It’s been said many times before but maybe it needs to be said again. Whatever new tech and shiny new gifts come along to woo us in the comms industry we still need to be great at the basics - strategy and planning, research and evaluation.
by Amanda Nash
“Anything we do in communications is pointless unless we have a clear understanding of what we want someone, somewhere to think, feel and do.” [i]
There’s been a lot written lately about senseless jargon, for example Louise Powney’s on-the-money blog about words that get our goat or Phil Jewitt’s reflections on ‘inbound marketing’ in A little Communication Shop of Horrors.
It’s right we question terminology, use what works and don’t just follow the latest fad, as Alex Mills wisely urges us in shiny and new doesn't mean better if what you've got gets results.
But I wonder whether sometimes, as professional communicators, we’re better at taking the proverbial out of what professional communications isn’t, or shouldn’t be, than defining what communications is and how it works.
There was a really useful summary from Katy Gibbins on the various evaluation frameworks available: Monitoring and evaluation – learn from the best and do it your way. The need to undertake comprehensive evaluation against business-related objectives is a fundamental in professional communications and no serious investment in any work is complete without it.
But sometimes the steps between objectives and evaluation can seem like the dark arts. From behaviour change theory through content marketing and media relations to big data and back again, do we all conform to a standard for how communications works?
If I go for treatment with a physiotherapist for an injury, there is a process that is followed which includes assessment, diagnosis, manual therapy and/or prescribing of an exercise regime and advice or referral elsewhere.
What formula do we use as professional communicators to solve the problems that are presented to us, what is our own communications algorithm[ii]?
I know some colleagues like to try to safeguard the ‘secrets’ of how they work to influence opinions and behaviour. They like being called into a crisis, calming the storm in the worlds of media and social media and leaving those they’ve helped thinking they’re some kind of Marvel character with special powers.
I don’t. I’m not Harry Potter. Professional communications, used strategically is about skilled professionals systematically undertaking a series of steps. Creativity is a part of this. Influencing opinion and behaviour change most certainly is. Content creation is. But it all fits within a purposeful framework.
The point of the framework is always, I repeat always, to shift opinion and change behaviour. The measure of success assessed in evaluation should always be defined by behaviour change, rather than output measures. [iii] I work in healthcare. The final evaluation of a flu vaccination campaign should always measure how many people got themselves or their children vaccinated – not how many clinics were run, how many shares our campaign messages had on social media etc.
What frameworks are available? The Government Communication Service has some very useful advice and frameworks, such as OASIS, for campaigns. The CIPR has its own Research, Planning and Measurement Toolkit.
Inspired by Katharina Auer’s circular communications process used at Zurich, I’ve slightly adapted this for myself as the guide I now use to steer my communication planning. The credit is all Katharina’s, as my amendments are small and related principally to audience insight and message testing.
When colleagues approach me or my team for professional communications support, this is what we offer alongside many skills such as:
- knowledge - say of best practice in the industry, which channels are used most by whom, behavioural change theories such as reciprocity, specialist media contacts etc
- creativity - this can be in anything from graphic design to strategic narrative formation
- technical skills – could be design, programming, use of social media tools, video creation and editing etc
- a willingness to work alongside those we are supporting, an ability to question, to scope to help them think through and define the problem, what the desired success state will look like etc
Rarely does this ever run according to a prefect, linear plan. I repeat, I am not Harry Potter. There are no magic wands in what I do.
There are however, professional frameworks and best practice guides that have informed the approach I use. This communications process is born of a CIPR Diploma, Continued Professional Development with the CIPR, hopefully another post-graduate qualification coming soon, understanding evidence of what works, continually learning from the best and many, many hours of hard-earned experience.
For now (change is pretty much a constant), this is the professional communications approach I try to offer.
What’s yours? Should we have a standard approach?
Amanda Nash is Head of Communications at Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust
image via Flickr Creative Commons
[i] Dr Bill Nichols, Deputy Director - Centre for Health Communication Research, CHCR, Dec 2015
[ii] Algorithm as formula for solving a problem: https://medium.com/@Innovandiamo/the-algorithmic-power-that-shape-our-lives-ad7ff2a7a353#.okoraxnh1