Communication
February 19, 2013

Strategy for the art of communications

It’s painfully ironic how difficult it can be for communicators to effectively communicate on their own behalf, to explain to clients or senior management just how their activities contribute to organizational success.

Indeed, one of the most challenging and frustrating requirements communicators face is to plan, track and evaluate their activities in a comprehensive process that demonstrates how the input of the right level of effort and resources leads to the achievement of specific objectives.

As a communicator, I know how difficult it can be to demonstrate the return on investment my work generates. While I understand how my activities create value, I also recognize it can sometimes be challenging to draw a line between A and B because A and B aren’t always clearly defined in the first place.

Not knowing where you’re coming from or where you’re going can lead to all kinds of messy detours. In communications, that means more time and more resources – and more grumpy clients or senior executives as you try to explain how the execution of a seemingly unrelated mix of tactics was somehow a valuable investment of their time and money.

Caroline Kealey, the founder and CEO of Ingenium Communications, has long recognized this problem and the underlying challenge communicators face in developing effective strategic plans. She has refined her decades of experience as a communications practitioner and strategist into the Results Map Handbook: The Essential Guide to Strategic Communications Planning, a guide for communicators to help them achieve their goals along a straight line, rather than succumbing to the all too common circuitous and often ineffective path of adhockery.

The handbook, published last year, is a step-by-step approach to strategic communications. It’s based on the Results Map methodology Kealey has developed, which uses the image of a subway map to present a logical, sequential model for strategic communications that connects objectives to a strong focus on measurable results. The map shows the various “junctures” (prepare-plan-implement-evaluate) that communications should address in a strategic communications plan, or even a strategic response to an issue or project.

In a refreshing nod to the importance of practical rather than theoretical direction in strategic communications, the publication is offered in either a print or digital format, and includes an accompanying online database of templates, worksheets and samples to support communicators as they progress through the strategy-development process.

Paint-by-numbers approach
The handbook’s greatest value lies in its logical presentation of the overall structure of what a strategic communications plan should look like. Meanwhile, its detailed templates and worksheets are helpful in providing a paint-by-numbers approach to developing comprehensive and refined communications plans.

In these exercises, Kealey provides all the important questions you should be regularly asking your clients and yourself as you determine the direction of your communications program, such as:

• What does success look like to you?
• Why this, why now?
• What are the project or corporate objectives?
• What are the communications objectives?
• What are the main risks and opportunities?

Key junctures
The guide covers the most important steps required to help communicators achieve that crucial alignment between performance indicators and objectives that seal the deal when it comes to demonstrating return on investment for their activities.

It teaches communicators how to prepare, plan, implement and evaluate a strategic communications plan and dives into all the dark corners that so many communicators dismiss, bringing to light the hidden traps that threaten to terminate a communications program before it can achieve its desired results.

While the Results Map’s core lessons are all about comprehensive strategic communications planning, it also speaks to the broader environments in which communicators operate. Kealey covers numerous scenarios communicators regularly face in their work, including how to lead a kick-off meeting, develop a project plan, manage internal client engagements, and handle crisis situations.

And while it is certainly a comprehensive methodology, it has a flexible, modular design so that it can work for any kind of communications activity, from long-term targeted communications plans to short-term campaigns.

Kealey demonstrates that she understands the pains communicators regularly face in their work. She recognizes that communicators have “invisible value,” such as risk avoidance, that often go unrecognized, and teaches them how to account for such contributions in their planning.

Most important, the Results Map teaches communicators how to prepare to be successful with this methodology. This is the critical step that makes the Results Map fundamentally different from most guides on communications strategy that I’ve come across.

A Goldilocks solution
Not all readers are going to have Kealey’s extensive background in strategic planning, and she may have been optimistic when she wrote that communicators don’t need to have years of experience to take advantage of the Results Map Handbook. For those without significant exposure to strategy development, the content may be overwhelming. Still, Kealey believes that even beginners can take advantage of the planning process and that all it requires is the desire to work smarter and get better results from finite resources.

At the other end of the spectrum, some seasoned practitioners may balk at being seen using such a comprehensive and detailed how-to manual for something that is supposed to be their professional field of expertise. However, strategy development is not an everyday requirement for most communicators, so a refresher in current best practices plus the utility of the online tools does make the handbook of value even to the most senior.

Perhaps Kealey has hit upon a Goldilocks solution, with her guide best suited for communicators who fall in the broad middle, those with moderate levels of experience who understand basic principles and know what a successful program should look like so they can make the most of the methodology in their work.

Kealey says that real, long-term results come from empowering communicators to help themselves by building in-house capacity for strategic thinking and, in the process, creating far greater value than any consultant-for-hire could deliver by swooping in for a quick win before an even quicker exit.

However, she also says that fish perceive water last. Many communicators don’t take sufficient stock of their current environments to identify the problems that are limiting their ability to think, act and lead strategically. In this respect, her methodology might be just what you need to develop the fresh and penetrating perspective necessary for a more strategic way of thinking.

Alexandra Reid is a writer and community manager living in Ottawa.

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