Communications Strategy – What is Strategy Anyway?

Ah – the trillion-dollar question.

OK – let’s take it that you know where you’re going, you’ve a clear vision to be approached, you know who/what you are (righteous truth or truths), you know who/what you want to be and it’s time to begin your programme of communication.

(I might get shot down for being too ‘high-level, here – and yes, I am, but if you think carefully, whether I’m being asked to promote a brand news company/organisation/brand from scratch, or whether I’m being asked to communicate a change in organisational structure to a small proportion of a massive workforce – the principles are the same. It’s just a question of degree. Besides, the high-level, big-picture, big-ticket stuff is simply much more exciting – both for me and for you.)

Well, to start the communications process, it would be good if you had three things. All too often, these three things are viewed simply as the ‘paperwork’ – stuff that you put in front of the powers that be in order to a) get them to buy your ideas or b) make them feel comfortable that what you’re doing is planned. All too often then, these three things get left in a boxfile, never to be looked at again. This – before we go any further – is wrong. These three things are there to keep you focsed, to ensure you achieve, to measure progress, keep you on track and avoid unnecessary and sometimes costly mid-programme errors or omissions. And the three things we’re discussing?

Objectives

Strategy

Tactics

And not, it transpires, in that particular order. The thing is, and this is where it gets interesting, is that most people would agree that – broadly speaking – the Objectives are the things that have to be achieved in order to attain your Vision. The Strategy is your plan for achieving those Objectives, and the Tactics are the tools that you use to fulfil your plan to achieve your ends to attain your ultimate goal. With me so far?

Unfortunately, most people can’t seem to agree on what strategy looks like, how to formulate it and how/whether it should develop during the implementation and roll-out of a campaign. I’m not a great fan of social media, but because it was there I floated the question “What do you mean by ‘strategy’?.

I got a mixed bag of answers, and expected nothing less, but the two below will provide a flavour:

‘The problem with getting the clearest definition of a word like strategy is that it is contextual. Strategy is most often connected to military planning. But it is also generically associated to skillful managing or planning. Some consider the highest strategy as an art form. It is tied to everything from monetary and political policy to building a house or skyscraper. Business plans are often referred to as strategic. So strategy is the scheme or plan that becomes the method for accomplishing an end. The end itself does not have to be a material product but can even be a way of establishing a policy or even a practice.’

‘Strategy to me is the set of choices an organisation makes to achieve its objectives.

These can be short/med/long term. My own preference is to make strategy an ongoing process by making incremental changes as events unfold (emergent strategy). But then, I’m an interventionist.’

Clearly there are a lot of people out there who a) have a lot of time on their hands to intellectualise this or b) are full-time strategists who realise that if strategy wasn’t complicated, they wouldn’t have a job.

Luckily I also found a bloke who made sense. He said:

‘Goal—You have to start with a business goal. After all, if your communications don’t support a business goal, why are they paying you to communicate? My biggest problem with the Groundswell POST model is that it starts with people, the P in POST. You first have to know which people, and you can’t know that until you know what business goal you’re trying to achieve. Otherwise, you could invest a lot of time and effort in targeting an audience that won’t really help the organization accomplish what it needs to.

Strategies—Once you know what your communication effort is designed to achieve, you’ll develop broad strategies. Princeton’s Wordnet defines a strategy as “an elaborate and systematic plan of action,” as good a definition as any in this context. Any goal can be supported by multiple strategies, including non-communication strategies. As communicators, our job is to develop plans of action that leverage communication in support of the goal. Audience and community identification and research are part of the strategy phase.

Objectives—Each strategy will have one or more measurable objectives that must be accomplished for the strategy to succeed. The key here is “measurable.” Strategies are sweeping; objectives are specific.

Tactics—These are the specific tools and actions you’ll take in order to achieve the objectives. These include the channels you’ll use, like Twitter or Facebook, and the specific activities you’ll engage in.’

You’ll notice that I’ve become so blase about social media that I can allow this bloke, on my blog, to imply that Facebook and Twitter are valid communications tools, and not froth at the mouth. I’m obviously getting over it.

Unfortunately, while I think that chap (http://blog.holtz.com/index.php/weblog/hct-home/) makes a clear and compelling case for what a communications plan should look like and contain, and manages to define (to my liking, anyway) strategy – I’ve a slight issue with his insistence that Strategy comes before Objectives. To me, the Objectives are the Milestones in the journey to achieve the Goal, and the strategies are there to tell you how you will achieve the Objectives. For him, it’s pretty much about face.

I don’t think, for one moment, there’ll ever be an agreement about it, and no two comms plans will ever look the same.

The point of the post is, however, avoid the strategy trap. It is that simple – it’s a road map to achieve your goals. Stick to it and you’ll have a path follow. The more complicated you make it, the more difficult it will be for you to follow – and by extension, anyone else to follow. A good strategy engenders excitement and people will want to go along with it – how can they, if they cannot understand what it means and cannot see it clearly?

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