Strategic communication is the study of how organizations or communicative entities communicate deliberately to reach set goals. Although the term “strategic communication” has been in use for years, scholars are only now fully engaged in defining the field and its theoretical influences. Traditionally communication in its organizational context has been studied through various disciplines academically and functionally scattered over domains from management communication, marketing communication, advertising, public relations, technical communication, organizational communication, and political communication, to information or social marketing campaigns (Hallahan et al. 2007). It also covers the full spectrum of economic and social sectors, such as trade and industry, politics, nonprofit, government agencies, activist groups, and even celebrities in the sports and entertainment industries, all referred to here as communicative entities.
All these fields have one commonality: they engage in the study or practice of deliberate and purposive communication aimed at reaching goals such as winning market share, building a positive reputation, winning a political campaign, or enacting social change. This involves people who engage in deliberate communication practice on behalf of organizations, causes, and social movements, and thus has a definite focus on the practice of communication. Strategic communication is planned and proactive, aimed as much at reaching organizational goals as at prevention of organizational crises.
The field faces a challenge in coordinating and integrating the communication activities of organizations, which are often scattered over several different reporting structures, particularly in large, complex organizations. Another challenge is the creation of a multidisciplinary but unified body of knowledge that better serves communicative entities in a society consisting of fragmented audiences and message delivery platforms. Strategic communication also has a significant impact on society at large. Strategic communicators can affect local and global outcomes in terms of every aspect of society, from democracy and political systems and markets to gender roles and cultural orientation.
“Strategic” and “Communication” as Preconditions for the Field
Generally, scholars in the United States tend to study the field as a process that includes goal setting, audience analysis, message design, communication channel selection, and assessment. European scholars are more likely to study it as a phenomenon that affects society, e.g., its effect in the public domain on political and policy outcomes. For both these schools of thought the terms “strategic” and “communication” remain central.
The term strategic originated in warfare. However, organizations originally used it to describe how they competed in the marketplace to gain competitive advantage and market share (Hatch 1997; Pfeffer & Salancik 1978). Supporters of this view see strategic planning as a rational process that starts with an analysis of the organization’s internal strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats (popularly known as SWOT analysis). The SWOT analysis is used to set the organization’s goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. Here the role of the practitioner is to replicate this process with the focus on how communication can be used strategically to support the organization’s overall goals. Managers believe this enables them to exert control over the organization’s environment. Critics argue this approach is manipulative and takes into account only managerial goals and intentions. It is viewed as a one-sided approach to management that is asymmetrical and excludes alternative perspectives, including societal interests. These critics challenge the very notion of rationality.
This is an unnecessarily negative view of strategy. Many view all communication as strategic in the sense that all communication is intentional and aimed at persuading. New perspectives on strategy formulation in organizations provide several alternative, and more inclusive, interpretations. Emergent strategy holds that strategy is based on prior experience and actions, and so should value the contribution of employees at every level of the organization. Strategy formulation should therefore be a bottom-up process (Quinn, 1978). In learning organizations, strategy formulation is viewed as a more short-term and agile process that allows organizations to react quickly to developments in their environments, thus recognizing the importance of those environments.
The communication part of strategic communication is also contested. For instance, in the United States public relations is often viewed as “relationships with publics” (Ledingham 2003), whereas the European viewpoint focuses on communication that takes place in the public sphere through public media (Bentele 1994). The European school argues that communication remains central to the study of the field, and that scholars in the United States ignore the fact that all relationships are formed through communication, thus ignoring the process of relationship formation. Communication also remains the core function of other disciplines such as marketing and campaigns of every nature.
The study of strategic communication does not preclude these divergent viewpoints. An analysis at the macro- or societal level, the meso- or organizational level, and the micro- or actual communication level provides for a comprehensive application of the different theoretical and practical approaches to the field.
