Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar to you. Your organization or institution is ready to launch a new initiative or implement a new policy. The effort, which will involve a variety of internal and external stakeholders, has received the official green light from leadership. A budget has been set and a timeline for implementation solidified. It’s at this point in the process, as the final details are being decided, that the communications team is engaged. “How should we roll this out?” Regardless of the actual answer to that question, there’s a good chance what they’re thinking involves a time machine.
Far too often, communication is the last consideration in the planning process. It’s treated as an after-thought, a final box to check, rather than an integral component of creating change that will be not only successful, but sustainable. Failing to appropriately value and prioritize communications has the potential to derail your efforts. Luckily, there’s an easy solution to this problem that doesn’t involve a flux capacitor. Make communication a priority early in the planning process.
Why? Timing and Strategy.
Timing: There is a finite window of opportunity that exists to help shape the narrative around a change given how quickly word of mouth can travel. Long before an official kick-off occurs or an announcement is sent out, it’s a safe assumption that information has already begun to spread across departments and to external partners, and opinions have started to form. Without an approved set of key messages or talking points that clearly articulate the intent and desired outcomes for an effort, there is no way to guarantee the consistency or accuracy of the information that is being shared, or how opinions and preconceptions will shape the conversation. This could have a negative effect on later efforts to build consensus and address concerns.
Strategy: Welcoming the thoughts of communications professionals throughout the planning process infuses a different, yet valuable perspective, which will ultimately improve the end product. While other members of the team are deep in the logistical weeds, focusing on financial, academic, or technical aspects of a project, communicators have the ability to think big picture. They will ask questions that need to be answered sooner than later, such as:
What are the different stakeholder groups for this effort?
Who do you need to be champions of an effort for it to be successful?
Why might there be pushback and from whom?
What motivates and/or concerns key stakeholders?
What’s the value proposition or return on investment?
Without the answers to these questions and an audience-differentiated strategic communications plan to address them, all of the other hard work may be for naught if insurmountable resistance has already formed.
Shelly Auldrich is a big believer in engaging communications professionals early and often. Shelly became the program manager of Minnesota Reconnect in 2018, after Lumina Foundation granted Minnesota funds to support their adult student reengagement program. At that time, planning for a Fall 2018 launch was already underway.
“It was almost like I was jumping in when the boat was already sailing,” she said.
With a tight timeline and accelerated planning to meet the launch date, efforts to develop and implement a full strategic communications strategy were delayed. As a result, Shelly says there were some missed opportunities and early lessons learned about driving awareness and creating an effective value proposition. An initial “blanket email blast” and postcards were the two methods of outreach. They were sent solely to a narrow band of target students at the four pilot institutions and did not generate much interest. Social media was not utilized, and ultimately, only a few students re-enrolled through the program, most of whom were directly contacted.
Shelly says they also came to the conclusion that the program lacked incentive to attract more students and, consequently, asked the Minnesota legislature to approve funding which would allow Minnesota Reconnect to offer $1,000 scholarships. In addition to the financial support and a social media campaign, Minnesota Reconnect partnered with Student-Ready Strategies to examine the overall program and brand strategy and streamline the application process. The program now has an effective marketing strategy and is expanding to include more institutions.
“This fall, our numbers are strong. Our goal is about 500 students throughout the state. We’re not there, but we’re definitely closer than we were last fall.”
Shelly’s experience drives home the point: engaging communications professionals and program staff at the beginning improves the overall strategy and capitalizes on key windows of opportunity. Similarly, our experience has shown that incorporating strategic communications from the beginning is key to successful transformation, yet it is also the element most likely to be deprioritized or removed from the project scope. When we see this occur, we often urge our partners to reconsider. It’s cheaper than a time machine.