By Cheryl Dixon
Having the acumen to be a strategic advisor is crucial for today’s PR pro, but where should you start?
Situations facing senior leadership and communicators has never been more complex, dynamic and uncertain. What is certain: The need for effective communication has never been more critical.
Why is business fluency essential for communicators?
For communication strategies to work, they must be well-planned, well-executed and highly measurable. They must also have buy-in from senior decision-makers within the organization. For communicators to earn that buy-in and the coveted seat at the management table, they need to understand key business concepts, financials, priorities and speak the language of the business leaders.
Key business considerations for every communicator
“Strategic communication” is communication aligned with the company’s overall strategy or business objectives to enhance its strategic positioning or drive growth. Planning requires a deep understanding of the business and its budgets, strategies, goals and priorities, as well as its varied internal and external constituents.
To successfully plan, measure and pitch communication initiatives to senior leaders, consider:
- Business goals, priorities and vision. These are the foundation of an important framework for communications strategy. Efforts and initiatives should support revenue and profitability goals, target key audiences and consumer segments, and build positive brand awareness in line with the company’s vision. When creating communications plans, outline specifically how each initiative will support the larger goals of the company.
- Market research and key trend and customer data. Facts, figures and analytics can give an analytical framework for communication planning. Research gives the “why” behind the plan and helps others be forward-thinking in envisioning the results. Using data to support recommendations helps to inform and persuade others and gain their support.
- Key audiences. Internal and external audiences include customers, employees across different departments and functions, shareholders, suppliers, competitors, industry influencers, general consumers and the media. What are the priorities and needs for each audience? What do they need to know about your business and your plans?
- Financial health, budgets, costs and revenue goals. What is the relationship of the communications work to key elements of the business’ overall plan? Think about why money will be spent, and how the investment will support business goals.
It’s important to budget realistically. (Seeking too much budget demonstrates “siloed” thinking.) When planning, consider different scenarios that have different price tags and create a strategic analysis of the expected outcome of each scenario and what the return on investment would be with more or less budget. Flexibility and creativity demonstrate overall business knowledge and helps set expectations from senior leaders.
- Measurement, measurement, measurement. When setting goals, carefully consider how success will be measured and the benefit to the business. Media impressions and social media follower statistics alone won’t impress senior leaders who don’t understand or correlate their impact to the bottom line. Context is needed to show how communication efforts align with the upper marketing funnel activities of awareness, interest and consideration.
Not all performance indicators are financial, however. It is the communicator’s responsibility to ensure that the organization considers these important measures:
- Opinion and attitude-based metrics
Talking dollars and sense
Communications, marketing and public relations are “cost centers,” meaning they don’t directly contribute to business revenue and profits. Therefore, it is especially important for communicators to demonstrate the value of their efforts, add business context and set measurable goals that align with overall company objectives—or risk budget cuts and diminished status in the organization.
Here’s how business leaders break down the difference:
- Depreciation: Reduction of value of fixed assets
- Overheads: Attributable to specific areas of the business (e.g., factory)
- Operating expenses: Normal business operating expenses
- SG&A (Selling, General and Administrative Expenses)—Communication teams fall under this category.
Profit Centers (teams and activities that are directly responsible for producing revenue):
- Profit: (This varies depending on gross sales, gross profit or net income).
- Net Profit: Profit left for owners after all costs, expenses, interest and taxes have been paid. It may be paid out to shareholders (dividends) or kept in the business to grow the business (retained earnings).
These are the first steps towards building business fluency and growing the trust and credibility of the communication function. Look for details on measurement, stakeholder interests and more in future columns.
By Cheryl Dixon
Cheryl Dixon is a strategic communication consultant, fractional chief communications officer and adjunct professor at Columbia University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.