Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Communications Audits

Article printed in both PR Canada news and in Canadian Association of Executive Management.

Vision versus Image

You have a vision and mission for your company or organization, which you want to convey to your internal and external audiences. But, how do you know if what you're saying is getting across and being "translated" correctly into minds of your audiences?

We know that perception is 90 per cent of reality. But the difference between your perception and that of others is often subtle and sometimes hard to detect. For example, try the image test below and if you aren't sure of the answers, maybe you need to think about your image and how to make it work harder for you.

As a Company or Organization.....are you seen as:
Cautiously conservative or old fashioned
Valuable or expensive
Systematic or bureaucratic
Efficient or inaccessible
All encompassing or lacking in depth
Exclusive or elitist
Innovative or slick

Are you still sure of your image? If not, it may be time for an effective communications or image audit to determine if your communications messages, strategies, tools and tactics are meeting measurable targets. Otherwise, as one PR strategist said, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will lead you there."

There are numerous definitions for a communications audit but though the following is a bit lengthy, I find it explains it best to clients.

A communications audit is a complete analysis of an organization's communications, internal & external, designed to 'take a picture' of communications needs, policies, practices & capabilities.........and, to allow top management to make informed, economical decisions about future objectives with measurable results.

There are various reasons you may want to conduct an audit. The most important reason is that the process provides one with specific outcomes for the strategic direction in the development of a marketing communications plan that becomes a one year specific and two to five year general plan.

Often what triggers a call for an audit is a merger/acquisition, new management, change in an organization from government to private or private to public, crises or issues, staff morale, or anything that bespeaks change. In addition, the audit is an excellent management tool which provides measurable benchmarks for communications programs, provides 'due diligence' evidence for continuing or introducing programs, and often, valuable data for recommendations for all areas of an organization.

The process involves the support of senior management for this review. If senior management is not seen to be supportive and also committed to the outcomes and communicating the results, it will fail. You will also know, without even conducting the audit, that there is a serious problem!

Who should conduct an audit? Naturally you're going to say I'm biased to suggest hiring outside the organization, but it's for the same reason that we tell clients that a reporter gives your story the third party endorsement versus you running a self-serving ad. The interviewee has to see a degree of objectivity outside the organization and someone whom they can speak with candor and confidentiality. Also, the company chosen would bring someone committed to the project and completing it within a tight schedule as well as providing experience from other audits to compare and judge results. Sometimes you need that third party who can ask the hard questions, probe for the nuances, and to demonstrate to the interviewees that there is no bias.

We start with a planning session with the client to determine the goals, scope, target audiences, issues, schedule and the development of an 'audit task force'. This group is chosen from a variety of job levels and functions and it is with this internal representation that we hold a strategic planning session. The outcomes provide us with further direction on the development of the questions whether it's for an internal or combined internal and external communications audit.

Then we begin the process by interviewing key senior executives to identify what they consider the communications problems and target audiences are. From that information, we can refine what we question the employees and the external audiences.

People who are interviewed are told up front that they were chosen by random and that the interviews are confidential. If further reassurance is needed we tell them that this is a communications review ('review' can be less threatening than the word 'audit') not a job review and no names or job functions are attributed to any comments. And, especially for internal interviews, we ask for double the numbers we need to ensure random choice and anonymity. Certainly the variety of interview techniques used vary from focus groups to questionnaires, but we prefer to concentrate on the one-on-one interviews with open ended questions as that is often where the "meat" of the information is gathered with many suggestions volunteered on 'righting the wrong'.

In addition, there is an extensive review of communications tools and tactics to assess what is working and what isn't or what needs to be adapted or introduced.

Once the interviews are clustered, tabulated and summarized, you find that there are several key trends and recommendations that will form the strategic direction for the formulation of a communications plan. At this point, the audit probably confirms some of the communications problems that you have informally discovered, but there are often surprises as to what is considered most important. There may also be an "ah hah" moment in an interview or interviews that suggests something that you hadn't thought of or didn't deem important. Whatever the results, it is important to communicate them to your audiences and then tell them what you're going to do about them.

What are the risks of doing an image or communications audit? The wrong person or company may be selected to conduct the questioning or planning, it may be poor timing, the management may not fully understand what an audit is or there may be lack of professional seasoning to handle sensitivities of management and data collection.

But...the positives, if conducted professionally and by a third party, can be rewarding. Overall, the audits or reviews tell you;
  • how well the organization communicates internally and externally
  • how weaknesses can be changed to strengths
  • pinpoints types or content of messages conveyed that work
  • what vehicles used to convey these messages really work
  • and, the concerns of certain audiences that might not have been on the internal radar screen
And, in the public relations department specifically, the audit assists in;
  • defining the role communications plays in an organization
  • allocating the communications budget and resources
  • setting standards and guidelines to measure future programs and activities
  • providing the due diligence to support the plan as the key audiences 'have spoken' to support the initiatives
The communications audit is a document that becomes the proactive, planned and strategic approach to your marketing communications program.

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