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Hardly a week goes by without shocking reminders of how important it is for companies to align internal and external audiences with brand, values and organizational strategies.
Studies indicate that internally only one in five employees understands how their work contributes to an organization’s overall strategic direction. This lack of clarity is exacerbated by a daily bombardment of information, which interrupts focus and impedes innovation. Companies that fail to connect strategy with employees, customers, investors and the public — foreign and domestic — stifle growth and risk backlash or irrelevance.
As brand ambassadors, everyone involved with an organization must fully believe their actions are relevant to the mission.
This includes investors, boards of directors and employees, and extends to customers and vendors, allies and fans. In order to achieve buy-in to the mission, to energize and motivate, organizations must communicate openly and honestly about their strategy.
The five most effective ways to do this are through:
- Using vivid pictures,
- Engaging in discussion,
- Applying strategy in communication and by
- Walking the talk.
Strategy in Storytelling
A brand’s strength derives from authentic colorful stories. At its core, communication is concerned with storytelling that forms a bond with people. Your supporters should be invested in what currently is happening with your organization, what occurred in the past and what transpires next. Apple’s phenomenal success, for example, was intertwined with each victory achieved by Steve Jobs. Disney has its magic. “GE Works” ads grab my attention. Virgin Airlines has Richard Branson. When I worked at biotech Cephalon, we had Frank Baldino.
I love the way my friend Gary Baker of Baker Brand Communications describes storytelling as the essence of a brand. Successful branding relies on portraying authentic attributes that accurately reflect an organization’s fundamental strategies. The elements of a good story — analogies and metaphors — encourage people to invest in your company, work for you and buy your products.
Strategy in Pictures
I am a visual thinker. Before I engage, I envision an activity, outcome or relationship. I prefer to be pulled by a vision rather than pushed by a plan. Making an emotive connection in our multimedia world requires vivid images that play upon our senses. People should feel your brand. They should see in their mind’s eye how their life will improve by doing business with you. Visual intimacy, emotive images and immediacy are why YouTube receives more than two billion hits each day.
Strategy in Discussion
We also must engage with whoever wants to talk with us, wherever they are, at anytime they choose. This is especially important in the social media age, where anything is said regardless of accuracy. It’s an inescapable fact in today’s world that employees, customers, investors and the public talk about your brand and your strategy whether or not you join the conversation.
Strategy in Communication
The columnist Richard Halloran correctly observed that there should be no great mystery about what strategic communications is, or an unnecessarily complicated definition of it. In short, strategic communications is a way of persuading other people to accept one’s ideas, policies or courses of action. Strategic communications means persuading allies and friends to stand with you. It means persuading neutrals to come over to your side or at least stay neutral. In the best of all worlds, it means persuading adversaries that you have the power and the will to prevail. Vitally important and pertinent this election year, strategic communications means persuading a nation’s citizens to support the policies of their leaders to forge a national will and accomplish national objectives. In this context, strategic communications is essential to national leadership.
Strategy in Action
Finally, success also depends on an organization staying true to its words through its actions. The media are full of examples of executives, celebrities and politicians saying one thing and doing another. Inappropriate actions — and inaction when decisive action is needed — come at a steep price to brands and reputations. When trust is broken, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to recover. You do have to talk the talk and walk the walk.
But for every Apple, Disney, GE and Virgin Atlantic, there are dozens of other organizations that find storytelling, the use of inspiring and authentic imagery, personal engagement, strategic communications and “walking the talk” an awkward process, at best. Those often-cited ideals of “transparency” and “authenticity” require gut-churning change for many, but both are essential to executing strategies and building solid brands and reputations.
The bottom line? Organizations that ignore the imperative to change how they communicate are going to like irrelevancy even less.
A version of this article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of the Baker Brand Blog.
Robert W. Grupp, APR, is conference director for the 3rd National Summit on Strategic Communications, April 16-17 in Washington, D.C., and is president of Grupp Global Partners LLC. He is immediate past president of the Institute for Public Relations.