EMBRACING AGILE STRATEGY DEVELOPMENT Betteke van Ruler and Frank Körver
Linear communication models are ineffective but remain widely used by public relations practitioners. Agile strategy development can revolutionise the comms function and strengthen the relationship with the management team.
• Examples of contemporary public relations research that have an immediate application in practice
• The opportunity to advance practice and develop as a profession through improved collaboration
• A toolkit of eight practical ways to improve collaboration developed over the past 18 months from a CIPR project and BledCom workshop
According to the European Communication Monitor, linking communication and business strategy is the number one challenge for today’s communication practitioners. This is both good and bad news.
The good news is that communication professionals are ambitious: they aim to support the organization in realizing its strategic goals. They are eager to really make a difference.
The bad news is that they still struggle with the strategic element of their contribution. Consequently, CEOs still see the communication department as no more than as a tactical entity providing lots of detail that doesn’t really help them - strategically speaking. Therefore, in order to improve the visibility and credibility of the Communications Department, it is time to fundamentally rethink how strategic communication is developed and start using modern agile tools to do this.
Three years ago we developed the Strategic Communication Frame to do this effectively. After many trials, it has proven to be a practical, valuable and highly appreciated tool.
Agile is the name of the game
Communication professionals perform in a world in which multi-interactional, multi-stakeholder and 24/7 communication is the norm. Control over effect is further away than ever before. Stakeholders have high expectations and organizations not meeting those expectations face severe reputational risk.
Moreover, the context in which communication professionals are operating has changed dramatically with no end in sight. Yet, too often strategic communication plans are still linear, very detailed descriptions of steps to be taken, and aimed at controlling the communication processes by defining smart goals in advance.
The problem with these linear plans is two-fold: they give an illusion of control and are of poor practical use. It leads to disappointment on the side of the client and embarrasses the Communications Department.
Our answer to this costly ineffectiveness is to look at things from an agile point of view. The agile charged communication function strives to make (unexpected) change a natural fact of organizational life and legitimize professionals to adapt quickly to new markets, environments and challenges.
The agile communication professional therefore has a legitimate alibi to take advantage of emerging opportunities and to neutralize risks, 24/7.
Agile strategy development; four starting points
What does the concept of agile mean for strategy development? We have identified four starting points:
- People over processes: Forming a group of skilled and motivated people is vital. In fact, we strongly believe that people trump process.
- Respond to change rather than follow a plan: It is a waste of time to put effort into every tiny detail. Vision and ambition are vital, but more operational choices need to be challenged over and over again.
Plans should never be too detailed, and only oriented at the most important decisions made.
- Cross functional collaboration rather than silo behaviour: The majority of communication and reputational challenges we are facing nowadays require intensive collaboration. Developing strategies in splendid isolation is a no-go. Strategy development requires cross functional collaboration.
- A one-pager over a bulky report: No professional should be tortured by reading bulky plans. And no professional should be given the thankless task of writing those documents. Management simply won’t read it. They only care for the vital information: “What are the communications objectives? How are we going to realize these objectives? And what is it going to cost?”
Strategic Communication Frame
Based on in-depth discussions about our theories with students and practitioners and based on the four starting points, we have constructed seven requirements for a good strategy development model for public relations and communication management:
1. Clear vision on communications and its added value to the mission of the organization
2. Focus on internal and external context as building blocks for constructing ambitions
3. No smart objectives but inspiring ambitions based on clear choices
4. Explicit accountability that suits the ambition
5. Clear choices in every building block, as hypotheses for the future
6. Compact to fit on one page
7. Adjustable at any time to respond to situational dynamics
These requirements helped us in constructing a model we call the Strategic Communication Frame (see Figure 1.)
Figure 1 The Strategic Communication Frame
Eight building blocks
This model consists of eight interdependent building blocks which demonstrate how developing a strategy is like working on a jigsaw puzzle: you can start wherever you want, as long as choices made in one building block are consistent with choices made in other blocks. Two questions per building block help professionals to make these important decisions.
