Is strategic communications a competitive weapon?

In 2012 Eva Neumann of washington Technology wrote an article on Strategic communications, in her article she points out that Strategic communications was once a “nice do” but that has since changed as it is now a “must do”.
The tone of business and government has changed. With limited resources, everyone’s forced to strategically focus on outcomes and results. Strategic communications is a “must do” and no longer a “nice to do.” With fewer contracting opportunities, a shift towards lowest cost, technically acceptable procurements, and pressure to insource services, companies that live on government business must revisit and sharpen their message to ensure relevancy with the current political and cultural environment. They must also demonstrate cost-savings and performance metrics. To do this, messages – from proposals to the company website – must consistently and clearly communicate companies’ value and differentiators. If you listen, you’ll notice it more and more. Strategic communications is the new mantra. Executives are talking about the importance of strategic communication, whether in reference to the need for transparency, improving service, recruiting employees, ensuring consolidated programs are successfully integrated or launching a new cloud solution. Government leaders regularly blog about the success of their programs to demonstrate their contribution to the overall agency mission – partly as a result of increasing competitiveness and pressure on budgets.

The Obama Administration uses social media and online communications to connect in real-time with citizens and partners worldwide. Leaders in all types of organizations now see that employee communication has evolved from a perfunctory component of corporate communication and human resource (HR) functions to one that is firmly tied to organizational strategies and business objectives. It’s no longer just about sharing information but is seen as necessary to drive employee behavior to achieve results by helping people understand how their work influences the success of the organization. In all of these examples, the communicator has a strategic purpose – to shape the conversation to efficiently achieve results. If objectives aren’t understood and results aren’t communicated, the communicator risks attitudes and understanding being driven by a target audience’s self-informed perception versus what was actually intended. Demonstrate value during times of change – differentiate by including a communications plan Strategic communications doesn’t just happen. It happens because goals are set, success metrics are determined, target audiences are identified, messages are developed and appropriate communications channels are efficiently used to communicate a consistent message. A company can demonstrate understanding of its government customers’ needs by proactively inserting integrated strategic communication as part of enterprise IT, change management, consolidation or human capital programs – as a differentiator and to acknowledge they know communication is important.

In government agencies, strategic communications planning, also known as outreach, should be part of every program requirement, before the program is launched. It’s one thing to build a website. It’s an entirely different (and ongoing) challenge to get people to visit the website consistently over time, and to have them walk away and do something. The website – a tactic – must be part of an overall strategy and plan that provides value and inspires action. One example is how the Small Business Administration (SBA.gov) can help small businesses find information on loans and grants, as well as help citizens learn how to start a business. SBA uses a variety of communications channels to target their different audiences and build awareness for the SBA’s website. Desired outcomes must be defined in advance and results, good and bad, need to be communicated. Poor performance can be corrected and solid performance can be repeated to improve overall results. Overall, effective strategic communications, framed by a communications plan, will result in the audiences’ clear understanding of the value and benefit of a change in a product, company, agency or initiative. It will methodically address, using appropriate communications channels and carefully tailored messages and sub-messages, all the constituencies you must reach to mobilize support, build acceptance and remove uncertainty.

Communications as a cost savings tool The point about being strategic in communications is to avoid lost productivity, false starts and personal loss. Effective communications equates to a cost-benefit model and can improve the return on investment. If you understand your customers’ and stakeholders’ desires and perceptions, you will understand which programs provide value to them and what needs to be modified to provide better value. Communications with stakeholders can support decisions on how to allocate and focus resources to reduce waste. Underutilized programs can be promoted to increase utilization and duplicative programs or services can be eliminated – if people are aware of those services. If people don’t know a program is available, they can’t use it. Why create a program that isn’t used? Remember that “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t work in baseball or in program management.

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