16 Jun The Value of Strategic Communication
Dominic Walters discusses the value that strategic communication can bring to change programmes – and why it should be part of the planning process from the start.
Over the past decade I have been involved in a number of large change programmes – primarily focused around IT and digital transformation. What continues to surprise me is how the value of strategic communications, and the role it could have in helping to shape a change programme from the outset, is still not fully understood or utilised.
“What continues to surprise me is how the value of strategic communications, and the role it could have in helping to shape a change programme from the outset, is still not fully understood or utilised.”
Don’t get me wrong – most programmes will have a communication role on the team, but quite often this individual is either brought in late in the game, after many key delivery or engagement decisions have been made, or have a very tactical, as opposed to strategic, role. It is not uncommon to find the communication individual tasked with organising programme team meetings, taking minutes, distributing agendas, co-ordinating diaries – all critical for a successful project but not necessarily what many, in our profession, would consider key communication activities.
I was once asked to review the engagement strategy for a large technology programme that was failing to achieve the anticipated conversion rates with end-users who were simply not engaging. The first thing I found was the communications manager devoting nearly 75% of their time to managing and coordinating the Project Management Office (PMO) communications, as opposed to focusing on end-user communications. The next issue was that the communications themselves were inconsistent and lacked any programme theme whilst also being virtually incomprehensible to a non- technical end user. The communications manager explained that they had been recruited after the first phase of materials had been produced by one of the IT consultants and had been raising this issue for some time. As it turned out, they reported to the IT consultant and were far too junior to have their voice heard.
I would argue that, in the case of large-scale employee engagement programmes, or where an organisation’s reputation may be at risk, it is critical that an experienced communications specialist joins the leadership team in helping to shape the right strategy for delivery from the outset. Why?
Because the right individuals will have experience of mass engagement across complex organisations and know how to shape a compelling story that is powerful enough to underpin a large transformation programme through the good and bad. In addition, this individual will be able to create a brand around the programme and then, crucially, shape the RIGHT communication strategy for that particular audience.
“Leaders need to live and breathe the change you want…”
Another important reason for communications to be involved from the outset is that they will try and look at it from the end users perspective. They will ask tough questions and challenge the programme team’s approach because they are looking at it from a stakeholders’ point of view. Why is it important to the organisation? Why should people engage with it? How have change programmes been managed historically, and what has been their impact on people? They feel more empathy with end users – and are able to consider what makes the DNA of each organisation.
I remember working on a major IT transformation upgrade impacting over 15,000 manufacturing employees who needed to carry out a series of actions as part of the upgrade and where failure would have resulted in business downtime. With an investment in excess of £50m and an estimated daily £1m cost to the business if it failed, this was a business critical programme.
The right level and type of staff engagement was crucial and when I joined the programme, the original plan I was handed was to send out instructions via email a few weeks before they needed to take action. As most communications and functional leads know, getting an email read is hard at the best of times, but even harder when asking employees to do something they don’t want to.
Fortunately, I managed to persuade the steering board to change the approach and instead we created a programme brand that underpinned our strategy, as well as helping to provide a theme and tone of voice for all ongoing communications. The brand was not only an image, it became the programme’s story, helping to bring it to life and create a 30 second elevator pitch for the delivery team to use across the entire organisation. It was also used to galvanise an army of change champions giving them a fun and engaging set of materials to use when trying to engage colleagues. A series of amusing campaigns telling the story in a light- hearted manner warmed employees up and got them engaged, paving the way for the drier and less exciting information. The result was an exceptionally high conversion rate, little to no recorded downtime across the business and a delivery team that had a brand to hang all their future communications off.
This may be one example, but it shows how shaping a strong story at the beginning can have a powerful impact to the whole programme and its various deliverables. If you don’t, you can end up losing time and money and ironically, more often than not, this money will be spent on more communications and engagement.
Shaping the story also helps to get the leadership team on board and aligned. Leaders need to live and breathe the change you want to implement, in order to be in a position to “take it to market” and demonstrate to the rest of the business that this is important and relevant.
By bringing in the right strategic communications experience at a very early stage, you can make sure that the fundamentals are covered. This starts with defining the rationale for change and developing a consistent story that explains to stakeholders