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COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the relentless pace of digital transformation are having a seismic impact on so many areas of our lives in 2020 – including the way we communicate.

As organisations in all sectors grapple with the challenge of getting their messages to achieve cut-through in a crowded, ever-changing political, social and media landscape, having a clear strategy has never been more important.

For busy in-house communications teams – and those organisations that don’t have their own internal communications capacity – taking time out to plan and strategise can feel like a luxury amid the daily onslaught of plate-spinning and firefighting. And that’s exactly why you need to make it a priority.

While a social media campaign pulled together on the hoof or an opportunistic press release can achieve tactical wins, as a long-term approach it’s effectively like trying to nail jelly to a wall: some of it might stick, but you’re far more likely to end up with a wobbly mess on the floor.

Looking purely from the bottom line, a strategic approach to communications saves time and money, boosts productivity and achieves better results. This should be music to every organisation’s ears, since who has an unlimited comms budget these days? By having a clear focus on what you’re trying to achieve, who you need to target, and by evaluating the outcomes of everything you do, your communications are far more likely to stick and you’re much less likely to waste resources doing things that don’t work.

Case in point: the Government’s hotly debated “Fatima” adverts, which suggested that ballet dancers should retrain as IT workers. Granted, Government communicators have been operating under extreme pressure during the pandemic and the root of this campaign seemed to be a genuine attempt to help people in a sector decimated by COVID-19 use their transferable skills to find opportunities in other industries. However, from an external perspective it appeared to lack two of the core strategy basics: a clear understanding of the campaign’s target audiences and of the context in which it was launching. Especially since it came just a week after the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, found himself in hot water for suggesting arts jobs were no longer “viable”, prompting predictable (and understandable) furore in the media and Twitterverse. Against this backdrop, the campaign felt out of touch with the concerns of the people it was trying to help and misfired.

So what lessons can we draw from this example? Firstly, having a clear understanding of your audiences and how to engage with them is crucial for building trusted relationships and avoiding tactical missteps that can damage your reputation.

Secondly, communications should be part of your overall business strategy – not just an add-on. You could argue that the real problem at the heart of Fatima-gate was a policy misstep rather than a comms failure (although the communications execution certainly wasn’t en pointe). This is why communicators need to be able to use their insight into audiences and context to help shape wider organisational strategy and be empowered to challenge when an initiative doesn’t quite hit the mark. Who knows what went down behind the scenes on the Fatima campaign, but it would be surprising if there wasn’t at least one comms person muttering “I told them so” under their breath.

And finally, it underlines the importance of evaluation – something at which the Government’s Communications Service excels, so the lessons of Fatima-gate will no doubt be learned (at least by the comms pros). By having clarity on what you want to achieve, and by evaluating the results you can understand why communications sometimes go wrong and apply that learning to the next campaign.

Hopefully it’s clear by now why you need a clear, focused communications strategy. But when you’re in the thick of delivery or dealing with a crisis (as many organisations sadly are right now) it can be hard to know how or where to start.

Here are a few key questions to ask yourself as a starting point:

1. Where are you now?

Taking a step back and looking critically at what’s going well and not so well within your organisation is important for setting clear objectives for where you want to be and how to get there. The good old-fashioned SWOT analysis is still a useful tool to get an overall picture of your organisation’s strengths and weaknesses and consider the opportunities and challenges – both within the organisation and externally – that could help or hinder you.

2. What do you want to achieve?

This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many organisations lose focus on their end goal when they’re caught up in the day to day.  Taking time to set clear, measurable objectives ensures you and your colleagues understand what you’re trying to achieve, can take decisions about how to prioritise your resources and will recognise when you’ve been successful (or not). Remember, good strategy is also about deciding what not to do and setting too many objectives can be just as bad as not having any at all.

3. Who do you need to reach and why?

Understanding your audiences, including your customers, partners and the influencers who can help you reach them, is fundamental to an effective strategy. If you don’t know who you’re trying to reach and what action you want them to take, it’s virtually impossible to create communications that will connect.

By answering these fundamental questions you’ll be on your way to shaping a successful communications strategy. If you’d like to have an informal conversation about how to create a winning strategy, feel free to get in touch at racheal.johnson@social.co.uk