Strategic Communication and Society
The environment in which the communicative entity operates affects the way strategic communication is practiced. One common way to analyze the environment is to discern between the economic, legal-political, socio-cultural, competitive, and technological segments in the environment. These segments do not operate independently but are deeply interlinked. Several studies indicate that when environments are turbulent, the communication functions in organizations are required to become more strategic. Institutional theory and population ecology theory support the notion that organizational environments determine whether an organization will survive or not. By helping organizations adhere to the value systems of the environments in which they operate, strategic communicators help their organizations endure (Holtzhausen 2005). In terms of value systems, the socio-cultural environment is particularly influential in affecting the strategic communication process. Hofstede (1980) found culture has unique influences on organizations. These cultural influences necessarily affect how strategic communicators operate.
Systems, chaos, and complexity theory perspectives also often explain communication behavior, particularly in the study of crisis communication (Murphy 2000). From this application comes the concept of strategic communicators as boundary spanners who help organizations adapt to their environment by in turn representing the viewpoints of constituents and the organization. Thus strategic communicators form an inherent part of any change management team.
Although Habermas (1979, 210) has somewhat softened his stance on strategic communication, he views it as a form of communication that is “pseudo-consensual.” He recognizes that strategic communication has become important in the public sphere, but remains critical of the ability of organizations, politicians, and lobbyists to employ strategic communicators that allow them to gain access to the media and so gain political influence. Strategic communicators help these already powerful people gain social capital that adds to their power. This requires the “actors of civil society” to also use strategic communication to affect the debate in the public sphere (Habermas 2006, 15).
Postmodernists in turn argue that all discourse is political and therefore strategic (Lyotard 1988). Foucault (1988, 168) says: “Every human relationship is to some degree a power relationship. We move in a world of perpetual strategic relations.” What these philosophers have in common is that strategic communication is a real and influential feature of the public sphere.
Strategic Communication in The Organizational Context
Public relations theorists have led the way in studying the impact of organizational factors on strategic communication practice. Grunig (1989) determined that communication practice differed across organization type. Organic and mixed mechanistic-organic organizations are more likely to use advanced communication practices based on communication research and audience analysis. The structure of the communication function itself can have an impact on communication. A decentralized communication structure will more likely be able to improve information flow and communication climate in large, divisionalized organizations (Holtzhausen 2002). The worldviews of organizational leaders also affect communication practice and determine whether organizations have participative or autocratic communication philosophies.
Strategic communication requires a holistic approach to communication; therefore, the communication function should be integrated into a single organizational function. This is difficult in complex organizations where communication functions are often scattered across divisions and departments. For instance, marketing communications might fall under marketing, community and media relations under public affairs, investor relations under finance, internal communication under human resources, and corporate social responsibility under an organizational foundation. This fragmentation is further exacerbated by the strict definition of roles within each of these disciplines, e.g., copywriter, media relations specialist, event coordinator, strategist, media planner, creative director, etc. In a strategic communication approach it is important that all these communicators work in a team, which is difficult when they have different reporting structures and strictly defined roles.
There are several explanations for integration problems. One is the strict differentiation of tasks typically associated with bureaucratic structures, which makes the coordination of communication activities difficult. This is intensified by the overly specialized approach to communication education, where marketing, public relations, advertising, and speech communication are seldom integrated into a single educational unit. Clegg (1990) suggests de-differentiation, which means the breaking down of the borders that separate these. Practitioners will have more opportunities to become multi-skilled in the field, which then makes them more employable. Thus de-differentiation, in practice and academe, will be necessary for the field of strategic communication to flourish.
Power relations within an organization are another stumbling block. Mintzberg (1996, 237) first defined the “strategic apex” of the organization as consisting of “those people charged with overall responsibility of the organization.” The marketing function is typically included in the strategic apex, while communication functions are viewed as support staff. This access to power gives marketing departments a decision-making advantage over other communication functions. Communication functions like public affairs often report to a marketing executive and do not have direct input at the top decision-making level of the organization. In this situation communication practitioners often find an overemphasis on consumers, while other, often more important audiences are ignored.
Organizations that are able to integrate their communication activities into a single, integrated unit that has influence at the highest level of the organization and represents all strategic audiences will have a competitive advantage. They can use the skills of all communicators while addressing every audience in the communication process in a coordinated way, insuring consistency of strategic messages and message delivery platforms (Grunig et al. 2002). This is true for multinational companies as well as nonprofit organizations, NGOs, activist groups, political campaigns, or government agencies.
