Second in a series on communication strategy.
The first step toward truly strategic communications is to align integrated communications objectives and plans with the corporate strategy. The focus of communications efforts--internal communications, marketing communications (including social media) and corporate media relations--should match the focus of annual and longer-term business plans. The corporate operating committee should view communications as a vital function for executing these business plans. In fact, the business should view its communications function as a critical competitive advantage. Too often, it does not.
As corporate strategy has evolved in sophistication, reliance on strategic communication should have become more fundamental--yet too often communication is nearly completely overlooked as anything more than window dressing.
In the otherwise brilliant The Lords of Strategy,Walter Kiechel overlooks communication as he traces the progression of corporate strategy from a focus on corporate positioning to a dynamic piloting of an adaptive, learning organization. Kiechel's insightful opus from 2010, subtitled The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World, includes almost no mention of communications or public relations. Neither does his provocative blog, The Strategic Eye. (Searching the blog for "communications" yields this one result; "public relations" gets you these two; none are germane to the importance of communications in contemporary corporate strategy).
With apologies to Kiechel, let me overlay some simple thoughts on how communications can propel the success of the business strategy. In subsequent posts, I'll provide some thinking on the advantages of strategic thinking to the communications function itself, beyond mere alignment with the business strategy.
Corporate strategy aimed at "positioning," Kiechel writes, develops targets for success in the marketplace regarding cost, customer and competition. I would add that forward-looking ccommunications plans should be developed to support each of these areas of focus:
Cost: The corporate strategy aims to positions the primary brand(s) in the marketplace--as a value-leader, for example, or as a premium brand. For established brands, the strategic process begins by determining how the market perceives the brand, and may include plans to establish a clear brand positioning, or to try to move its positioning (often up-market). All communication to the market should be appropriate/authentic to the brand's price positioning in terms of tone, style, frequency and subject matter.
Customer: The business strategy aims to identify customer markets (geographic as well as demographic/psychographic) where the brand will be successful. This includes indentifying markets that need to defended against encroaching competition, markets that need to be further conquested for the brand to achieve growth objectives, etc. Communications should specifically target high-value markets, emphasizing brand strengths most relevant to those markets with communication authentic to those customer groups. Particular attention should be paid toward communicating genuine brand and product strengths that are not fully recognized by target markets.
Competition: Corporate strategy candidly assesses the company's brand strengths vs. current and on-coming competitors' brands, particularly mindful of how new or resurgent competitors may be changing the landscape. Communications excellence should be a key enabler to the strategic drive to stay ahead of even the most nimblest competitors. Media relations is largely a zero-sum game--you and your competitors compete rather directly for a fixed amount of media coverage each news cycle. Elbowing your way into a New York Times story on your industry with a lively and relevant anecdote likely means less mention for your competitors.
- Jon Harmon