Writing all the way from San Diego, Cason Lane explains the importance for communicators to understand business strategy.
The other day, the sales leader at a small technical firm told me they need some messaging to promote their services. So I asked: What’s your offering? Who’s your target customer? What makes you great? How are you different?
Answer: “We provide lots of services, we’re rock stars and our clients love us.”
Unfortunately, with an answer like that, this company needs more than a messaging strategy. It needs a business strategy.
To be successful, companies generally need to know who they are, what they do, how they provide value, how they make money and how they compete. And they ideally should understand these things before taking their story to market. Not the other way around.
But many times — as in the case of the small technical firm — executives don’t know they have a disconnect on their business strategy until they try to talk about it. And that’s when we, as strategic communicators, are in a great position to help.
Taking our seat at the leadership table
The process of developing a messaging strategy — whether it’s for a product launch or an internal initiative — can be a good opportunity to get leaders on the same page about the direction of their business. Maybe those leaders are in a young company that rushed to market with an idea and now needs to revisit the strategy. Or maybe they’re part of a large, established organisation that’s going through a change.
Either way, the building of a company’s message, or story, often comes down to studying the business, asking the right questions, identifying themes and inconsistencies, making recommendations based on research, and building consensus.
In my experience, senior management is looking for someone to guide this kind of process — not only for communications but also for building executive alignment. Who better than a strategic communicator to take the lead?
The case of the missing strategy
Recently, for example, the senior leaders of a global business unit asked for our help in communicating a new strategic direction to employees. Great. What is the new direction?
After a few discussions with management, we realised they didn’t really know. The parent organisation had come out with a new strategic plan, and this business unit needed to decide how to execute it. Leadership needed someone to guide them in determining their new direction.
So we conducted one-on-one interviews with the senior management team. We asked questions about the state of the business, what’s changing and why, what employees need to do and think differently, the value proposition for customers, and so forth. Then we synthesized the findings into a story about new priorities and behaviors.
Today, the leaders are using that story not only for communications about where the organization is headed — but also as a reference for developing their strategic plans throughout operations. That’s a new kind of business value that stemmed from a messaging project.
Herding cats after a merger
As another example, a U.S. military organisation retained us to communicate a new vision to employees, armed forces and government departments. But during our initial research, we found that the leaders of this organisation, which had been created in a merger of several commands, had differing ideas about its operating principles, services and overall role in the military landscape.
So before this organization could communicate its direction, the executives needed to get aligned on what that direction was. To facilitate that process, we conducted interviews and surveys with employees, management and other players; we identified areas of contention and common ground; and we ultimately helped the organization build a new identity and direction from the inside out. Then, once they were in agreement, we helped them communicate it.
A great opportunity for communicators
In an ideal world, perhaps, management would operate in total alignment with each other and the business. They would know what they want to say and do, with clearly organized plans; then they would call in a communicator to turn it all into a compelling message.
As I see it, this is rarely the case. And that’s a good thing. Because when management is misaligned, that’s an opportunity for us to provide greater value — not only as communicators but also as researchers, problem-solvers, consensus-builders, advisors and strategic partners in the business.
Cason Lane, ABC, is principal of Cason Lane Strategic Communications, based in San Diego, California, USA. Cason likes to move around the world, living and working in different markets a few months at a time.
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