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Developing Competencies for Effective Strategic Communications

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tricia Nolfi
May 25, 2018

Strategic communications, the intentional and proactive use of communication competencies to achieve organizational goals, is an approach used by government leaders and although much has been written about communication activities of public leaders, the focus has been primarily within federal government. However, local governments and their leaders face distinctive challenges which require viewing communication through a different lens. Financial demands, shared services between municipalities, complex vendor agreements, facilitating community engagement and an expanding span of control puts unique pressures on local leaders. Among them is the involvement by citizens in local decision making at a time when there is a sense of distrust of government officials by citizens. Today, public trust in government is at a historic low; however, at the local level, American’s view things in a more positive light. Unlike federal government leaders, local leaders have more opportunities to interact directly with citizens, allowing them to build positive relationships and allies for government initiatives.

Argenti, Howell and Beck note that as organizations grow in complexity, the need for a more consistent communication strategy becomes imperative because it must communicate with a diverse and expanding constituency. Being mindful of these changes, local leaders are required to be skilled in communications that can meet the needs of a wide range stakeholders — and strategic communications can make that possible.

Public Sector Strategic Communications

Public leaders must be creative and intentional in their thinking in order to facilitate strategic communications. In doing so, they should be mindful that communication activities are inward and outward facing and they must equally emphasize the importance of communication with all stakeholders including employees, co-workers, vendors, elected officials and residents, among others. Different from traditional interpersonal communication, Argenti, et. al and Hallahan, et. al focus on the variety of iterative loops with multiple constituencies at multiple levels that facilitate strategic communications. It is an interactive, purposeful form of communication aimed at achieving organizational goals. Strategic communication focuses on how the organization itself—through its leaders—present and promote itself through intentional communication activities.

It has been noted that public leaders need to build a distinct set of communication competencies including credibility, influence, questioning and listening, interpersonal orientation, public speaking, intercultural orientation, role modeling, writing, information technology application and networking to be successful in their jobs. Although all may play a role in the strategic communication process, it is likely that credibility, influence, questioning and listening, interpersonal orientation and networking will be center stage.

What Strategic Communication Looks Like

Strategic communications create a clear line of sight between communication activities and the organization’s goals. In practice, leaders need to address four aspects of the process when facilitating strategic communications: 1) The function of the communication, 2) The goal of the communication, 3) The intended audiences(s), and 4) The communication medium(s). Public leaders; however, have additional considerations that are woven through the process. Inward and outward communications may be influenced by politics such as interacting with elected officials to build consensus on issues, to advocate for resource allocation or pursue policy decisions. Given the rise of citizens using social media to interact with and comment on local government, leaders need to consider “noise” that may impact digital communications and their desired responses. The leader who can analyze situations and address related communications in a strategic manner will reap the benefits of a better informed and educated constituency, engaged stakeholders and the achievement of organizational goals. Additionally, by viewing each communication as an opportunity to develop and improve relationships, the leader can gain credibility and influence.

For example, a township is holding a public hearing regarding the budget. Rather than viewing this action as a legal requirement, the township manager could view it as an opportunity to promote township goals and long-term plans. Shifting her thinking of the hearing from a requirement to an opportunity will allow her to consider how the communication mediums (e.g. public notice, Facebook post, meeting) used for the hearing could help achieve township goals. Here, the manager could consider the function of communications (e.g. to educate, to inform, to pursued), the goal (i.e. to pass the budget) and intended audiences (e.g. residents, businesses, elected officials), their viewpoints and how they might be engaged. This intentional process forces the manager to view the hearing and related communication as a part of a much larger picture. Thinking about an ordinary activity as a strategic opportunity frames the communications in a way that links the activity to other organizational pursuits.

Developing Communication Competencies

In the above example, the township manager could rely on several communication competencies to be effective in her efforts to gain support for the budget and trust in the process including influence, listening, interpersonal orientation, public speaking and networking. The breadth of skills and abilities required for effective strategic communications brings to light the need for public leaders to focus on ongoing professional development.

As leaders pursue opportunities to improve their communication competencies, they must develop and increase self-awareness. Reflecting upon experiences and asking key questions such as: What am I trying to achieve? What am I doing that is working? What isn’t working?, or What can I do to change? will focus leaders on areas of needed development. Additionally, asking trusted colleagues and friends for feedback on behaviors can provide added insight into potential areas of growth. As communication competencies improve, so will the public leaders’ ability to effectively facilitate strategic communications.

Author: Tricia S. Nolfi is Assistant Professor II and Program Director in Organizational Leadership at Rider University in New Jersey.  Twitter @TriciaNolfi

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