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Cracking the Code: Mastering Strategic Communications for Impactful Change

There is nothing worse than the technical program team coming in at the tail end of their project asking for the communications department to support them with the dissemination of a 120-page Microsoft Word document that has an objectionably long title ending with the word ‘report,’ to a vaguely described audience with the hopes of influencing policy, getting stakeholder buy-in and making a positive social change. The communications team then becomes the unsung heroes, firefighting and rescuing the otherwise characterless information and whipping it into form, appeal, and value (dramatic, yes, but you get the gist of it). The importance of strategic communications is repeatedly overlooked in the nonprofit and development industry, yet its need cannot be understated.

As the adage goes, 'Fail to plan, plan to fail.' Despite communications being central to strategic management, partnerships, relationship management, promoting corporate trust, dependability, and building responsibility and accountability, communications efforts still seem to be an afterthought in project planning and implementation. This lapse in preparation means that the project team lacks the foresight to anticipate messaging challenges and the agility to adapt their discourse in response, leading to missed opportunities and a failure to be relevant. Adapting messages to audience interests, level of understanding, attitudes, and beliefs ensures that they invest their time in your information over someone else's.

Unfortunately, our dear technical counterparts fail to understand that the people they are writing their jargon-filled spiel on planetary health have 'better things to do.' We live in the information era, constantly consuming information willfully and unwillingly. There are a lot of competing messages about a singular subject, and it is up to the consumer to decide which one to pay attention to. This is based on many internal and external factors, such as their personal and societal biases on an issue. In the digital sphere, communicators have 3 seconds to capture the attention of their target audience on online platforms. Not only do the audience want to be engaged quickly, but they also expect high-quality content.

What Exactly Is Strategic Communication?

So, a solid strategic communications plan is key for projects – it helps teams collaborate effectively, assign tasks and responsibilities, and ensure everyone is on the same page, working together to build strong connections with stakeholders. So, what exactly is strategic communication? Is it just another industry buzz term used to impress in meetings? Strategic communication is the intricate planning and aligning of communication efforts tailored for a defined audience, with the goal of them taking action based on your high-level program goal. So, how is it different from a regular communications strategy? Strategic communication is distinguished from non-strategic communication in several ways.

  1. It is purpose-driven, focusing on specific goals and objectives, while non-strategic communication lacks a clear purpose and may be random.

  2. Strategic communication targets specific audiences, involves careful planning and research, includes evaluation processes, and ensures a coordinated approach across various channels, making it intentional and goal-oriented. In contrast, non-strategic communication might lack these intentional elements and organization.

Integrating strategic communications as part of programming ensures that project implementation is seamless. In this regard, strategic communication is crucial for propelling a program forward. Project teams are provided a competitive advantage through strategic listening, highlighting gaps and unique propositions, fostering trust and loyalty through tailored communication, building brand recognition, establishing thought leadership, enabling effective crisis management, facilitating engagement with key stakeholders, and ultimately achieving organizational goals by shaping perceptions and behavior. When organizations truly master the art of strategic communication, it's like turning up the volume on their voice. They can create powerful partnerships and bring about real, meaningful change.

Now, let's get into the nitty-gritty.

The Strategic Communication Framework

A sound high-level institutional/programmatic strategy must be the starting point of developing a strategic communications plan to prevent a mad dash at the end and simply putting lipstick on an ogre. When I develop strategies for organizations and programs or conduct strategic communication courses, this is the foundation I begin with. All the steps we take as communications strategists must be motivated by our function to support and progress the institutional mandate. Once you have this, you align the communications efforts to the goal. So, what are the three stages of developing a strategic communications plan that empowers you to enhance your communication mechanisms and achieve your goals?

  1. Research: Establish the context (situation analysis). Know your stakeholder/audience (stakeholder analysis).

  2. Planning: Set a communications goal. Craft clear and compelling messages tailored for your intended stakeholder. Decide how to share your messages. Determine the publishing frequency.

  3. Evaluation: Listen, note feedback, and measure success.


Landscape analysis

Step one is doing your homework – researching and gathering insight. Think of thorough research as your trusty guide in strategic communication. It's like having a reliable map before embarking on a journey. Research isn't just about gathering facts, it's your ticket to making decisions based on real insights, not guesswork. You uncover potential hurdles and golden opportunities in your target market by diving deep. This knowledge doesn't just prepare you for challenges - it also helps you tap into those opportunities for positive engagement.

