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March 15, 2017


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David, you seem to be suggesting that, because something can go wrong, communication cannot be strategic (that is, it cannot be crafted to produce a business-aligned outcome). In fact, strategic communication plans account for unexpected results. But if you're strategic, you also conduct a lot of research on your audience, their issues and concerns, their communication preferences, and so on. Perhaps this is why we differentiate "corporate communication" or "employee communication" from day-to-day conversation (which is what I think you mean by "communication" in your examples).

A simple example. A company is introducing a new health plan for employees. It is different from other plans because it requires employees to take a more active role in managing their health care. So you do your homework. You find out what the advantages of the plan are for employees. You evaluate their existing perceptions of their benefits. You set KPIs for the communication, including (for instance), a 20% shift from the most popular existing plan to the new, more complicated one. Your strategy is the general approach you will take to the communication. You establish tactics designed to meet measurable objectives that support the goal. You implement, using multiple channels and ensuring two-way conversation. If you're really good, you've even identified the influencers among employees and looped them in so they are knowledgeable about the issue and can answer questions from their peers. You measure how well the communication is doing at driving conversions from the old plan to the new one. If it's not on track, you do some more research, figure out what's wrong, and make adjustments.

The late, great Ed Robertson defined communicators' very own Maslow-like hierarchy. First you have to meet all logistical requirements (is it in the right language? delivered to the right people? in a timely manner? is it legible?). Nobody is going to read a benefits communication that arrives a week after the enrollment deadline has passed. Second, you have to capture employees' attention (and what gets the attention of vice presidents is not the same as what captures the attention of hardhat workers in the field, so you need to know the profiles of the people you're communicating to). Third, it has to be relevant. There are two steps to this: It has to have something to do with me, and if it does, paying attention has to hold out the promise of some benefit -- more money, more prestige, less hassle, greater efficiency. Only after the communicator has climbed these three levels of the pyramid do you get to behavior -- that thing you wanted employees to do. If your plan starts out with knowing what you wanted employees to do, you follow all the steps, and achieve the result -- even with surprises and twists and turns along the way -- then you've been strategic.

It's not sorcery, but honestly, why would any company pay somebody to communicate if they can't deliver measurable results that help the company meet their goals? None of this is an obstacle to creativity and even spontaneity. It's just planned in order to get people to do or think (or not do or think) something that matters to the business.

I never plan to have an argument with my wife. I always plan communications I produce for a client.

Shel, you're arguing against a point I have not made. I have not asserted that organizations should not try their strategic best to see that people read what the organization needs them to read, believe what it hopes they'll believe and act in beneficial ways. Of course they should, and of course they will.

I'm ONLY saying that that process should be called something other than "communication," which I consider holy, human, and a true exchange, not just of information, but of ideas, feelings and love.

The process you describe above should simply be called something other than communication. (And it used to be! It used to be called "corporate information.") After 25 years in this business, I look askance at the term "strategic communication." Because I want to protect the sanctity of "non-strategic communication."

You say you never plan to fight with your wife. You never thought of something you might say the next time a certain subject comes up? You never cut her off or shouted, to make sure your words were heard over hers? In all these decades of marriage, you never used a rhetorical tactic that you knew was a low blow?

If not, you're a better husband than I! But if so, I think you'd agree that such maneuvering even in the most personal relationship is different by large degrees from the more spontaneous COMMUNICATION, which happens when you LISTEN and RESPOND and SHARE with as open a heart and mind as you can muster.

Like I *hope* we are trying to do here.

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