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- Navigating Change: The Crucial Role of Strategic Communications in Times of Transformation
Change is inevitable—often unsettling and shrouded in uncertainty. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic was a seismic event that swiftly upended the world, triggering a multitude of changes—from how we lived and worked to how we learned, traveled, and socialized. Everything changed, and the world was in upheaval; everyone was in a state of fear and panic. It was candid and consistent communication by global health agencies and leaders that provided some semblance of control and a glimmer of hope amid the chaos. Similarly, change within organizations can be disconcerting and ominous for stakeholders. It often leads to pervasive rumors, heightened cynicism, and resistance. However, when communicated effectively, change can be an opportunity—a chance to expand, create, and thrive transparently. This is why effective change communication management is a valuable investment. Change communication is like a GPS system during a road trip. Just as a GPS guides and informs you about upcoming turns, road closures, or alternative routes during a journey, change communication guides and informs individuals about shifts, challenges, and the reasons behind changes within an organization. It helps navigate the transition, ensuring everyone is on the same page and moving forward together toward the intended destination. Developing a plan to inform stakeholders about changes and manage potential opposition differs from regular communication strategies. While regular communication might focus on sharing information without going deep into motivations, change communication centers on the "why." This approach aims to gain buy-in, build trust, mitigate resistance, and address underlying reasons for change, offering more comprehensive explanations, managing emotions, and ensuring clarity through the change process. During change, transparent communication is the lighthouse in a storm, guiding ships through turbulent waters. The clarity and honesty of the message are the beacons, ensuring all aboard feel informed and secure. This light of openness not only steers away uncertainty, anxiety, and stress but also dissipates skepticism, strengthening everyone's trust in the ship's leadership and the course of change. Just as skilled captains and crew are vital for navigating rough seas, effective change communication demands time, patience, and expertise from leaders. According to a 2020 Forbes article on change communication, effective change communication leads to amplified trust, performance, job satisfaction, openness, and commitment to change. Satya Nadella's leadership at Microsoft serves as a notable example. Nadella, who became the CEO of Microsoft in February 2014, transformed the company's culture by emphasizing transparent communication about the company's challenges, shifts in strategy, and the need for cultural change. He shared openly about the necessity to adapt in the evolving tech landscape, adopting a culture of collaboration and innovation while maintaining employee transparency, which contributed significantly to Microsoft's successful transformation. During his tenure, Microsoft pivoted towards a more cloud-centric approach and fostered a culture of collaboration and innovation. (Read about this transformation here) Aligning change communication with an organization's mission, values, and strategic objectives ensures stakeholders perceive change as coherent with the organization's identity, supporting smoother transitions and greater acceptance. In contrast, poor communication during change, as recently exemplified by OpenAI and Sam Altman's departure, leads to confusion and eroded trust among employees and the broader community. Externally, stakeholders, including investors, partners, and the public, were left with unanswered questions and a lack of clarity about the situation. The lack of transparency created uncertainty and impacted morale and confidence in the company's management. Strategic messaging is key in shaping how those outside the organization view changes, creating transparency and painting a vivid picture of where the organization is heading. It's the cornerstone for maintaining trust, loyalty, and confidence among stakeholders, essential for smooth organizational transitions. It also solidifies the reasons behind shifts in leadership and operations, helping employees grasp the bigger picture and align themselves with the organization’s overarching mission. This can be seen in IBM's transformations under different leadership periods. IBM’s leadership succession strategy uses various channels to communicate changes, aligning individual contributions with larger organizational goals. (Read about IBM’s leadership succession strategy here) Interactive communication channels, feedback mechanisms, and employee involvement initiatives are essential pillars for successful change communication implementation. These channels enable transparent, two-way communication, gather feedback, and involve employees in decision-making, fostering collaboration and continuous improvement. Proactive communication strategies to mitigate resistance Proactive and transparent communication, involving stakeholders in the change process, and handling difficult conversations with empathy are key strategies to mitigate resistance, dispel rumors, and overcome obstacles during organizational change.
