How to build a communications strategy

This article is part of the Cast From Clay How To series for policy organisations.




Before we get into the weeds on what a process to create a communications strategy looks like, it may be worth considering why to go down that path in the first place. 


What is strategy?

At Cast From Clay, we think of strategy as the prioritised deployment of limited resources against agreed objectives.

If you have unlimited resources, it matters not how you use them. Do everything all the time. (And drop me an email while you’re at it.)

Most of us are not in that position. We must be selective in how we expend those resources (staff, budget, reputation, etc), in what order, and to what end. Coming up with a commonly accepted roadmap, a strategy, keeps us focused on what is important.

Strategy is useful because it allows us to say “no”. All too often we are met with requests to invest in new software, hire that cool communications agency, or chase research funding that isn’t aligned with our mission. Without a clear set of objectives in place, and detail on how to achieve them, we lack conformity of approach.

A clear strategic vision permits ruthless clarity of thought and focus. It helps us say “no” to things that will distract us. This permits the efficient allocation of resources, which increases the likelihood of impact. 


So, in the words of my colleague Katy Murray, strategy is focused on making sure you do the right thing. As opposed to execution, in which you are focused on doing things right.


Different kinds of strategy

There are lots of different kinds of strategy. It may help to think of a Russian doll. 

The largest doll is your brand strategy. It’s the big stuff: mission, vision, purpose, values. Without this, you are directionless.

The doll just inside is your organisational strategy. Our context is communications, so for us this is our communications strategy. But it could also be your HR strategy, your IT strategy, your financial strategy. All the different strands that help you achieve your brand strategy.

And within this communications strategy doll you have a number of others. Stakeholder strategy. Messaging strategy. Content & channels strategy. Etc. 


The process I cover below showcases how Cast From Clay approaches communications strategy. The same building blocks can be used for strategies at lower layers.


Setting the scene

If your goal is to create a situation where you can say “no”, you need to generate an understanding of what you’re going to do, why you’re doing it, and how you will do it. And you need to devise a plan on how you are going to measure your success (or lack thereof). 

But you also need to ensure that your strategy is subscribed to by colleagues and stakeholders. You will need to have created an environment in which you can say “no”.

Before getting started there are a few questions you may wish to ask yourself and your colleagues. The questions will help you to better understand why you are doing this piece of work, what resources you have, and what kind of output you are looking for.

Here are a few to get you started:

    1. What resources do you have available to execute the strategy?
    2. Why are you doing this piece of work – why now?
    3. “In 5 years you’re looking back at this project and you think, ‘that was epic’ – what made you think that?”
    4. What is your audience prioritisation?
    5. Who is doing this work, and what are their pros and cons?
    6. Should it be light touch (allows for flexibility) or highly detailed (increased organisational alignment)?


The process


1. Landscape research

Our goal here is to generate a contextual understanding of the landscape you operate in. You should choose 3-5 organisations, which include a couple of competitors and one best-in-class organisation (from another policy area, perhaps), and a curve ball, such as a media organisation or a consultancy. 

Rank them on 5-10 areas, from positioning to messaging to channels. What you rank them on should be dictated by the elements you intend to include within your strategy.

Focus on questions like: Why are competitors doing what they are doing? What can you learn from what others are doing? What are they doing that you should avoid repeating? What are the opportunities/ where is the white space? What questions remain unanswered?

Your output should be something like 10-20 slides, with a 2-3 slide executive summary (not densely packed with words – attain clarity of thought on what this output actually means for your organisation).


2. Primary research

With primary research we want to understand how our key audiences internal and external think about your organisation. Conduct 5 interviews with each audience type (eg, media, funders, policymakers, employees, senior management/ board).

Questions should be both absolute (ie, what do they think of you) and relative (ie, what do they think of you compared to your competitors). You may want to test the findings of the landscape research, or do some preliminary message testing. You’ll definitely want to identify conflicts between internal and external audiences.

Focus on: what do your audiences want from you? How do they frame the conversation? What is missing? What are the problems? What are the opportunities/ where is the white space? What questions remain unanswered?

Again, clarity of thought in the deliverable is important. Don’t just repeat what everyone said, but identify what it means for you moving forward.


3. Internal engagement

If the goal is to create an environment where you can say “no”, you need to earn that permission. So here we need to listen to the organisation, and give them the opportunity to feed into and shape the strategy.

How you do this will differ depending on the type of organisation you are, and your scale. A workshop (or several) is a good default as it allows you to get different parts of the organisation in the room together to discuss and debate areas where there may be disagreement.

Use the workshop to explore the findings from the preceding research phases so everyone is on the same page about the situation at hand, and then use the space to resolve internal and external conflicts. Test some of your initial ideas for the strategy do people think they will work?

Most importantly, listen to the voices in the room. This isn’t a tick box exercise but a crucial component of developing a strategy that will work. If there are reservations about a specific component, it’s likely that it isn’t viable in its current form. Hammering it through anyway won’t help anyone.


4. Strategy development

Find a cave, gather your notes, turn off your email, and start building the strategy out in detail.

We tend to approach strategy by defining a set of pillars up front, and then fleshing them out.

So for one previous client, these were:

    1. Frame the Debate
    2. Deepen Relationships
    3. Focus on Accessible Content
    4. Evaluate Constantly

Each pillar should have a strategic goal(s), recommendations on specific tactical executions to achieve them, and a snapshot of the research that informed the goal. You’ll want to include some things that you can do tomorrow, and others that will require increased investment so realistic, but also pushing you forward.

Most importantly, you need to make the strategy real. Avoid creating a strategy that is so big picture that it lacks real meaning. Add the detail and the colour.

Questions that may help you here include:

    1. When should we do this and how long will it take?
    2. What resource is required to make this happen? Where will it be drawn from?
    3. Who has responsibility for making this happen?
    4. Do we need external support? If so, what kind of individual/ firm, and who do we know who may be a good fit?

Defining a measurement and evaluation framework isn’t necessarily part of a communications strategy brief, but it is something you should be doing alongside this. What KPIs are you targeting and what are your metrics for success?

This process is how we at Cast From Clay approach communications strategy, but it is not the only method. Adapt and edit this as you wish based on what feels right for your organisation and the resources you have available. 

If you have questions or comments, especially if you disagree with any of it, shout at me on Twitter.


Watch Tom run through the process of building a communications strategy in this recorded presentation.