Strategic Communication Has a Mission, Not Just a Message
Strategic communication is communication with intention and purpose.
As a professional discipline, strategic communication is lumped under public relations, management communication, public affairs or advertising because it shares the characteristics of other communication – tt is based on solid research, audience-centric and designed to attract attention and leave an impress. Recently, strategic communication is being viewed as a separate field involving communication with a mission, not just a message.
Strategic communication typically involves calls to action, thought leadership and persuasion. It is not limited to a single form of communication. A speech, presentation, backgrounder, video, advertisement, press statement or chart can be strategic.
Strategic communicators tend to be experienced and capable of seeing the big picture. They are competent communicators, realists and quite often risk-takers. Their job is to break through contention, confusion or consternation to present an appealing case with convincing arguments.
Calling Communication Strategic Doesn’t Make It Strategic
Not everything labeled strategic communication is strategic. For example, if communication isn’t based on solid research, it isn’t strategic. Strategic communications is one of those things you recognize when you see it.
Not everyone who calls themselves a strategic communicator is strategic. They may rely on hunches rather than evidence or research data. They value style over substance. They think being glib is a substitute for being convincing. They strive for short-term gains rather than long-term goals. They talk when they should listen.
Listening Proceeds Communicating Strategically
Listening is the first step toward strategic communication. For example, if you want young workers to put aside money every paycheck for retirement savings, you ask them what would convince them to save. You also ask them what would cause them to say, “No, thanks”. The forum for listening could be one-on-one interviews, group conversations or in-person or online focus groups. You have a destination in mind and research gives you the roadmap to get there.
Strategic communicators are good at translating learning from research into key themes. Skilled strategic communicators distill those themes into clear, simple and strategic messaging.
The next strategic step is selecting the mode of communicating messaging and the channels to reach the target audience. The diffused media landscape makes this set of strategic decisions critical to success. A compelling message left unheard or unseen is anything but strategic.
Finding the best modes and channels for messages can involve trial and error to see what makes the most contact. This experimentation requires a strategic eye to evaluate results and the strategic sense to make corrections as necessary.
Consistency Is a Key Strategic Communication Trait
Once on the right path with the right vehicle, it is strategically important to keep messaging consistent. Responding to comments or tweets requires discipline to avoid veering from or disrupting strategic messaging.
A statement that captures the essence of strategic communications comes from a blog post on idea.org: “Strategic communications means infusing communications with an agenda and a master plan.” The same blog adds, “Strategic communications fuses the ‘pushing’ and the ‘delivering’ of information and ideas.”
Georgetown University communications instructor Shayna Englin, puts the challenge of strategic communication this way: “Being strategic means communicating the best message, through the right channels, measured against well-considered organizational and communications-specific goals. It’s the difference between doing communications stuff, and doing the right communications stuff.”
Warren Mason, a business professor at Plymouth State University, makes this observation: “Strategic communication is about dealing with issues that might jeopardize an organization’s very survival – and nothing to do with marketing.”
Strategic communications is the difference between doing communications stuff, and doing the right communications stuff.
A Strategic Communications Case Study
The Oregon legislature enacted the Oregon Retirement Savings Program to allow Oregonians without an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan a simple option to save through automatic payroll deductions. Oregon Treasury turned to CFM Advocates and strategic partner Cappelli Miles to develop a marketing campaign, starting with a brand name, tagline and visual identity.
Before moving forward, our teams listened. We started with employer conversations to understand their concerns with facilitating the state-sponsored retirement savings plan. Treasury officials, who sat in on the conversations, responded by making minor changes in how the plan would be administered, a move that lowered employer anxiety levels.
We then conducted focus groups and targeted minority outreach. We used what we heard to create, refine and validate the program’s name (OregonSaves), tagline (Work hard. Save easy.) and key messages for employer and employee strategic communications, which included digital media, earned media and paid media on TV and radio.
In less than two years, political opposition vanished, employer cooperation grew and employee savings via payroll deductions topped $100 million in 2021.