By Kristy Dixon
Strategic planning—envisioning and documenting an organization’s future—can become so complicated it undermines the real purpose of having a direction at all.
Add buzzwords, emerging technologies and commentary as to whether strategic plans are even needed any more, and people quickly lose clarity and create confusion. However, the strategic planning process provides a valuable opportunity for communicators to help answer hard questions about the future.
We’re eyes and ears for the organization
Day in day out communicators interact with the messages, meanings and purpose of an organization, which creates a unique perspective to identify gaps, trends and strategic opportunities. This is more than copywriting statements—it’s about applying our deeper understanding of semantics and supporting the intrinsic value of verbal and written clarity to help organizations perform better overall.
As an industry we may not fully recognize this worth—communicators add significant value in support of strategic planning and customer service initiatives, and can proactively identify opportunities and risks. We are continuous listeners for the organization, both internally and externally, and our experiences and evaluation can effectively feed into the strategic planning process.
The simplest questions can be the hardest to answer
To contribute to strategic planning, it’s our job to ask questions that may seem obvious or basic, and to champion defined and complete strategies, just as we would with a strategic communications plan.
From a previous role I always remember a banking general manager sharing the importance of communicating the journey: Where are we now? Where do we want to be? How do we get there? Countless times I’ve used these basic questions to answer complicated internal and external challenges.
Other questions to ask to support leadership or strategists include:
- Pinpoint why the organization exists: Has the reason changed over the course of its history?
- What is the pain point for customers? Do we articulate how we can help in an understandable and accessible way?
- For not for profits or social enterprises—whom are we trying to impact and how is this measured and results shared effectively?
- What makes us different? Are we communicating this in a way that creates something memorable or attractive? (Marketing communications expertise can be useful here).
- What is our definition of value? Does it match our customer’s perceived value? How can we address any disconnect in this area?
When concepts, ideas and responses to hard questions are put into succinct writing I find it forces prioritization and discipline to focus on the Most Important Thing (thanks Noam Bardin) or Hot Buttons (thanks Steven Goldstein).
Don’t get caught snoozing
As communicators we wear many hats to craft messages and choose channels. These same hats can also be valuable in asking questions on behalf of customers, stakeholders, funders, investors and other actors.
Larger organizations may have these questions stitched up, but we shouldn’t compromise or assume all the obvious questions have been asked.
Communications should always tie back to the overall organizational strategy to help it progress. But don’t be caught snoozing, as no strategy works forever. Today the economy, customer preferences, competitors, and technologies can all topple the best-laid plans.
If some of this seems overwhelming or you haven’t been exposed to a strategic planning process yet, as a first step I suggest building a better understanding of how businesses and/or non-profits operate—if you understand finance, risk, policy, IT, engineering, research and other functions with it makes it easier to spot gaps and how a communications perspective can help fill them.
Let’s not underestimate our value in helping shape the direction of the organizations we work with; through our expertise in semantics we can contribute far beyond revisions of the mission statement. The ability to be proactive and unearth opportunities using a communications perspective is one of the most valuable attributes we can bring to strategic discussion and development.
Kristy is a communications specialist with experience across private industry, government, charities and start-ups. She adores the Canadian Rockies, eats Vegemite, and likes to ask, “What if?”