Published: 4 October 2012

Charity communicators will only succeed if they have the headspace to plan

“Think ahead. Don’t let day-to-day operations drive out planning” – Donald Rumsfeld

It’s not often I quote Donald Rumsfeld, but last week’s Communications Managers' Workshop’ workshop has prompted this extreme measure.

Like all CharityComms events it was full of insights and ideas, but it was the discussions between the delegates that proved an eye-opener for me.

Selina Fox and I joined the workshop to talk about communications planning. A simple question from us: “how much of your work would you say was proactive and how much reactive?” prompted an outpouring of frustration.

The common theme: communications professionals were bogged down in reactive work, struggling to get senior management to see the whole picture, or to unite the organisation around a common focus. The result: lots of energy dissipated; not enough impact.

Some comms managers at the session were making headway, and we were able to flag the achievements of Fiona Lewis from the National Literacy Trust. The Trust has developed a communications strategy that unites the organisation around the needs of five core audience groups, helping internal staff understand how to target them appropriately whilst meeting the key organisational priorities. It can be done.

But if you’re feeling so overwhelmed by conflicting demands that you are unable to think proactively about how to engage the audiences that matter most, where do you begin?

In most cases, it starts with your senior management, and gaining their understanding and support for greater focus is not a battle that can be won overnight. It takes time and perseverance. Those at our session who seemed to be making most headway were building relationships across the charity, running collaborative workshops and sessions with other teams, and finding ways to illustrate to senior management how their charity appeared from the outside looking in.

Our new strategic communications assessment tool is designed to help charities take an objective look at their communications planning processes. It can help to unite colleagues around a shared diagnosis of the issues, and it is available to download for free on our home page www.randallfox.co.uk.

Donald Rumsfeld also said “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

To have an impact, communications professionals have to be able to focus. They need protecting from burn-out. And they need charity leaders who give them the headspace to plan.

The resources from The Communications Managers' Workshop can be found here: https://www.charitycomms.org.uk/events/communications-managers-workshop


Susannah Randall, director, Randall Fox

Susannah Randall has run communications teams for the Wellcome Trust and for the National Patient Safety Agency, where she led a campaign focused on junior doctors that received two Chartered of Institute of PR excellence awards. Susannah set up RandallFox with Selina Fox in 2008, where she provides independent communications advice and research on the needs of health care audiences.