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strategy & sustainability

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How to hold communicators accountable for outcomes

Posted Monday, 17 February 2014 by Kristen Sukalac in strategy & sustainability

Analytics and pruning are critical for effective and resource-efficient communications

Old-fashioned weighing balanceManagers don’t always have the luxury of mastering the tactical details of every job they oversee. But they do need to have a thorough enough understanding to be able to hold their staff members accountable. This can be particularly challenging for managers who come from other fields than the people in their teams.

Earlier this week I sat on a selection panel for an organization looking for a new head of communications. Our discussions about the candidates’ strategic capabilities led to a conversation about how to measure communication impacts. How can you evaluate whether the communication program actually makes a difference to what you are trying to accomplish?

For an exploratory conversation on how your organization can measure the impact of its communications, contact Kristen Sukalac, Consulting Partner.

 

Communicators can only be as accountable as the organization they serve

If your strategy isn’t clear about what your goals are and what “success” looks like, then it is virtually impossible to determine whether communications is making a contribution. When you know what you want to achieve in concrete terms, you can use tools like the Balanced Scorecard to let everyone, not just communicators, know how they fit into the big picture.

Work with your communications team to pin down what you want them to accomplish

Effective communications can make a difference in three ways:

  1. Raising awareness. This relates to providing information that the audience didn’t previously have.
  2. Changing mindsets. Helping people interpret a situation or set of facts differently can modify their opinions.
  3. Modifying behavior. This is the highest level of impact, where you really start to effect a difference in achieving organizational goals.

These three objectives are hierarchical: behavior changes generally follow new mindsets, which are the result of new information or a new framing of existing information.

Everyone needs to be clear on the support expected from communications. You should ask, “How will we know when our communications has been successful?” The answer should relate back to the business goals and should be measurable. But remember that measurement can be qualitative as well as quantitative. A sharp focus on what you are really trying to accomplish can make measurement much more manageable. “Convincing the majority of parliamentarians to vote for the new agricultural legislation” is much more concrete and measurable than “achieving positive opinions about agriculture among policymakers”.

Know where the starting line was

Knowing the desired outcome is a critical first step, but it’s not much use if you don’t actually know where you’re starting from. Baseline measurement is a key element of being able to demonstrate impact. The baseline has to be derived from the organization’s strategic objectives. Investing in research during the preparation of communications programs may add a bit of time and cost upfront, but these investments will be repaid many times over if you avoid costly mistakes or identify more effective solutions. It also helps make sure that you are addressing the real need. Two real-life examples:

1) An organization I worked for was alarmed at the low registration rate for a technical meeting and wanted to complement e-mail with postcard reminders. Some web analytics showed a very high level of visits to the event website; we realized that most people had read the e-mail, but this group couldn't say yes right away without permission from the hierarchy, so response rates were slow. A quiuck glance at the web stats saved us a costly physical mailing.

2) Research on effective messages for the crop protection industry revealed that the problem with many of the messages traditional used was not retention, but effect. Of the two dozen messages traditionally used, only three resonated with the target audiences and some were creating active hostility! That last insight makes an important point about research: you can actually harm your cause if you don't do your homework.

Encourage prioritization and pruning

What is the point of allocating resources to tactics that don’t support your organizational goals, that don’t incite change or are an inefficient way to do one of these two things? Empower your communications team to say no and to eliminate tactics that have essentially become distractions, even if “we’ve always produced an X report”. Few organizations do this with any discipline.

Invest in your communicators’ analytic capacities

Hire communicators with innate strategic capacity and then make sure they have the training, skills and resources to conduct the analytics that support strategy development and deployment. Explicitly include such analytical skills in your organization's communications job descriptions.

Authorize communicators to interact with other functions on an equal footing

To be most effective (and resource-efficient) communications needs to be integrated with everything else going on in the organization. Requests from the communications department should be considered mission-critical (but your communicators should be asking for information that matters, which they will if they're being strategic). In addition to content, communicators should have access to data that can help them analyze the organization’s needs and ways to measure impact. Communicators also need to be able to determine the other factors that could influence the outcome so they can isolate (partially or completely) their contribution.

Many organizations shy away from measurement and evaluation because they think it will be too costly, which would be the case if everything had to be done from scratch. You would be surprised how much analysis and measurement can be done on the basis of information that your organization is already producing, but is not fully exploiting.

Example — Measuring the impact of communications on improving nutrition security

A hypothetical organization called Bounty Basket International strives to improve the nutrition security of rural communities by encouraging families to cultivate a range of nutritious plants found in the local ecosystem. By raising awareness of the benefits of growing these familiar plants, the organization also hopes to conserve local biodiversity. Progress against the objectives is tracked periodically by nutritionists and botanists.

The communications department launches an initiative to improve the nutrition results by 10% within two reporting periods. A pilot village and a similar control village are selected for the development of the initiative. The communications team conducts some simple research to determine the current information level of the local communities. It also probes to find out if there are other barriers to implementation besides information. On the basis of this research, a campaign is rolled out in the pilot location that takes into account messaging that addresses perceptions of local plants being peasant food and old-fashioned. Both villages receive technical training.

At the end of the two reporting periods, nutrition security has improved in both locations, by 5% in the control village and by 15% in the pilot village. What’s more, gardening of local plants has begun to spread to the neighbors of the pilot village, but the same thing has not occurred in the vicinity of the control village.

On the basis of these results, Bounty Basket International generalizes the communication campaign across all of the villages being taught to grow the local plants. The average improvement rate of nutrition security jumps from 2.5% per reporting period to 7.5%.

The impact of the communications initiative on the campaign is clear because we identified the baseline for measurement and found a way to isolate the impact of communications through a pilot/control set-up. Once the full campaign was in place, we could track progress against a historical benchmark, using perfomance measures that were already being tracked.

 

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