aren’t we all comms people now?
It’s the industry challenge which never seems to completely go away. Everyone’s an expert in communications, right? Here’s how one leading communicator tackles the issue.
by Lucy D
Communications is a pretty undervalued profession. Don’t believe me? Talk to any comms colleague who’s been asked to ‘just tweet something’ or join me in laughing and crying at Helen Reynold’s fantastically on-point comms cartoons!
With so many people blogging and tweeting from personal accounts, it’s easy to think that delivering communications is a piece of cake.
On top of that, our work is often seen as a series of individual outputs: posters, events, blog posts, press releases. Very few people who make contact with those single assets have sight of the bigger picture — the campaign that sits behind them.
And I’m sure that’s why the misunderstanding around comms arises.
The truth is, good strategic communications doesn’t focus on the output. It focuses on the audience and the outcome first.
What do I mean by strategic communications? Strategic comms takes a long-term approach, with consistent messages, clear aims and objectives based on audience insight and evaluation.
I want to talk about why I love using of a strategic communications approach and some tactics I use to embed strategic thinking.
The value of the strategy
Comms without a plan is just noise. Pretty awesome noise if you have a kickass designer or social media team, but still noise.
For example @KFC doesn’t follow the Spice Girls and 6 guys called Herb just cause it’s funny! If you delve a little deeper, this is a single tactic in an arsenal of communications that hark back to the core brand identity — a comms strategy that has been perpetuated for over decades: distinguishing themselves in the market, and driving sales.
It’s simply a new approach with a new audience, on a different channel.
Though saying it’s ‘simply’ anything is minimising its ingenuity!
In government communications, we can’t act on every request we get, and we need a way of managing and prioritising requests coming through. In this case, a communications strategy is actually our greatest ally.
Other teams and professions are bound by ways of working, sprints, and timescales. Communications is exactly the same, and a strategy offers a way of ‘formalising’ our deliverables, and allowing us to handle last minute requests so we can focus on a proactive approach.
With clear aims and objectives, we can show our return on investment, not simply to the management board but also to our colleagues across the organisation.
The strategy for a strategy
Strategies don’t have to be difficult. While we should focus on action rather than bureaucracy, taking the time to stop and ask why we’re doing something, why we want to put out specific messages, is essential if we are to continue to deliver exceptional government communications.
Planning a communications strategy doesn’t have to be scary. Here are some tactics you can use to make this process simple and fun:
Never talk assets
Your manager/colleague/apprentice comes into the meeting, sits down and says: ‘I want a video’. This isn’t a good start. As soon as people start talking about tactics or design assets, I step back and explain: in the first meeting or three ‘we never talk assets’. Assets are a tactic. We need to talk big picture first.
Focus on the ultimate goal
The most important thing for me when developing a communications strategy is knowing why people want to do comms. You may not realise it, but as you start to form your comms objectives, you’ll also be developing the ways to measure the campaign’s success.
The government communications plan references 6 aims of government comms that are always handy to bear in mind:
- Raising awareness
- Influencing attitudes and behaviours
- Supporting government services
- Informing, supporting and reassuring during times of crisis
- Enhancing government’s reputation at home and abroad
- Meeting statutory or legal requirements
Good thinking takes time
I don’t chuck out a comms strategy in a day — or at least it’s very rare that I do! I need time to process my thinking, consider who my audiences are, do some insight into what they think and what I want them to think.
At this stage, rushing will mean you may not be able to deliver on your objectives or not achieve as great success as possible. So go for a walk, take that work from home day or sit at your desk and stare at the wall for 15 minutes. It all helps!
Embrace the smorgasbord
My favourite aspect of strategic planning is bringing others in the team onboard. It’s that ‘anything goes’ moment in the planning when you sit in a meeting room or a coffee shop, with a notepad or post-it notes and you’re just going crazy trying to come up with ideas.
In a campaign-based approach, this means folding in all your experts across the communications team: events, social, press, creative, etc.
At this stage, nothing is off the cards.
Plan the delivery
Now comes the fun part! You’ve done the thinking, you’ve established the objectives, you’ve hopefully done your insight into your target audiences. Now, how are we going to get this done? This is where you start to bring your strategy into play — what will comms in the first week/month/year look like? What are the milestones you can use as anchors?
You can be flexible within your timescales but it’s good to have at least a plan of how the campaign should look and start bringing all the different elements together.
And finally, a comprehensive, well thought-out strategy is what you go back to your teams with. A comprehensive pitch.
I like to think comms teams work best when they operate as an agency, whether in-house or external. And by utilising an agency-style approach, we give ourselves more credibility.
We get held to account on our deliverables, we’re seen as experts and specialists — all of these should happen anyway. In my experience, it can be harder when embedded across the department to showcase that particular professional skillset.
The best way to demonstrate our skills? Show them more! As a comms person, I am ironically bad at marketing myself and the value I bring to the teams. So I’ve started going to quarterly showcases to deliver presentations on ‘how comms has supported your roadmap’, or doing monthly evaluation reports.
The more we get out and show the value that thought-out communications can deliver, the more we can support ourselves to be the best and do the best for government communications.
And in time who knows! People might stop saying ‘just tweet something’ and asking us what approach we recommend as comms professionals
Lucy D is head of campaigns at Government Digital Services
image via Tullio Saba