Building block: Ambition
There is a huge discussion on concepts like goals, targets, ambitions. In this context we use the concept of ambition to mean “a strong desire to do or achieve something” (Oxford Dictionary) and pose two questions to define one’s ambition: 1) What are the basic communication values needed for this specific strategy? And 2) What do you want to achieve?
Building block: Vision
John Naisbitt is said to have articulated once: “Strategic planning is worthless, unless there is first a strategic vision”. Ambition is influenced by a person’s own perception of his/her profession and its added value. That is why we also ask the following questions: 1) In what way can communication add value to organizational strategic choices and what is the role of the communication professional in this respect? And 2) What signifies my profession and which trends in my profession are relevant to us?
Building block: Internal situation
It is impossible to define and value the importance to us of phenomena in the outside world unless you know what is happening inside the organization. That is why it is important to consider: 1) What is going on in our organization, what are the strategic decisions in the board and in other management fields, and 2) What is the “style of the house”, e.g. how do we communicate with each other and how do we encounter the outside world?
Building block: External situation
It is typical for communication professionals to be aware of the external situation, of what is going on in the outside world and of public opinions, although we prefer to talk about social moods these days. That is not new at all. Nassim Taleb, however, warns not to look for confirmation of what you already know but to look for the unexpected. We agree and suggest the following questions: 1) What are relevant trends and developments in society? And 2) What are relevant issues and what is the social mood around these?
Building block: Accountability
Good ambitions inspire and make clear what you want to achieve, but without accountability your ambitions are day dreams. Accountability forces you to make clear what your exact responsibilities are regarding your ambitions and how you measure progress e.g. what your KPIs are. That is why we suggest the following questions: 1) What is your responsibility exactly and in what way? And 2) How do you show that you are on track?
Building block: Stakeholders
In corporate communication we are used to seeing stakeholders as those who have a stake in our organization and as our “target groups” to reach with our communications (see a.o. Michell, Agle & Wood, 1996). We define stakeholders slightly different by: those groups or persons who have a stake in our ambition. We suggest two questions: 1) Who are our enablers, and 2) Who are our partners? Savage et al. (2011) warn that with partnerships you need to invest in the relationship and find a common ambition.
Building block: Resources
A very important part of the strategy concerns resources. Resources is about being equipped to do the job. It is about budget, budget allocation and about competences. We suggest two questions: 1) What competences do you need to realize your ambition, and 2) How much budget is required and how will this budget be allocated? These questions are not only important to allocate resources (operational, managerial activities), but also to make wise decisions concerning talent development, cost cutting, etc. (strategic decisions).
Building block: Approach
Approach is about translating all strategic decisions – done in the former building blocks – into operational activities. This is “the proof of the pudding”. All decisions in the former buildings block need to come together in the approach. We propose two key questions: 1) What do you want to achieve with which key constituency and how, and 2) Which activities should have top priority and what does that mean for the communications calendar?
Making the right choices
The Strategic Communication Frame facilitates the communication professional to forcefully and efficiently make the right choices and it provides a clear picture of the communication strategy in one page. The Frame does not prescribe what one should do or which strategy is best. It just sets up and enables practitioners to select the best choices for the best strategy.
The Strategic Communication Frame is basically a balancing act of a realistic but limited set of questions and challenging answers that, when executed conscientiously, delivers a comprehensive but nevertheless crystal clear strategy at a glance (a one-pager). By putting superfluous details aside and concentrating on the essentials, the model has easily proven to be an instant eye-opener for clients and other stakeholders.
It is a great ticket to the C-suite.
Dr. Betteke van Ruler is a leading scholar in corporate communication and public relations in the Netherlands. She began her career as a communication professional herself, moving to teaching in the 1980s and to academic research in the 1990s. She was recently awarded the honorary title of Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau for her work in bridging the gap between academic theory and practice. She recently wrote a book on agile and scrum: Reflective Communication Scrum: recipe for accountability, published by Eleven International Publishing, ISBN 978-94-6236-461-5.
Frank Körver is partner at GKSV, an Amsterdam based consultancy firm and Dutch affiliate of the international Interel Group. Frank is an experienced consultant at the intersection of strategy, leadership and communication. He is a renowned consultant in the Netherlands and trusted advisor of senior executives and Chief Communications Officers.