- The Power of Executive Visibility: Redefining Leadership in the Digital Era
For the longest time, the rule seemed clear—keep your professional and personal lives separate on social media. Digital platforms like X were deemed too ‘informal,’ unsuitable for a professional presence. So, you joined LinkedIn for your professional persona and maintained your private account elsewhere for your ‘social’ persona. They were two separate worlds, never to collide. Your social account stayed private, known only to your eleven followers—the only ones you reveal your allegiance to Manchester United. Different messages, different paths, different focuses—this was the norm. And the more senior your position, the more reluctance about being online. Enter ‘cancel culture,’ and suddenly, the fear of social platforms felt all too real. No one wanted to tarnish the company’s image. No one wanted to be ‘canceled.’ But times have changed. Social media has matured. Having a presence on digital platforms, including the more ‘informal’ ones like X, has become vital for an organization’s success. Today, reputations are forged on social media. According to Weber Shandwick’s 2015 ‘The CEO Reputation Premium’ report, global executives in a survey acknowledge that nearly half (45%) of their company’s reputation is linked to their executive’s reputation. Moreover, the reputation of a company’s leadership directly influences 44% of its market value. Unsurprisingly, communication professionals everywhere are pushing for greater executive visibility. Why? Because it strategically drives brand communication, positioning, and corporate messaging. Yes, taking the plunge into digital platforms carries risks. But social media has been around long enough, and managing executive visibility is now a refined field for expert communication teams. Today, there’s no denying that the voice of a corporate leader is intrinsic to brand communication. It makes the leader more approachable, trustworthy, and conspicuous to stakeholders. Employees (important internal stakeholders) expect executives to be the face of change. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer: 81% believe CEOs should be personally visible when discussing public policy with external stakeholders or their company's work to benefit society. 60% said that when considering a job, they expect the CEOs to speak out publicly about controversial social and political issues that they, the employees, care about. So, what exactly is executive visibility? Executive visibility is defined as a top-level executive's presence, recognition, and perception within their industry and organization. It’s about creating a strong and positive public image, actively engaging in relevant conversations, and being recognized as a thought leader or influencer in your field. I like to think of executive visibility as being like a popular figure in a bustling marketplace. Picture a vendor with a well-lit, attractively arranged stall in the heart of a vibrant marketplace. People naturally flock to this stall due to its visibility, appealing presentation, and the vendor’s reputation for offering high-quality goods or valuable information. Similarly, executives with strong visibility stand out in their industry, attracting attention and interest due to their active presence, valuable contributions, and reputation for expertise and leadership. This visibility allows them to connect with a broad audience, engage meaningfully, and influence the market’s direction. Investing in an experienced communications team knowledgeable in executive visibility to transform a low visibility profile into a highly visible profile for a leader is crucial for industry positioning. By skillfully using digital platforms, an executive can become a thought leader for their organization and the industry at large. So, how do you elevate your exec’s profile? First, note that driving recognition and positioning goes beyond a PR campaign. Executive visibility programs should be tailored for the individual. Nevertheless, here’s a general framework: Thou shalt not split thy personality: Who are you? Be yourself. Authenticity matters. The most successful leaders on digital platforms are those who are genuine, sharing beyond their expertise. They are real people. They enjoy coffee, hate traffic jams, and have an opinion on the newly introduced withholding tax of 5% for payments relating to digital content monetization. According to an article by WinSavvy, “Today’s consumers crave genuine interactions. They seek brands that resonate with their values, beliefs, and lifestyles. Brands that present themselves authentically tend to foster deeper, longer-lasting connections with their audience.” Thou shall employ authentic tales for thy narratives: Align your personal and professional stories. Stakeholders expect leaders to speak openly, beyond numbers, and address industry trends. Executives should not sound mechanical in their delivery but should instead aim to engage their stakeholders in a conversational manner. Find the balance between business talk and expressing your values and purpose. According to a 2018 study by Sprout Social, regarding an executive leader’s presence on social media, consumers place significant importance on the organization’s rationale behind business decisions, followed by the executive’s thought leadership and glimpses into the organization’s internal workings. People want to know what both the organization and the leader stand for. Thou shall invest in seasoned communications professionals: Not everyone knows the ropes of executive visibility. The highly polarized nature of digital platforms cannot be overlooked when considering visibility. Communications professionals can guide you in making crucial decisions, tailoring a visibility program, and identifying media and networks your audience finds trustworthy. It requires a time and money investment. Be thou seen: Establishing a presence activates by being visible. Participate in relevant forums—conferences, webinars, benefits, clubs—that resonate with you, your company, and your audience. Your presence matters as much as what you say. While corporate brand reputation may be the priority, executive visibility must not be ignored. Reputations are built on digital platforms. Leaders must embrace their authentic narratives and invest in experienced communications teams to stand out in the digital landscape.
