A strategic communications plan is the foundation for successful communications
It has never been easier to reach people, across the globe, with the single touch of a button. At the same time, truly reaching people has probably never been harder. In the year of the pandemic, the world is also plagued by information fatigue and a trust crisis. Together, these diseases will force communicators everywhere to up their game. We asked four experts how to build a strategic communications plan.
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In 2018, António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, declared in his speech at the General Assembly that “our world is suffering from a bad case of Trust Deficit Disorder”.
He was referring to a global decrease in trust towards governments, media and businesses alike—fueled by new phenomena such as ‘fake news” and ‘information fatigue. The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2020, a report that measures trust in governments, businesses, NGOs, and media, confirms this picture. And since then, things have escalated further. Disinformation, Covid-19, the debate about how social media platforms act (and should act) and the US election and its aftermath, has even made former US president Barack Obama talk about ‘truth decay’.
In this environment, getting your message across is, to say the least, challenging. On the other hand, when you do—and the stars align in your favor—you can touch the entire globe in a few hours.
We asked four experts from Scandinavia and Germany what they think about strategic communication in the 2020s – what to say and why, how to say just that, and what it will take to succeed.
How to get started with a strategic communications plan
1. Start your plan with why, and remind yourself again and again
The ‘why’ might be what separates communication from strategic communication. Even though this hardly comes as news to most communicators, it deserves a mention in these times when speed is at the core of doing business. When everything must happen today, it is easy to forget why we do the things we do, and what the purpose of our communication actually is.
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– Strategic communication is simply communication that serves the purpose of helping you reach a certain goal. And these goals should always be connected to the overall strategic goals of the organization, says Helle Petersen, a communications advisor and researcher based in Denmark, and author of the aptly named book ‘Strategic Communication’.
Mala Wang-Naveen is the communications director for Sintef Digital, a Norwegian research institute that focuses on digital technologies. She describes strategic communication as the supporting wheels for the entire organization.
– You have these success criteria for your business or your organization, and a plan to get there. Your communication efforts, internal and external, should always aim to support that overall communication plan.
2. Internal, then external – make every employee an ambassador
And speaking of internal and external communications, our experts agree that a good strategic communications plan focuses on both. This is even one of Helle Petersen’s main research areas.
– The companies that succeed in their communication efforts are the ones where everyone communicates—and share the same message. These companies have a communication culture, where everyone knows the vision and realizes how they play an important part in communicating it.
Unfortunately, says Helle Petersen, this is rare.
– Further down in the organization, employees rarely know what to communicate and why, simply because no one has included them. These are often the people that interact with customers and clients in a store or in a customer service call, they are on the front line and therefore extremely important ambassadors. Of course they should be an integral part of the company’s communication strategy, but most often they are not.
Johanna Lindskog Lindell is the director of PR and corporate communications for home delivery giant Foodora in the Nordics. She agrees with Helle Petersen.
– It is crucial that everyone knows the goals—what we communicate and why. From the CEO and down throughout the organization, we all need to be in on this. That’s the way our communication can support the business. Thanks to strong internal channels, we can reach our 2 500 employees with information in a second. That is an important possibility.
Helle Petersen says that it is up to the leadership to make sure that every employee can become a communicator.
– Every leader in an organization needs to make sure that their employees are well informed and engaged in an ongoing dialogue about relevant strategic issues. Research shows that the immediate manager is the most important communication channel, so the role of the communications department is not just to communicate, but to make sure everyone else communicates.
“Of course, front-line employees should be an integral part of the company’s communication strategy, but most often they are not”
3. Be authentic, communicate the truth, and stand for something
– We live in a trust economy, where trust is a currency of its own. People now, perhaps more than ever, want to interact with companies and organizations that they can trust. And this is true whether your business is to collect data or sell hamburgers, says Mala Wang-Naveen.
To build trust you need to tell the truth, but you also have to show that consumers can trust your company to do the right thing. According to Johanna Lindskog Lindell, this has increased in importance during the past eight months.
– The value of being authentic is not something new, but I do think that the pandemic has accelerated it and made it all the more important. As a consumer, you want to support the companies that you think share your values.
During the pandemic, Foodora opened up a hotline for elderly people, Foodora Tech Care, so that they can call in and get technical assistance on how to get their food delivered. They also added more products for home delivery, among them books, to assist people in their social distancing.
