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Strategic communication can be defined as “the practice of deliberate and purposive communication a communication agent enacts in the public sphere on behalf of a communicative entity to reach set goals” (Holtzhausen & Zerfass 2013, 74). This definition emphasizes purposiveness, the role of communication agents and thus practice, and the importance of the public sphere, which sets the field apart from interpersonal or small group communication.
At a professional level the field faces challenges in coordinating and integrating the communication activities of organizations. Theoretically it is challenged to create 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.
The Meaning Of Strategic
While the term ‘strategic’ originated in warfare, organizations originally used it to describe how they competed in the marketplace to gain competitive advantage and market share (Hatch 1997). 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 (SWO T analysis). 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.
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, which values the contribution of employees at every level of the organization. In learning organizations, strategy formulation is viewed as more short-term and agile, which allows organizations to react quickly to developments in their environments. Emergent strategy also implies that there is not necessarily a beginning and end to the strategic process, that it can emerge at any point during strategy formulation, and that it can be immediate and spontaneous. One of the most important emerging perspectives in strategic communication is the rejection of linearity. Meanings and messages are now viewed as negotiated and subjective, where the outcome of the communication process depends more on the receiver than on the sender. Thus dialogic communication and how it shapes strategy has now become one of the major focus areas for strategic communication research.
Strategic Communication And Society
The environment in which the communicative entity operates affects the way strategic communication is practiced. Systems, chaos, and complexity theory perspectives also often explain communication behavior, particularly to the study of crisis communication (Gilpin & Murphy 2008). From theories of the environment 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.
Although Habermas has somewhat softened his stance on strategic communication, he views it as a form of communication that is “pseudoconsensual,” meant to help organizations, politicians, and lobbyists to get access to the media and so gain political influence (Habermas 2006). Postmodernists in turn argue that all discourse is political and therefore strategic (Lyotard 1988). 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
Factors that affect strategic communication at organizational level are, among others, organizational structure, decision-making processes, leadership styles, and worldviews of organizational leaders and professional communicators. 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.
This fragmentation is further exacerbated by the strict definition of roles within each of these disciplines. 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. This fragmentation is further facilitated by the overly specialized approach to communication education, where marketing, public relations, advertising, and speech communication are seldom integrated into a single educational unit. Power relations within an organization are another stumbling block. The marketing function is typically included in the “strategic apex” of the organization (Mintzberg 1996, 237), while communication functions are viewed as support staff. This access to power gives marketing departments a decision-making advantage over other communication functions, which overemphasizes consumers at the cost of other, often more important, audiences.
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 can use the skills of all communicators while addressing every audience in the communication process in a coordinated way, ensuring consistency of strategic messages and message delivery platforms (Grunig et al. 2002).
Strategic Communication At The Micro-Level
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, such as brand building and improving sales and reputation management through increasing awareness, maintaining positive attitudes and relationships, or changing negative behavior and poor relationships. New communication technologies help to integrate strategic communication at this level. New media platforms such as the Internet and different social media outlets now allow strategic communicators to bypass traditional media and overcome these divisions among audiences through a holistic approach.
New communication platforms make it possible for strategic communicators to reach broad but specific targeted audiences outside of the traditional media. New analytics and the ability to micro-segment an audience, or even target individuals directly, also allow for shaping messages tailored to individual needs. These technologies support networks, which Barney (2004, 2) describes as “a structural condition,” that bring many people together in multiple, decentralized matrices. Strategic communicators need to identify their target audiences through micro-segmentation and they also have to assume that an audience member’s multiple identities are reached through different media and different platforms. This is known as media fragmentation.
Measurement Of Outcomes
Traditionally the success of marketing communication has been measured in terms of return on investment (RO I). Return on communication investment, be it financial or time, in activist groups, non-profit organizations, or political campaigns is measured in social change or election outcomes that require benchmark research to measure progress against.
Online and social media metrics provide new methods for measuring strategic communication outcomes. Baym (2013, 1) argues, “Metric and big data analysis generally serves economic values, while other approaches … may be more appropriate for assessing social and personal values.”
- Barney, D. (2004). The network society. Cambridge: Polity.
- Baym, N. K. (2013). Data not seen: The uses and shortcoming of social media metrics. First Monday, 18(10), 1–16.
- Bentele, G. & Nothhaft, H. (2010). Strategic communication in the public sphere from a European perspective. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 4(2), 93–116.
- Gilpin, D. R. & Murphy, P. J. (2008). Crisis management in a complex world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Dozier, D. M. (2002). Excellent public relations ands effective organizations. A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Habermas, J. (2006). Political communication in media society – Does democracy still enjoy an epistemic deminsion? The impact of normative theory on empirical research, Annual Convention of the International Communication Association. Dresden: International Communication Association.
- Hatch, M. J. (1997). Organisation theory. Modern, symbolic, and postmodern perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Holtzhausen, D. R. & Zerfass, A. (2013). Strategic communication – Pillars and perspectives of an alternative paradigm. In A. Zerfass, L. Rademacher, & S. Wehmeier (eds.), Organisationskommunikation und public relations. Wiesbaden: Springer, pp. 72–94.
- Lyotard, J. F. (1988). The differend: Phrases in dispute. Theory and history of literature (Vol. 46). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Mintzberg, H. (1996). The five basic parts of the organization. In J. M. Shafritz & J. S. Ott (eds.), Classics of organization theory. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College, pp. 232–244.
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