Make your communications strategic plan unnecessary

by David Harris on October 13, 2010

You ought to have a communications strategic plan, right? Everybody says you need one and they’ll run seminars, write books, and train you in how to do it. But let’s question the basic premise a bit.

We dispensed with the idea of a social media strategy because social media is just a tool to help achieve your communications goals. Can we go a step further? Do you need/should you have a communications strategic plan? In what sense is communications just a tool for your organization?

The answer to this question depends somewhat on how you define a strategic plan. But rather than get into that fight over definitions, which nobody can actually win, let’s think about the actual issues here:

1) Is your communications office strategically integrated with the rest of the organization?

2) Is communications the end goal or a tool to achieve the organization’s strategic aims?

We can dispense with the second pretty quickly. Unless your organization is specifically about communicating, then you are just working to achieve some strategic aims. Communications in a research organization is rarely the end goal, or perhaps it is potentially an additional specific goal apart from the rest of the activities of your organization. (For example, the National Science Foundation requires grant winners to do public outreach. Because of that requirement, you have a specific objective to complete involving communications. It is a good requirement but you don’t have control of it so you need to handle it differently.)

Let’s assume we’re not looking at the relatively rare aim of communications for its own sake. Keep in mind that the single most common criticism of any organization in any external review process is that it doesn’t communicate sufficiently well.

I argue that the need for a standalone communications strategy is a sign of bad things to come. The simplest way to describe the issue is that communication is such a fundamental part of how a group of people actually achieves anything that it needs to be integrated at the highest level. If it’s not, you’re going to have a breakdown of some processes and the rest are likely to be less efficient and effective than they could be.

If your organization’s strategic plan wasn’t developed in conjunction with your head of communications, then you could be helping your organization more. Find a way to become part of that process, a topic we can come back to another time.

The work of a research organization is no use at all unless it connects with people outside that organization. All of the decisions that an organization makes at a high level need to consider the way they affect a larger community/set of stakeholders. The best people to provide advice on the implications of those interactions are your communications team members.

So let’s get back to the idea of a strategic communications plan. If you are not well-connected to the top person in your organization (in the sense that they come to you for advice, they are open to unsolicited advice from you, and they call on your direct input both in public and private), then you probably do need a strategic plan to make up for the fact that your organization doesn’t have a very good one, nor a good understanding of the importance of communications.

Otherwise, communications ought to thread its way all through your organization’s strategic plan and your head of communications should be part of the high-level strategic planning and decision making.

Strategies are one thing but you also need to execute. For that you’ll definitely need some kind of tactical plan or action plan. It might be quite detailed and still should be done in collaboration with other parts of your organization. But it’s not a standalone strategic plan that could be created without strong engagement with the people above you in the organization.

To summarize, you need a strategic communications plan if you are making up for a deficiency in your organization’s planning. But if you’re in a well-functioning organization, you won’t even be able to disentangle a separate communications strategic plan from your organization’s.

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