– Your actions speak louder than words. If you want to earn loyalty from customers, you need to truly deserve it. Over and over again.
Mala Wang-Naveen agrees.
– You have to come across as authentic, and since you can’t fool people, that means you need to BE authentic. The world today can seem dark and frightening, and consumers won’t listen to companies that only want to sell stuff. You have to do things that actually matter, you need to be their friend.
And, adds Helle Petersen, you will not come across as authentic if you are not consistent in your communication.
– There are so many communication channels—both online, offline and in stores et cetera. You need to know what your main message is across all these channels, including the immediate manager. It requires a strong focus on internal leadership communication to succeed.
Jens Bohl is the press spokesperson at Sky Broadcasting Company in Germany. He says that as the world becomes more digital, the need to closely connect with customers increases.
– Today, it is easy for customers to deliver negative feedback via social media, and new flexible streaming offers make it easy to quit or unsubscribe. As competition and alternatives to choose from an increase, it is important to have a strong product that stands out from the crowd—and to push sales efforts through focused communication activities. Building loyalty with long-term customers is also what might save you in a crisis.
“Since you can’t fool people, you need to BE authentic”
4. Be flexible – and prepare for a crisis
This year, viral once again means what it once meant. The associations in our heads are far darker than that incredible voice on some talent show, or an epic split. But companies that want to stay ahead in the game already know the flip side of things going viral—they know how quickly marketing mistakes and other bad press can spread around the world. According to Johanna Lindskog Lindell, this risk needs to be acknowledged in a company’s strategic communications plan.
– And even more so today than five years ago. A few years back, many companies would enlist outside expertise if they encountered a PR nightmare, but today this needs to be part of your strategy and your in-house expertise. Things move a lot faster, and so should you.
Being quick and flexible isn’t just a crisis thing though. If you ask Jens Bohl, it should be a crucial part of your communications strategy.
– In January of 2020 we still had no idea of the challenges we would have to face this year. No one could know, but the companies that could cope the best were the ones with built-in flexibility in how they operate and communicate. You need to be flexible, not just because of the risk of a pandemic, but because of how fast things are changing in general—and because disruptions happen all the time.
Johanna Lindskog Lindell agrees, and says that this is the reason she is not a fan of communication plans to begin with.
– Communication plans tend to be static, but today you have to be dynamic in your communication. I have overall goals in my communication plan, but the path to get there can change overnight.
“You need to be flexible, not just because of the risk of a pandemic—but because disruptions happen all the time”
5. Be relevant and measure everything – what to do when nobody cares
– I am a firm believer in the conversation, that we need to produce content that touches people—content that can start a dialogue. And while companies might know this, it doesn’t mean that they are good at it, says Mala Wang-Naveen.
So how do you become good at it? Jens Bohl says it’s a matter of always being relevant.
– You have to pick the right topic, for the right audience, and communicate your story through the right channels for that specific audience. Moreover, you need to make sure that your message is clear and that you find the right balance when distributing it. Because even if you get everything right, a good message can easily be weakened by too large a dose.
Those are many parameters to get right every time. Johanna Lindskog Lindell explains how Foodora uses data to do the job—to multiply what’s working and tweak what’s not.
– We are a data-driven company so we can measure, in real-time, our customers’ needs. We know when they want faster deliveries, what they want to eat, and what they want to buy. A big part of our job is to listen to that data and act on it fast. Because it changes all the time.
“A big part of our job is to listen to that data, and act on it fast”
Summing up, communication strategy
These five pillars of a great communication strategy might have been the same had this piece been written five years ago. What has probably changed though, is their relative importance of them. In a world where things are moving faster and faster, trust is low, and the very concept of truth is under debate, being relevant and authentic is surely the way forward. And if we are looking for proof of concept, it is probably enough to put on our own consumer hats and ask the question; which companies do we like, and why?
Helle Petersen is a communications advisor and researcher, and author of the book ‘Strategic Communication’. www.hellepetersen.dk
Mala Wang-Naveen is the communications director for Sintef Digital, a Norwegian research institute focused on digital technologies.
Jens Bohl is the press spokesperson at Sky Broadcasting Company in Germany.
Johanna Lindskog Lindell is the director of PR and corporate communications for Foodora in the Nordics.