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    Think Strategically about Communications

     

     
     
    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 4/2005

    Photo: Caricom Secretariat CARICOM had a poster campaign to promote a single market.

    Communications plays a key role in every organization that wants results. A strategic approach can help them use resources effectively to achieve their goals.

    When officials at the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) wanted to increase public awareness about CARICOM's single market and economy, they recognized that communicating clearly and openly about their motivations, effects and aspirations was essential to engage the public and win support for long-term development policies. So they decided to harness the power of strategic communications.

    Build support with target groups



    A ten-nation print, radio and advertising campaign followed. The results were clear. Post-campaign qualitative research showed growing awareness and support for the single market.

    In the same way, trade associations and export promotion institutions can use strategic communications to reach important groups. It can help them achieve organizational objectives - whether that means increasing public support for a policy, breaking into a new market or easing the path for exporters to reach a new target group of consumers.

    The recent ServiceExportNet meeting organized by ITC (Geneva, October 2005) highlighted the importance of effective communications strategies in export development. Participants from Africa, Europe and Latin America were able to name occasions when their organizations had appeared in local media. But many questions remained. Would the coverage help achieve broader organizational goals? Was their message right? Were they reaching the audience they needed to? Was their message being delivered consistently and innovatively beyond the confines and competitiveness of traditional media sources?

    Strategic communications addresses these questions. It demands the effective integration of communications activities that go beyond traditional media relations. It uses all the channels at an organization's disposal, including paid advertising, online and grass-roots activity, and organizational resources such as web sites, magazines and films. Thinking more broadly than usual about communications can help trade promotion organizations maximize the effectiveness of their resources, identify a winning message and amplify their voice in the media and beyond.

    Integrate communications in your business plan



    In the Caribbean, CARICOM officials embarked on a year-long strategic communications eff ort as part of their business plan.

    As with the other parts of a business plan, getting strategic communications right requires everybody in the organization to take a step back and ask some fundamental questions. CARICOM offi cials convened a two-day strategic planning session, bringing in economic experts and Caribbean and international communications professionals to identify the scope, objectives and target audiences for the communications campaign to follow. After many years of communicating with key stakeholder groups and intra-governmental audiences, CARICOM now wanted to increase awareness of the single market among the general public.

    By setting clear goals and identifying the public that the campaign had to reach, CARICOM planners were able to ensure scarce resources of time and money would be used exactly where they would have greatest impact.

    With the parameters in place, CARICOM engaged a small team of advisers from the Caribbean and abroad to conduct a series of qualitative research discussions with the public and forums with key stakeholders from business, labour and government. Th rough 12 sessions, the advisers were able to develop an analysis of the public's understanding of the single market, what elements were most important to them and how best to communicate the objectives of the single market with the public and targeted subset groups - young people, families and business leaders.

    A campaign guide



    The resulting CARICOM Single Market Message Manual provided a guide for all communications moving forward - a way to ensure consistency of a tested and eff ective message over time and avoid the unfocused lack of clarity produced by messages made on the basis of whims and hunches.

    A series of workshops for "champions" followed, bringing together representatives of labour, business, academia, the arts, non-profit groups and government to engage them as partners in the campaign. These people became spokespersons for the benefits of closer economic, social and cultural ties within the CARICOM region.

    Champions were briefed on the single market message, given media training and asked to help the CARICOM team to develop a grass-roots campaign in each of the region's countries. The delivery mechanisms included meetings in local town halls, school and university activity, labour and business publications, and local government resolutions - all integrated into a regionwide campaign plan. Each activity was designed to generate local newspaper coverage and, perhaps, television or radio interest, thus amplifying the message of each event.

    This grass-roots campaign also tapped into a long tradition of personalized contact as a key source of information for Caribbean people. Small discussions among friends and families on politics and policy are a powerful, if informal, method of communication in the region. It's also important that communications be sensitive to local traditions. Where possible, in this "word-of-mouth" tradition, the campaign needed to tap into an existing infrastructure to allow communications to reach people using a framework they are already comfortable with.

    The final element of the CARICOM model was to supplement the grass-roots activity with a print, radio and television advertising campaign. Using the content from the manual, an innovative series of messages was beamed across the entire region. Radio was identified as the primary regional information source, so the majority of communications resources were devoted to that medium. But campaign planners recognized the power and reach of the cricket season in most parts of the Caribbean and ran television advertising during test matches. Highquality print advertising refl ecting the diversity of the region was targeted at sub-group populations in the outlets they used.

    For example, a full-page business-focused ad was proposed for newspaper business sections and for popular in-flight magazines.

    Reaching goals more effectively



    The CARICOM model can, and should, be applied by trade associations and export promotion organizations seeking to take their work to a new level of eff ectiveness.

    The model is relevant to all strategic communications: objective and audience identifi cation; message research and development; development of a campaign plan that integrates traditional news media activity with advertising, grass-roots activity and, where applicable, online capacity; spokesperson training and engagement; and finally, effective implementation of an integrated communications strategy.

    There are many benefits to strategic communications. Effective communications can enhance education and raise awareness. It can generate support for trade association and export promotion activities among key audiences. Communications can change ideas and perceptions to create a supportive environment for trade promotion activity. But only a comprehensive, integrated approach that sees communications as a central element of the plan can achieve these goals.

    Paul Andrew (pandrew@18to35.org ) advises governments, corporations and non-profi t organizations on strategic communications, message development and media relations. He has worked at senior levels with governments in Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North America to help them communicateeconomic and trade initiatives