have specific communications strategies. If they don’t, then such communications plans should be guided by the high-level communications strategy. Such plans should outline how the high-level strategy will be implemented in those specific contexts.

So there you have it, the key differences between the two, based on my analysis and experience as a communications practitioner. Lastly, allow me to conclude with a few parting points:

To enhance the effectiveness of your communications, you need to have a communications strategy as well as relevant/associated communications plans: Developing these interlinked products will ensure that all key communications factors, components and needs are addressed for your organization.

A communications strategy can incorporate a communications plan, and vice versa, but this is not a given: It is therefore important to understand the difference between the two. This will help you ensure that the information required for both products is available, be it in standalone documents or in one document.

Keep your strategies and plans concise, especially if they will be shared with multiple stakeholders: Though comprehensive analysis should go into developing a communications strategy, it does not need to be hundreds of pages. A concise presentation that is easily accessible to all stakeholders is advised. This will ensure that it can be much more effectively referred back to, understood and updated, and that all stakeholders can effectively rally around it without getting bogged down in too many details. For these same reasons I also advise making your communications plan brief, focusing on key information.

Non-profits: Click here for an excellent resource for developing a communications strategy and workplan


Ethical image use: telling compelling stories while respecting peoples’ rights

Photo: Paul Akiko and his family with a polaroid of themselves in the village of Cuivir Rainha, Niassa, Mozambique. © WaterAid/ Panos/ Adam Patterson 

In the field of communications for social development, images are king. But depending on how they are used, and despite the intention, they can have positive or negative consequences. Video and photographic images can spur emotions, connect people and cultures, raise awareness, enhance evidence-based advocacy and boost knowledge, leading to increased stakeholder support, funding, partnerships and policy change. However, they can also reinforce stereotypes, misconstrue messages, cause bad publicity and negative controversy, and lessen stakeholder support and funding. Key questions in the development sector include:

  • How can organizations sensitively and fairly portray the needs they are trying to address?
  • How can organizations give a fuller, more rounded picture of the places in which they work?
  • How can organizations use emotive images of people and communities without compromising their rights?

As part of an organization’s content strategy, images should tell the full story – the trial and error, the failure and success, and the experiences and perspectives of all beneficiaries and stakeholders. And most importantly, all of these images should respect the rights of all of the people, communities and stakeholders included.

In order to address these aspects, it is important for organizations to develop video and photography guidelines, and more specifically, an ethical image policy. The NGO WaterAid recently released a comprehensive ethical image policy covering:

  • Accuracy – ensuring videos and photos are truthful
  • Consent – ensuring people fully understand why they are being photographed or filmed, and are comfortable with the process and outcomes
  • Longevity – how long the images should be used
  • Integrity – producing respectful images, avoiding stereotyping and ensuring privacy
  • Manipulation – what is and is not allowed in post-production
  • Child protection – ensuring that children featured in images are safe from harm
  • Equality and non-discrimination – ensuring that video and photographic practices include everyone, even the most marginalized

Read WaterAid’s take on ethical image use or download their ethical image policy for inspiration.

Navigating the attention economy

Researchers and strategists including Herbert SimonThomas Davenport  and Michael Goldhaber have deduced that we are living in an attention economy. Why is this? It stems from the fact that in this day and age there is an overabundance of information due to the rapid growth of web/digital media and technology. As early as 1971, Simon effectively articulated how an overabundance of information impacts attention:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

In our information-rich world, attention is a scare and valuable commodity. So, how do we navigate this attention economy?

Surviving and thriving in the attention economy

Writing for The Media OnlineDavid Smythe notes that never before have brands had to work so hard for an audience’s attention.  “We’re moving away from a supply based media system influenced by marketers, to a demand-based media world driven by consumers … Before a brand can entertain or inform, its communication needs to be noticed,” he says. 

Smythe highlights various trends that can help marketers survive and thrive in this world:

  • Harnessing the power of Storytelling, storymaking and storybuilding. “Information that has been humanised and enriched through storytelling is persuasive and has greater memorability,” Smythe says. My previous post touched on the power of storytelling.
  • Ephemeral/momentary marketing. It can be reasonably assumed that attention starved and time deprived consumers will probably respond well to branded content that is fleeting, yet relevant. The rise of Snapchat is a good example. “By devising temporary marketing schemes, brands are appealing to a desire amongst people to consume smaller forms of content in a way that is both easy and efficient,” Smythe says.
  • Me marketing. Smythe notes that a prevailing trend suggests that every individual is now a marketer, and we all want to be marketed to individually. “There can be no more powerful way for a brand to capture attention by speaking to the consumer as if they were an individual with their own unique wants and needs … It speaks to the use of personalisation to guarantee sustained attention.”
  • Easing the consumer decision journey. Consumers are faced with too much information and are time-deprived. This leaves them feeling that they are not always making the right choices. Smythe notes that brands that become known for making the decision making process a little simpler will secure disproportionate attention ahead of the average.
  • Brand sacrifice. Smythe notes that in the 21st century, brands that sacrifice, or display some form of altruism, enjoy disproportionate attention ahead of the average. “More millennials than non-millennials integrate their beliefs and causes into their choice of companies to support, their purchases and their day-to-day interactions,” he says. “Sacrifices can be large or small; they can change the world or just the consumer’s world.”

Who are ‘attention workers’? 

In a paper for the Innovation Journalism journal, Vilma Luoma-aho and Saara Halonen describe the role of ‘attention workers’, or professional brokers of attention. They emphasize that as attention becomes increasingly scarce, the influence of attention workers rises. In this context, attention workers can include journalists, public relations practitioners, marketers, advertisers, lobbyists and other actors. They are professionals who aim to distribute information and knowledge effectively, increasing social capital in the process. Identifying and cultivating these attention workers could go a long way for organizations.

Look out for my next post, where I’ll touch on some challenges associated with the attention economy.


Photo: Copyright woodleywonderworks, Flickr

Music and marketing: a powerful match

It’s no secret that music can be a powerful marketing tool. As Collin Shaw, founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy points out in his LinkedIn article, music has a unique effect on our brain, especially when it comes to memory. Memories, whether good or bad, can be created through the sounds and rhythms associated with music.

In addition, music can raise awareness and engagement through powerful lyrics and messages, mobilizing social action in some cases. Check out these articles – one on how music supported Nelson Mandela’s freedom struggle, and the other on 100 songs that changed history. As Mandela once said, “Music is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate us and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice. Such is the value of music.”

Stay tuned for part two of this post, where I’ll share some ideas for incorporating music into your marketing efforts.