- Growing Up Global: Navigating Identity as a Third Culture Kid
"Where are you from?" For the longest time, nothing triggered more anxiety than that simple question. Every time it popped up, I felt a wave of unease. I knew my answer would be met with skepticism, turning a casual conversation into a full-blown interrogation. "How come your accent sounds different?" "Then why do you spend your holidays elsewhere?" "Why don't your parents live in your birth country?" "Show me your passport again." "You're lying." As a kid, I never questioned why my life was a constant rotation of new places and faces. Growing up in a multicultural environment was enriching but brought unique challenges. The term "Third Culture Kid" (TCK) refers to those who spend their formative years in cultures different from their parents, often due to international relocation or work assignments. Unlike other TCKs who move from their birth country to another, my TCK experience started in my birth country. I attended an international school from a young age, where over 90% of students were not nationals. Most were children of expatriates on short-term contracts, so saying goodbye to friends became a recurring theme. Saying, "Bye!" "I'll miss you so much!" hurt, but we quickly learned it was our constant. Occasionally, a friend's parents would announce a short visit or rarest of all, your parents would let you visit them. Bliss. Suddenly, your world got bigger and goodbyes didn't feel permanent but meant "see you later." Other times, we would lose touch with friends who moved. This taught me the transient nature of life. You move forward, life goes on, and that's okay. Then, it was my turn to leave. I had to answer, "Where are you from?" An easy question, I thought. I'd say my birth country, and we'd move on. Wrong. Young and unaware of what I absorbed from my surroundings, a new environment bombarded me with questions that made me introspect and question my identity. I asked my parents why people said I didn't sound like them or like the people from my birth country. Until then, I had never analyzed the nuances in people's speech, pronunciation, and cadence or used that as a nationality identifier. My parents explained the best they could and told me I would just have to explain myself more extensively. I thought the questions would eventually stop one day, little did I know, it was a lifetime sentence. However, as the world globalized, the "where are you from" question became less of a burden. Modern-day nomads are better understood, and I now see it as my unique global citizen ID. As a TCK and third culture adult (TCA), forming a stable sense of identity has been challenging. Exposure to diverse cultural norms and expectations triggered an identity crisis, leaving me grappling with questions like "Where is home?" and "Who am I?" while navigating different cultural contexts. Growing up meant frequent moves, hindering my ability to form bonds with aunts, uncles, and cousins. There were no family barbecues or traditions beyond my immediate family; my friends became my family. Entering adulthood and engaging with people deeply rooted in one singular society was a new experience. I marveled at how staying in one community created a sense of family and patriotism. Sometimes, I craved that stability, thinking that living in one place for more than five years might offer a clearer sense of identity. Returning to my passport country after many years living abroad proved unexpectedly challenging. Reverse culture shock, the yearning for the places I've lived, and the process of readjusting to a once-familiar yet now unfamiliar environment were surprising. I pondered the causes, considering how adapting to new environments had become my norm. My passport country, my supposed "home," was the place I assumed would provide a sense of solid roots. I expected to feel an inherent connection, a sense of identification, but to my surprise, it left me feeling misplaced, lonely and misunderstood. Even though I had overcome it, the "Where are you from?" question suddenly became my most dreaded pain point, perhaps more so than when I lived abroad. Despite perceiving it as "home," I was seen as an outsider due to trivial differences like cadence, food preferences, and knowledge of national affairs. These differences never bothered me abroad because, I suppose, I could always fall back on "I am not from here." However, in my birth country, it was often seen as lying, snobbery, being fake, or elitism. I felt traumatized. I felt rejected. I was overcome by a lack of control over my identity and, worse, my destiny. Who am I? Where do I belong? Fortunately, a coping strategy was not far away. My multicultural work environment facilitated a smoother transition back to my birth country. Colleagues with similar backgrounds quickly became my community and introduced me to new faces, recognizing and accepting my unique journey. Meeting other TCKs in adulthood brings an unspoken kinship. We form friendships quickly, sharing the bond of adapting to new environments and bridging cultures. There is a comfort and camaraderie found in connecting with others who understand the intricacies of growing up between cultures. Despite challenges, I've cultivated a strong sense of belonging to a global community. Growing up immersed in different cultures has given me a deep appreciation for diversity. I've mastered cooking various cuisines, celebrating diverse traditional holidays, and gaining a keen understanding of global perspectives. "Adventure" has become my middle name, and I'm always excited to try a unique dish on the menu. Learning to try anything at least once has been a mantra; after all, you often end up loving new things or, at the very least, gaining a new experience under your belt! These experiences have undoubtedly enriched my worldview, fostering empathy, tolerance, and open-mindedness. Now, as a TCA, I've found that I have a home on every continent. Wherever I go, I'm never a stranger. There's always a hint of familiarity, and I consistently have someone to call, meet up with, or recommend a place. Whether it's Norway or New Zealand, St Kitts and Nevis or Singapore, Tristan de Cunha Island, or Papua New Guinea, every corner of the globe feels accessible. With the help of social media, staying connected has solidified the feeling of belonging to a global village. Growing up as a TCK fostered adaptability and resilience. Navigating unfamiliar situations, embracing change, and thriving in diverse environments have become valuable assets in my adult life, shaping my education, career, and relationships. While childhood as a TCK wasn't always easy with all its complexities, I wouldn't change the experience for anything. The experience has woven a rich tapestry of perspectives and instilled in me a profound sense of belonging to a global community. Embracing my multicultural upbringing, I navigate the world with an open heart and mind. I have a desire to contribute to a more interconnected and understanding society. I consider myself fortunate and privileged to have gained a high level of awareness, impartiality, and agility at an early stage in life. I've fully embraced the idea that I'm happiest in motion and amidst cultural diversity, and the promise of heterogeneity drives me forward. As TCKs and TCAs, we leave all the time; we may have no roots, but we always have motion because everywhere is home. We are the true global citizens.
- 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. It is purpose-driven, focusing on specific goals and objectives, while non-strategic communication lacks a clear purpose and may be random. 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? Research: Establish the context (situation analysis). Know your stakeholder/audience (stakeholder analysis). 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. Evaluation: Listen, note feedback, and measure success. Research 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. Planning 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! Evaluation 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.