Have you ever heard the saying "learning from others' mistakes?" Well, when talking about strategic communication, it holds true. Researching what worked for competitors and similar projects gives you a treasure trove of wisdom. Plus, when your information is rock-solid, you gain credibility. Accurate, well-researched communication earns trust and credibility for your message.

Remember, one size doesn't fit all when it comes to communication. There are a lot of internal and external factors to consider when communicating to your intended audience. Research helps you grasp the unique nuances of different situations – the culture, social dynamics, and even economic and political factors. Context matters! This deep understanding lets you tailor your messages to resonate perfectly with your audience. And here's the best part, research isn't just a one-time gig. It's an ongoing process in strategic communications that helps you track your progress. By setting benchmarks and performance indicators, you can measure your communication effectiveness. Gathering data before and after your strategies hit the ground not only tells you where you stand but also guides your adjustments for continuous improvement.

Know your audience/stakeholders

How you will word your message and how you will send the message is determined by how well you know the intended receiver. A stakeholder analysis is essential because it identifies individuals or groups with an interest in a project, allowing you and the organization to understand their needs, manage their involvement, and effectively tailor communication strategies. Picture a stakeholder analysis as assembling a guest list for a party – you're figuring out who's interested in your project, understanding how much they matter, and planning how to involve them. This shapes your communication and helps you foresee problems and gain support. You can use tools like PESTLE analysis to identify stakeholders, map their impact, gauge their loyalty, and devise a plan to do this. And remember, it's not a one-time thing; keeping everyone on the same page is crucial, especially for bigger projects. It's like ensuring everyone at the party is having a good time – you adjust and align, making the whole experience better for everyone involved.


Set a communications goal

We have already discussed the need for all communications efforts to stem from an overall organizational or programmatic goal to be successful. In making an effective strategic communications plan, we must set a communications goal and objectives based on the overarching goal and objectives. Think about the goal, like you're setting a clear path for a road trip, and the goal is your final destination. Instead of vague ideas like "advocacy campaign" or "outreach," focus on specific objectives and tasks. Consider intentions like educating the public, sharing evidence and best practices with stakeholders, establishing partnerships and collaborations, and amplifying your mission. These concrete objectives are the landmarks and milestones along the way - they become the building blocks of your communication strategy, shaping every move you make. A well-defined goal propels you into action. Remember, the essence of strategic communication is to inspire decisions and actual steps, not just awareness.

Crafting clear and compelling messages and dissemination

So, how does your program strategically achieve its goals? We select SMART strategic communication approaches, like advocacy, mass media, or community mobilization, and consider things like the issue's complexity, the audience's needs, and our budget. Think of it as choosing the best tools for the job.

Remember, our audience and stakeholders have 'better things to do,' so how do we make our message stand out? We'll look at what our audience is currently doing and why. How do they like to consume information? Where do they go to look for information? What is their current stance on a subject? What appeals to them visually and verbally? Then, we'll figure out what makes our program unique – maybe it is the proven long-term effectiveness of specific sustainable practices or the potential benefits of a particular policy adoption. You want to create messages that resonate with your audience and call them to action so they feel connected and engaged.

Imagine chatting over coffee, discussing what sets you apart, and brainstorming the language and best ways to say that to your audience. Jot down those ideas and create messages that capture the essence of our program. It's all about making our communication personal, relatable, and impactful – just like a friendly conversation!


Listening, feedback, and measuring success

Evaluations are tied to objectives, ongoing, and built into the project lifecycle calendar. Evaluating your campaigns and communication efforts is like perfecting a recipe – you keep making adjustments – it is essential to achieve the overall goal successfully. We can identify what works and needs improvement by focusing on metrics like audience engagement. Monitoring results helps us to pinpoint successful aspects and areas requiring adjustments, ensuring efficient budget allocation. Setting clear goals guides your strategy, while analytical tools track user behavior, allowing you to adapt and refine your approach. Regular assessments help in creating optimized campaigns.

Mastering the art of strategic communication

Mastering the art of strategic communication is not just a skill - it's a transformative tool that can elevate international development efforts to new heights. Applying the insights shared here equips and empowers you as a communicator to navigate the complexities of the modern communication landscape, ensuring your messages resonate, inspire, and drive meaningful connections with your stakeholders. Stay tuned for more insightful content on strategic communication tailored to the dynamic nonprofit and international development setting.


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