Strategic Communication at the Micro-Level
The micro-level is where the actual communication between communicative entities and audiences takes place, and it has always been the major focus of research and practice. The outcome of strategic communication at this level is aimed at reaching the goals set out in the strategic planning phase. Strategic communication goals vary according to the situation at hand. In the marketing context the focus is on brand building and improving sales. Public relations focuses on reputation management through increasing awareness, maintaining positive attitudes and relationships, or changing negative behavior and poor relationships.
Integrating marketing and public relations is also a challenge at this level. Public relations scholars argue that publics are very different from markets. Organizations choose their markets on the basis of product and service development and then communicate to consumers in specific market niches with the intent to persuade. Publics, on the other hand, engage organizations, often in a negative way because of some perceived transgression. Thus publics can be as diverse as environmental or social activists, shareholders, employees, suppliers of scarce resources, other businesses, and regulators. Members of publics might never be consumers of an organization’s products or services but might still have the power to influence organizational outcomes. While marketing-oriented disciplines such as advertising focus on persuasion, public relations scholars believe communication with publics should be two-way, providing the opportunity for both the organization and stakeholders to mutually adjust their behaviors. Marketing communications usually takes place through highly controlled mediated channels or at retail level. In public relations the required outcome of communication is lasting and trusting relationships, which needs more direct involvement with publics and less mediated communication. Public relations practitioners typically have much less control over communication situations than marketing communicators.
The strategic communication process overcomes these divisions through a holistic approach. The process provides for both persuasive and collaborative communication, depending on the audiences involved, while maintaining consistent messages. It adopts an audiencecentered approach to communication, which is based on a thorough knowledge of the particular audience’s characteristics. The ability of an organization to align its goals with those of its publics will thus be more effective in its communication efforts (Werder 2005).
A holistic audience analysis leads to audience segmentation. Typically, this involves defining the demographic, geographic, and socio-graphic profile of audiences, and also identifying social role players, such as activist groups, people in powerful regulatory positions, and even informal leaders. Employees form an integral part of all audience analyses in strategic communication. Many view this as an organization’s most important audience. Another way of approaching audiences is to determine their informationprocessing or information-seeking behavior and their preferred use of communication channels. Thus strategic communication requires knowledge of the full spectrum of communication theories on a continuum from persuasion to full collaboration, contingent on the audience type and situation. Relationships now belong in both the realm of public relations and marketing, which focuses on how employees at all levels interact with customers or how communication platforms enhance interaction with audiences.
A recent phenomenon that affects the ability to communicate strategically, and is shaped largely by new communication technologies, is the network society. New outlets make it possible for strategic communicators to reach broad but specific targeted audiences outside of the traditional media. As a result, both media and audiences have become fragmented, which further necessitates an integrated approach to communicating. These technologies support networks, which Barney (2004, 2) describes as “a structural condition” that bring many people together in multiple, decentralized matrices. Audience members belong to different networks and each network represents a different identity of the audience member. As a result, strategic communicators need to identify their target audiences through micro-segmentation.
Measurement of Strategic Communication Outcomes
Traditionally the success of marketing communication has been measured in terms of return on investment (ROI). Public relations scholars argue this is too narrow an approach to measuring the outcomes of communication. First, the ROI principle is only applicable to for-profit organizations. Return on communication investment, be it financial or time, in activist groups, nonprofit organizations, or political campaigns is measured in social change or election outcomes that require benchmark research to measure progress against. Second, strategic communicators, due to their long-term, proactive approach to communication often prevent crises. The financial implications are impossible to determine.
Public relations scholars in the United States have long argued that the status of organizational relationships effectively measures public relations outcomes. European scholars particularly focus on measuring trust and reputation. However, trust is inherent in both approaches, which indicates that measuring trust might be an effective way of measuring the outcome of a strategic communication campaign that targets both consumers and other stakeholders.
Some other theoretical concepts that provide measurement techniques in strategic communication would be gap analyses, message adoption, message comprehension, message and media effects, agenda setting, and framing. These theoretical concepts are often used independently in public relations, advertising, and marketing contexts. Applying them consistently to all organizational strategic audiences allows communicative entities to better evaluate the successes and shortcomings of their communication strategies.
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