Embracing strategic communications: Getting bang for your buck for your charity
Gareth Brown, Associate
Strategic communications has unfortunately become one of those buzz terms, like “collaboration” and “reaching out”, that is butt of jokes in satirical television shows like the Thick of It but nonetheless permeates the fluffy word world of public relations.
I say unfortunately for two reasons.
Firstly, because being strategic in the planning and delivery of your organisation’s communications is a good thing, but not always easy to achieve. Also, it is a bit of an odd term in the sense that surely nobody would aspire for the opposite i.e. nonstrategic communications.
Secondly, if more people were to simply implement what it means, as opposed to having it printed on office bean bags, it may have had a chance of not descending into a PR soundbite.
As a mindset, however, a strategic approach to communications is especially important to charities given its ability to provide answers to a plethora of issues. As a former senior communications and external relations professional in a Scottish charity, I have felt the frustration of outcomes that were below the standard of what you had hoped.
There are a range of factors that make communications both very important and, at times, very difficult for a charity.
Firstly, a charity’s resources are often very limited as far as communications is concerned. Whilst this can also be true of the private sector, it is generally much more acute in charities. On a simple level, this means many charities can only afford to employ staff early in their careers, or hire more experienced professionals but have fewer of them. There is no expensive media relations platform to update media lists, no budget for slick graphic design, and not a chance of wine at your stakeholder events.
Secondly, charities often have very diverse audiences and “products” and have to mix corporate and more commercial communications to a greater extent. Audiences range from service users, donors, funders, politicians, volunteers, staff and the general public.
Thirdly, there is an ever constant pressure to do more. Many charities are constantly searching for funding, so there are always more projects, and going to the ends of the earth to demonstrate impact and relevance with whoever will listen. Being a “jack of all trades” can mean you’re a “master of none.”
Lastly, in my experience, the charity sector is particularly prone to “communications by democracy”. Communications is not a democracy, it is the most autocratic process conceivable – and rightly so. I suspect this particular point will resonate with many a charity communications professional out there – EVERYONE thinks they know about communications. Of course, the reality is somewhat different.
Simply, strategic communications has three basic tenets – (1) have a plan based on evidence, and stick to it, (2) be ruthless with resources and relentlessly prioritise, and (3) message discipline.
Having a plan may seem like unnecessary administration or a passive aggressive document to be beaten over the head with if the right outcomes are not achieved. However, the purpose of any communications is to support the successful delivery of business objectives. A plan or strategy allows you to set out methodically how exactly you intend to do that, to whom, through which channels and when. Setting clear objectives in your plan which you can easily evaluate, supported by some insight about what you know about your audiences and what influences their behaviour, gives you the best possible chance of achieving the best possible outcomes.
It is neither possible nor clever to try and do everything – you only have so much capacity, and what feels like unlimited demands on it. Yes, it would be great to issue a media comment on that issue that has some impact on your charity’s subject area, but you have to ask yourself whether, on balance, it’s worth it. Are you risking not delivering an important proactive project in your plan which strongly correlates to your overall objectives? Say NO, ruthlessly prioritise – if what you’re doing does not directly add value to your organisation’s objectives, then why are you doing it? Be brave – persuade your senior management team that this is an inefficient use of scarce resources.
Make sure you have a message, and stick to it. Charities often have wonderful stories to tell and are blessed with excellent people to provide any story with a quality human element. The same really strong, succinct and compelling narrative you use to explain what you do and its impact is probably excellent – use it. These messages should permeate all of your communications, every press release, blog, tweet.
Delivering excellent communications in a charity can be difficult, but adopting a strategic approach is the name of the game. Take the time to develop a quality plan, that supports your business objectives, that uses your channels as effectively as possible. Be ruthless and prioritise delivering what you have agreed to an excellent standard. Stay on message, always.