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Sticking to strategy

26 February 2010

A simple communications strategy can keep you, and your colleagues, stay on course to achieving your aims, says Amazon PR's Kirsty Kitchen

You’ve worked for months to create a strong, comprehensive communications strategy and everyone’s signed it off. You’re sitting back, looking at the front page, feeling rather self-satisfied. Then you get an email from a colleague who wants you to put out a release on a new project that’s entirely unrelated to the core focus you all agreed you would stick to.

Developing a communications strategy is often the easiest bit. You consult, you research, you analyse, and you develop a clear set of conclusions that you think will make everyone’s lives 10 times easier – not least your own! But then five minutes after it’s been rubber stamped, someone in the organisation wants to communicate something totally different. "Yes, I know it’s not in the strategy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good opportunity," they say.

They may well be right, and a good strategy has the flexibility built into it to adapt in light of unexpected developments. But at the same time, it has to do the job it was created for – it has to be a constant guiding light, keeping you and the rest of the organisation focused on what really matters, what will make a difference, what will be worth the investment.

Good intentions 

When it comes to gaining media coverage (one part, but not the sole focus, of a good communications strategy), many people look for quantity not quality. A decent strategy is there to help you make the case against that, without having to argue the point endlessly. You put the effort in to get it set down on paper and approved by all those who will help make it happen; and then, you place it delicately in front of them if they want to steer away in a different direction.

And yet so often, when we start working with a new charity and we ask about their communications strategy, they – looking slightly embarrassed – reach for a dusty folder sitting high up on a bookshelf somewhere. "We did one a while back, but… to be honest…"

The intentions are good, but often people get diverted too quickly, too easily – possibly because they haven’t treated the strategy with quite the right amount of weight and importance from the start.

So, here are some tips that should help to really make your life easier next time.

1. Know what it will do for you further down the line

Don’t create a strategy for its own sake; create a strategy that will give you something to fall back on and refer to on a regular basis. If you set out just to get it done, it won’t have the lasting impact it can, and should, have.

2. Get buy-in across the whole organisation

It might make it more time-consuming and complex, but getting meaningful input from trustees, chief executive, senior managers and frontline staff will mean this is a strategy for the charity, not just for the communications team, and will make it easier for you to use it in defence of your position further down the line.

3. Build in some flexibility

If the strategy is too rigid, it will get shelved as soon as something even slightly "off-plan" happens. Build in recognition of the fact that things change, and focus on identifying guiding principles, rather than specifics.

4. Involve a third party

Get input from a communications professional outside the organisation, who can provide you with some objective insight. It can help add credibility by avoiding having the strategy labelled as too personal or subjective.

5. And finally… don’t look too far ahead

Five year strategies can be tempting: they mean you won’t have to do another one for ages! But they are rarely realistic, and tend to get shunted to one side after a while, as staff, priorities and budgets change. Commit to a strategic review every year – ideally aligned with the review of organisational objectives, so everything can work in sync.

Kirsty Kitchen

account director, Amazon PR