Reverse communications – why it pays to put tactics before strategy

StrategyI’ve been doing a lot of communications planning recently and it got me thinking about how the whole process works – or is supposed to work.

Communications strategy is usually presented as a linear process. You start by conducting research, developing objectives and then shaping your tactics.

If you are writing a communications strategy document then you’ll probably also structure and sequence the section headings in that way too. Communications strategy textbooks champion the approach.

The tail wagging the dog?

In practice, I’ve found that it very often works the other way round – communications tactics may precede communications strategy. That is to say communications activities are delivered before the big picture work is done.

Ironically, over the years I’ve found that communications tactics may not only shape communications strategy and objectives, but entirely define them. This seems like nonsense at first – like the proverbial tail wagging the dog.

But I’ve found that’s how communications strategies are very often conceived, and that you can also make it work for you as an approach to influencing strategy creation.

How strategies are really developed

Take this for example: you have established a social media channel for your leaders. They personally use it and it proves to be successful. As a result your top team now want social media to form an integral part of the leadership communications strategy.

Or perhaps you used your PR skills to get your Chief Exec featured in a high profile newspaper or magazine. Your communications director sees that success and now asks you to look at how that could work more widely as part of a coordinated content strategy.

So why does this work?

Influencing, persuading, trial and error  

One answer may be that you’re practically demonstrating what communications can do for your organisation rather than just telling people. In the above examples, the decision makers have experienced how communications can make a difference – now they don’t just have to accept your word for it.

It may also be about bringing the subject alive. Seeing, hearing and feeling how a channel works, makes a greater impact than reading your strategy on a PowerPoint. It could also aid understanding of communications in your organisation and create a stronger imprint on people’s memories. Far more so than trying to present your approach using a written strategy document – no matter how well it’s designed.

Or it could be that through a process of trial and error, you’re effectively crafting and defining communications strategy as you go. Of course you need some effective feedback loops. But by using different tactics, perhaps you’re discovering what works and what doesn’t, and learning where your communications budget could best be targeted in future.

What do you think – is this how communications strategy is developed in your organisation?

Also see: The best communications plan is often the simplest 

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