Communication can help drive the change needed to leverage corporate behaviour and build a desirable reputation

Strategic planning enables a communicator to achieve goals around CSR objectives involving a specific audience. Simply put, public opinion can be affected in three ways:

  1. Public opinion can be created where none now exists.

  2. Existing public opinion can be reinforced.

  3. Existing public opinion can be changed.

Whether the communication programme succeeds or fails depends on how we impact public opinion.

Further, strategic planning in communication confers five main benefits for an organisation. It:

  • focuses effort. It ensures that the unnecessary is excluded and makes you work on the right things.

  • encourages a long-term view and integrates communication in the wider goals and mission of the organisation.

  • helps demonstrate value for money. Presenting a powerful, forward-looking and realistic programme gives you a point from which to argue your case for financial support.

  • avoids conflicts. The process of putting together a strategic communication plan helps you confront difficulties before they arise and work them through to.

  • encourages proactivity. Communication is about deciding what you want to do well before the action – what actions you want to take, and what messages you want to put across. Planning a comprehensive and cohesive programme helps you achieve this and get internal buy-in of your key stakeholders.

Seven steps to better communication and winning stakeholder support

When well-designed and strategically aligned to guide relationships with stakeholders, communication can help build support and drive the change that is needed to leverage the behaviour of the corporation to build the desired reputation.

The process of planning includes many stages, among them setting your goals for communication, defining your audience, and developing a plan for implementation.

Step 1: Communication audit

This step begins with research and analysis to understand and take stock of your current situation. It is this research and analysis that will reveal your strengths and weaknesses, possible opportunities and threats, and the resources you already have. It is also at this stage that you listen to understand your audience’s needs and priorities.

Carry out a communications audit

There are many ways of carrying out a communication audit and associated research and analysis to get into the minds of people important to your success – for example, the SWOT analysis to identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as they relate to your investment and initiatives in CSR.

It establishes the relationship between the organisations and its stakeholders. A communication audit also identifies those audiences that you need to reach, engage with and influence. It investigates the scope of communication to determine whether all existing potential audiences are being covered. It examines their current attitudes and assesses whether or not work is required to crystallise, confirm or adjust those attitudes.

It identifies communication gaps and unexploited opportunities, as well as the information needs of all key stakeholders. It also looks ahead by examining future information requirements and new methods of communication that should be used. In the past, we focused on what we told people. Today, reputation is shaped by how people experience our corporate character and whether and how others advocate on our behalf. The result is a shared belief in which more and more people participate and advocate for the organisation.

Step 2: Define your communication goals and objectives

Once your communication audit is complete, the next step is to align your mission and values with what is actually taking place in the corporation and is the source of the company’s direction. Alignment between mission, actuality and communication is crucial. Clearly these three aspects not being aligned has led, appropriately in some cases, to the suspicion by many that CSR is simply PR. Your goal is your destination – what you want your key audiences and stakeholders to think, believe and do in support of your business or organisational goals.

You then integrate communication as a strategic input to serve as your steering wheel as you connect your audiences, your messages and the channels for delivering these messages. It is a statement of what you want your target audience to know (facts, information), believe (feel) and perhaps do (volunteer, give time, act in a certain way).

Communication objectives should signal desired audience outcomes (e.g. increased awareness or a desired individual behaviour). When a corporation that the author worked with included a call to action as a key message it helped track evaluation efforts of its CSR initiatives.

Identify communication gaps and information needs  

Step 3: Identify your target audience and stakeholders

There are two types of audience to consider when planning your communication: primary audience and secondary audience. The primary target audience is the people or group of people for whom you want to change the way they think, act or behave in relationship to your CSR initiatives. These may be your employees, members of the community, consumers of your product or services, or government officials. The secondary audience is the people or group of people who have an influence on the primary audience. For example, if your primary audience is school-going children, parents or teachers could be the secondary audience as they have influence on the actions of these children.

Think about your secondary audience

This process may also tell you what your audience thinks about your programme or the work your organisation is doing. You may discover that you need to have different messages for different audiences. Based on what you want to achieve, this stage helps you paint a picture of the people you need to reach and engage.

Step 4: Develop key messages and a “big idea”

Having identified your audience(s), you will need to develop the key messages that resonate with each audience group. One company approached this by developing one “big idea” that was encapsulated in a simple, catchy, easily memorised theme and slogan. This serves as the platform that helps you deliver messages that are consistent, coherent and likely to influence the way your target audience thinks and relates to your CSR initiatives.

Step 5: Develop a strategy and implementation plan

Once you know what you want to convey (the key messages), the next step is to develop a strategy for getting these messages out to your audiences. If your goal is your destination, then strategy is the road map to that destination.

The resources available to achieve your goals are usually limited, and having a strategy helps you plan and make decisions on how to allocate those limited resources. The strategy will include the tactics you need to employ for each audience group, with a timeline and key milestones that must be reached for your communication effort to be considered a success.

It may also be necessary to identify and build the support of stakeholders across a wide range of influencers and opinion leaders in business, professional groups, government and civil society who will help amplify your messages.

Build the support of opinion leaders

However, because the modern world is in constant flux and things can and do change, often at a moment’s notice, we believe any communication strategy you put in place is not cast in stone, but must be malleable, designed to change to reflect the mission, vision, goals and objectives of your organisation.

Step 6: Activate and coordinate implementation

The foregoing processes are important steps in your strategic communication plan, but to achieve your end the whole process must be brought to life. The implementation process will include identifying the most effective channels and means of applying the strategy to deliver your key messages in the most efficient and effective ways to your audience(s).

The objective is to bring these key messages to your audience(s) and build the desired knowledge to influence their attitudes, actions and ultimately the reputation of your organisation.

Once the strategy is in place and activated, then work to oversee and coordinate the implementation so that the communication activities are handled coherently and consistently. For instance, in the example of a campaign targeting university students, the activation involved working with students who have a strong Facebook following to post opinions and generate discussion.

For a campaign targeting decision-makers, it involved preparing position papers and then engaging the media through multiple ways – a news conference, a media workshop to educate them on the issues and one-on-one interviews to articulate the issues more deeply. This may include strengthening the communication capacity of key internal stakeholders in the institution as well as individual members of your team.

Step 7: Assess and learn

This final step is just as important as the other steps. As previously noted, communication is not a one-sided process – it is most effective as dialogue between you and your audiences.

It will, therefore, be imperative that the whole process be evaluated right from the beginning to learn what has worked and what has not, in your particular case or as a lesson from others. The assessment will include indicators to monitor and evaluate specific communication activities and outcomes to determine if the desired changes have occurred in knowledge, attitudes or behaviour among the target audience(s).

The assessment will tell you what worked and how you can build on what worked, or what you should modify or drop altogether to achieve the desired results.

Key points

Remember your employees. Research suggests that an organisation’s employees are by far its most credible representatives, so the most direct and practical strategy for building belief in reputation in the world at large is to build it inside your company. Your employees are your most important ambassadors for leveraging your CSR investment.

Remember your employees


Do not spend more on communication than on your CSR. Let your CSR initiative speak for itself through the effects it generates.

Provide leadership at the highest level. The CEO is the most credible driver of the company’s reputation-building communication and the CSR story.

This is an abridged extract from CSR and Sustainability, edited by Michael Hopkins. Contributor Lawrence Gikaru is managing director at Apex Porter Novelli, a strategic communications and public relations firm.

CSR  Communications strategy  stakeholder support  resources  corporate sustainability 

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