The Strategic Communication Plan
By Cris Hoover
The most important and often least understood factor that moves an organization from strategy development to implementation is strategic communication. Research has shown that “enterprises [often] fail at execution because they go straight to structural reorganization and neglect the most powerful drivers of effectiveness—decision rights and information flow.”1 Unfortunately, many government and law enforcement agencies fall into this trap and adopt tactical, short-term communication approaches when responding to their myriad constituencies. Not only does this lack strategy but it can undermine an organization’s long-term goals. When agencies fail to implement strategies as envisioned, executives often look for someone or something to blame. However, as W. Edwards Deming pointed out, they need look no further than the organizational system itself.
Strategic communication entails packaging a core message that reflects an agency’s overall strategy, values, purpose, and mission to persuade key stakeholders and enhance positioning. Active, not reactive, it establishes organizational clarity and dissuades freelance endeavors that may serve a few well, but detract from the organization’s overall direction and purpose. To this end, one important tool, a solid strategic communication plan (SCP), should synchronize organizational units and align resources to deliver a common core message.3
THE IMPORTANCE OF AN SCP
Of course, an agency must have an underlying strategy in the first place and, ideally, incorporate strategic communications in the policy development process, not address it as an afterthought. In a complex world, leaders cannot simply create a policy, push it down the chain of command, and expect it to automatically come to fruition. Messages bombard people all day every day; a strategically delivered one will resonate better with employees. SCPs can serve this purpose and, from an organizational perspective, facilitate the implementation of initiatives or major organizational change efforts. At its core, strategic communication must carry a particular unambiguous message that not only reflects an agency’s strategy but interacts with a specific vision.
Leaders need to take time to ensure the core message reflects that vision and, if not, take steps to remedy any organizational dysfunctions. Many will find the concept of strategic communication new. However, not properly framing and communicating an organization’s core message for targeted audiences will produce mediocre change efforts and dilute overall agency effectiveness.
THE COMPONENTS OF AN SCP
“Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results that you get.”
W. Edwards Deming2
An SCP generally has at least four components, depending on how an agency groups them. Together, they provide a road map to get from strategy development to implementation.
First, a rationale statement makes a concise case for the desired change. For example, an organization wants to begin a structured leadership development program. The agency must articulate why the current process is insufficient. Analyses (e.g., SWOT, gap) can expose organizational deficiencies— for instance, that the present method lacks consistency when, ideally, it would provide interconnected, progressive, and sequential development models built on predictive pillars, such as operational assignments and formal education.4 The rationale statement should underscore this sense of here-but-not-yet tension and also summarize the SCP goals and objectives that will move the organization toward strategy implementation. It serves as a kind of introduction to the broader SCP.
Special Agent Hoover is a supervisor in the DEA’s Sacramento, California, office.
The second section should concentrate on determining where the organization is today and where it wants to go. The SCP must identify issues, challenges, and barriers to communication along the way. To do this, the agency needs to diagnose the existing culture, or how things are done now.
For instance, an agency formally advocates developing tomorrow’s leaders today. However, rather than encouraging leadership practices, such as modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging processes, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart, the organization consistently promotes into key leadership jobs people with a rigid management style.5 This kind of organizational doublespeak often leaves employees frustrated, stifled, and looking elsewhere for creative outlets. An agency that consistently delivers mixed messages, intentionally or not, may get 40 hours per week from employees, but not their passion or spirit.
Facing the reality of how things are done versus how they are said to be done can prove instructive for executives to judge whether an agency’s vision serves as a guide or merely as a set of platitudes. Several diagnostic tools (e.g., SWOT, gap, G2G) exist that can help executives flesh out why an organizational system produces the results it does and, in most instances, will lead them to the formal vision statement.6
An agency’s vision differs from its mission, key performance indicators, or goals. For example, eliminating gang activity from a particular neighborhood, disrupting the flow of drugs through a certain transportation corridor, or reducing violent crime by 10 percent may represent excellent strategic goals, but not vision statements. While various academics and consultants have advocated several vision-building models, most organizational development practitioners agree that the foundation must include an organization’s core values, or guiding principles, and an envisioned future that looks at least 10 years down the road.
Plenty of examples exist in both the private and public sectors of organizations that get values right. For instance, any U.S. Marine will cite honor, courage, and commitment as prominent examples. These are drilled into recruits and emphasized throughout their careers and also comprise an integral part of the Marines’ public relations efforts and organizational culture. Put another way, the Marines are clear about what they stand for. Even when facing the most difficult circumstances, they take responsibility and act honorably.
