Chapter 1: Defining Strategic Communication

2 Five tenets of strategic communication

Although the tactics of strategic communication methods may vary, the purpose and the general characteristics of strategic communication are similar across related industries (Hallahan et al., 2007). In 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Communication Education Summit considered these similarities and created a list of principles (Hastings, 2008). The following tenets of strategic communication are informed by these principles as well as arguments from Paul (2011).

Intentional message design

Strategic communication involves a great deal of thought, planning, and analysis. It does not mean simply designing a clever advertisement or sending a tweet without thinking about its implications. To create an intentional message, you must begin with a realistic communication goal for what you’re trying to achieve. This reinforces Paul’s (2011) argument about what constitutes strategic communication. Do you want to cultivate positive associations with the organization’s brand? Raise awareness of a new product? Connect with key stakeholders in a meaningful manner? Whatever your goal, you must begin with a well-defined purpose and continue to keep it at the forefront throughout the process of creation and implementation.

Additionally, you must be sure that the communication goal goes hand-in-hand with the organization’s goal. Let’s say that an organization wants to create and maintain a socially responsible image. You might achieve that by developing a philanthropic communication strategy, such as teaming up with a local nonprofit organization for a benefit concert or publicizing a promotion to help a popular charity.

The correct platform(s)

There’s a saying in public relations, marketing, and even journalism: go where your audience is. A large part of this involves choosing the right platform to communicate to your key publics or audiences. This can be challenging. Gone are the days when only a few major news stations, magazines, and radio stations controlled the message content for the masses. Today’s audiences have plenty of choices when it comes to media, making it even more difficult for your message to be seen or heard.

If you can determine the audience’s general media consumption preferences, you can more effectively place your message. Let’s say you are trying to increase the brand visibility of a new vegan restaurant among men who strongly support healthy living. In this case, if the targeted audience frequently reads a local, health-centered magazine, you might place a feature article in the magazine to raise awareness of the new restaurant.

Calculated timing

All of your planning, analysis, and creative efforts may be wasted if your message is not communicated at the right moment. In 2014, Malaysia Airlines launched a marketing/public relations campaign with a variety of prizes, including free airline tickets for potential customers in Australia and New Zealand. The problem? The campaign, titled “My Ultimate Bucket List,” invited people to talk about places they would like to go and activities they would like to do before dying (Barber, 2014).

The timing of the campaign was imprudent. Earlier that year, two Malaysia Airlines flights had crashed, resulting in more than 500 deaths. Although the goal of the campaign was to recreate a positive brand image after the tragedies, the use of the term “bucket list,” given its association with death, proved to be inappropriate. Airline executives faced a backlash from audiences, many of whom claimed that the message was insensitive. The executives admitted their error and soon ended the campaign.

As this example shows, the success of any strategic message is highly predicated on when the audience will be most likely to receive it and when the interference of external factors, such as a major crisis, is at a minimum.

Audience selection and analysis

Some audiences are more important to a message’s goal than others. Audiences for internal communication messages include employees, investors, and managers. Audiences for external communication messages include customers, influencers, and the news media.

It is important to always keep the message goal in mind so that you can choose the correct audiences that will help you meet the goal. Taking a broad approach and targeting everyone is not the best way to succeed. Practice audience segmentation, that is, the division of a large group into subcategories based upon attitudes, demographics, and media use.

“2014 Social Media Age Demographics Stats” by Automotive Social is licensed under CC By 4.0

Once you’ve selected your main audience, analyze it. This involves deep examination of attitudes, values, and beliefs toward the message topic, with the goal of giving the audience what they want and need. Generally speaking, people are inclined to pay attention to a message that is relevant to them. It increases their level of involvement and engagement with the message (Wang, 2006; Cacioppo et al., 1986).

Desired impact

During the planning stage of a message, clearly define what a successful campaign will look like to the organization. How will the strategic communication team measure success? Are you hoping to increase sales? Are you aiming to increase attendance at promotional events? Are you trying to minimize negative media coverage about your client or company?

In 2015, shortly after a series of racially tense incidents across the country, the coffee chain Starbucks launched an initiative called “Race Together” that encouraged customers and employees to have conversations about race relations. The company’s CEO, Howard Schultz, told the Huffington Post: “Our intent is to try to elevate the national conversation” (Baertlein & Rigby, 2015).

However, the initiative provoked a huge backlash on social media. Many people thought the campaign’s goal was unrealistic—why would Starbucks coffee shops be appropriate venues to begin healing the country’s racial wounds? Others said the campaign was hypocritical, pointing out that the company’s leadership team is predominantly white and/or male. Some baristas reported feeling uncomfortable with initiating conversations (Sanders, 2015; Baertlein & Rigby, 2015).

Twitter reaction to Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign.

The failure of “Race Together” shows how communication executives neglected to carefully consider how they planned to define success and how important it is to select the correct platform and spokespersons in order to achieve the desired effects.

Together, the five tenets of strategic communication help to create effective messages. Be mindful of these tenets as you’re writing for various audiences.

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Five tenets of strategic communication by Jasmine Roberts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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