Time to Get Serious About Strategic Communication

10 years ago

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The PR community must do more to define and institutionalize strategic communication. Robert Hastings has tailored some strategic communications concepts developed by the US Department of Defense to suit the business environment.



It’s no surprise to those reading this journal that the way the world develops, manages and consumes information is changing faster today than at any time in our history, and along with it so is the way we practice communications. With this speed of change, the need for effective strategic communications leaders who can help their organizations navigate, differentiate and survive is more important than ever.

Today’s dynamic communications environment requires a new brand of leader who is more than just the architect of a company’s words. Communication leaders must be more than counselors for what the company says; they must be architects, advocates and watchdogs for its actions as well. They must have not only a seat at the table, but a voice as well; one grounded in credibility among the C-suite leadership. Communication leaders must understand their business environment well enough to participate in the decision-making process and exercise influence at the front end, not just develop the talking points, after decisions have been made.

A 2000 study of 163 CEOs, senior strategists and communications professionals published by FD – a leading business and financial communications consultancy – reported that CEOs believe communications leaders should be part of the strategic planning process, and that communications leaders who report to the C-suite were significantly more likely to be included in organizational strategic planning and senior level meetings of all types. The study concluded, "Gaining access to the top is not the issue it was just a few years ago. The issue is what one does with that access."

While there are many successful communications leaders working in the marketplace today, there are many more examples of companies in the headlines today who fail to appropriately manage their organization’s message and reputation when faced with dire scenarios. We as a community must do more to define and institutionalize strategic communication.

Vital transformation

In fact we must transform communication from a supporting function to an operational one. We must build business acumen and operational competence, not just communication skills. We must demonstrate to boardroom leadership the wisdom of integrating communication into the strategic thinking and planning process and empowering a true strategic communication leader as part of the leadership team, and we must begin to prepare the next generation of communications professionals to be successful in this new realm.

However, first we need to agree what strategic communication is and how to practice it. In this case we can learn from the US Department of Defense.

As part of a larger DoD strategic communication education initiative, the Department held a series of Strategic Communication Education Summits leading to the development and publication of the DoD Principles of Strategic Communication to help standardize communication practices across DoD and its interagency partners.

Published in 2008, the DoD Principles of Strategic Communication standardized the definition of strategic communication as "the synchronization of actions, images, and words to achieve a desired effect." In simpler terms, it’s using all the tools available to shape the environment in a way to garner success. The document outlined nine principles which provide a foundation for successful strategic communication



By applying these same concepts and thought process to the business environment, I developed the following points as a blueprint for an effective strategic communication program:

• Leadership driven: Communication is a leadership function. The best and most effective communications come from leaders who provide clear intent, direction, and are personally engaged.
• Business focused: Communication must be derived from the business’ goals and objectives and short and long-range strategic plans.
• Strategic: Communication must focus on understanding and shaping the environment through sound research, analysis, planning and assessment.
• Credible: Communication must be honest, timely, and as transparent as possible.
• Thoughtful: Communication must engage the right audience with the right message at the right time.
• Results oriented: Communication must be undertaken to achieve specific, measureable outcomes.
• Dynamic: Communication must be persistent, continuous, adaptable and agile.
• Employee centric: Well-informed and engaged employees are a competitive advantage.
• Coordinated: Communication must be synchronized and coordinated across the business, both horizontally and vertically.

There are several questions we as a profession need to address: What is strategic communication and how do we develop the strategic communication competency of our profession? How do we use strategic communication to improve the performance of our function? And, finally, how do we use strategic communication to expand our own capacity as communication leaders? I welcome the discussion.


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The Author

Robert Hastings

Robert T. Hastings, APR served as acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs during 2008 - 2009. As the senior public affairs official and principle spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, he served as principle staff advisor to the Secretary of Defense and senior Defense and Administration officials for worldwide strategic communication, public information, internal information, and community relations leading a worldwide public affairs community of some 3,800 military and civilian personnel. During his tenure with the Pentagon, Mr. Hastings was a driving force in the development of the Department’s Strategic Communications concept of operations. Mr. Hastings has held senior communications roles with BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman and is currently Senior VP, Communications for Bell Helicopter.

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