Also important, an agency’s core values must be known before they become meaningful. Core values are essential and enduring tenets.7 If an organization buries them in a policy document, changes them occasionally, or never articulates them to begin with, they are not, by definition, core values. A quick way to gauge whether an agency’s stated values truly are genuine core values is to ask employees at random to recite them and to assess whether the current organizational culture reflects those values. When leaders clearly define what principles truly serve as guides, they afford major decisions a sense of consistency and certitude because these can be filtered through the matrix of well-established core values.
Leaders must begin envisioning the future by setting a direction. This differs from making plans—a management process—and almost certainly involves organizational change. Endeavoring to move an agency, especially a government bureaucracy, away from the status quo and toward an alternative future presents a monumental communications challenge, which underscores the need for a good SCP.
Merely announcing an envisioned future by edict or via a one-time medium never works. The change message has to be continuous, specific, memorable, concise, believed, and delivered by a credible guiding coalition. Perhaps most important, words and deeds must remain consistent.8 The paradoxical part of envisioning a future, however, is that while it must convey a degree of certainty, it also must be just beyond reach and imbue aspiration. While organizational core values answer questions about identity, an envisioned future addresses direction, both of which contextualize strategic communication goals.
Goals and Objectives
Setting goals encompasses, perhaps, the most crucial stage of the strategic communication planning process. An effective SCP must identify the fundamental issues facing the organization and provide a framework to achieve articulable goals. Leaders must frame the goals by briefly describing the challenges to overcome and how each specified goal will help advance the overall change initiative. Strategic communication goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound (SMART), and each should be summarized in two or three concise sentences. Generally, three to five SCP goals should prove sufficient without bogging down the process.
An SCP goal should focus attention on particular elements of the desired change. For instance, if an agency seeks to create an environment where innovation flourishes or to become a learning organization, it may strive to have personnel start questioning basic, underlying assumptions and implement double-loop learning, which involves first asking why the agency follows current practices and then establishes goals and strategies that produce results.9 From the results stage, instead of merely focusing on solving problems and adjusting strategy within the existing organizational structure, employees again question underlying assumptions, which leads to necessary adjustments to the goals and strategies. This loop never stops, and it produces an organization that continuously learns.
In a broader context, as sometimes evident in the federal government, an agency may face direct challenges to effectively carrying out its mission, and calls may emerge from various quarters to either consolidate or diffuse statutory authority. This immediately puts an organization in a reactive mode, indicating that an SCP did not exist to begin with. In this example, strategic communication goals within a broader strategy to avoid such challenges in the first place might include establishing a brain trust or guiding coalition to frame the debate before it starts, increasing face-to-face interactions with members of Congress and staffers by 50 percent in 60 days, or telling the agency’s story and its successes through a focused public relations campaign and the establishment of a speakers bureau. Each of these goals must have intermediate objectives and specific timelines as benchmarks. These goals would serve a broader SCP designed to place the agency on firm footing with a unified, coherent message for key stakeholders.
Key Stakeholders, the Message, and Media
For each strategic communication goal, organizations must identify key stakeholders, specific messages for them, and media for appropriate delivery. Navigating this step is key to success. If an agency does not effectively and persuasively deliver its messages, the whole exercise was for naught.
Stakeholders include anyone affected by the strategic communication goal, including employees, citizens, lawmakers, or other groups who have a vested interest in the outcome. Organizations should distinguish key stakeholders between primary (target)—the person or entity with the authority, power, or influence to provide the organization with what it seeks—and secondary (audience), those who may have influence with the target or others affected by the change.
The messages must be tailored for the respective target or audience, and an agency must answer the “what’s in it for me” questions that inevitably emerge. For law enforcement departments, the message for employees must address how the change will increase effectiveness, esprit de corps, or other relevant cultural issues. Concerning citizens, the message must tell them how their neighborhoods will be safer and their tax dollars better spent. For primary stakeholders, the message must answer why the investment, financial or otherwise, will pay dividends for them in the future.
Selecting the right medium to either inform of or discuss the change depends on the stakeholders. Most people will more readily accept change when they have some involvement in the process. For employees, this may mean interactive meetings with the chief executive, intranet blogs or threaded discussions, and dialogue up and down the organizational hierarchy. Effective media for citizen or neighborhood groups might include town hall meetings and timely, helpful information routinely updated on the agency’s website. Media options are as varied as a person’s imagination, and executives should look beyond what has traditionally worked to effectively communicate their change message.
George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Poor or nonstrategic communication for law enforcement organizations means lost opportunities, reduced effectiveness, diminished morale, and getting stuck in the status quo. By developing a strategic communication plan for the organization’s change efforts, agency leaders not only mitigate distractions but lead with focus and clarity toward an inspired shared vision of the future.
“Messages bombard people all day every day; a strategically delivered one will resonate better with employees.”