You can spend three months talking about the tactics for your communications strategy.

And another one pondering what to do about timing and messages.

Senior management can declare the communications strategy process and its implementation important. It can even make all department heads swear allegiance.

That’s all great, yes. But it can’t be all!

Never in history has anything become important simply because someone said it was — not even when it was the president who said it.

Whoever higher up says communications strategy is important, has to back it up with tangibles

You have to put resources into place. “Put your money where your mouth is,” as they say.

The number of resources leadership moves to get something done is a clear measurement of how important it is to them in reality.

If it’s below a certain level, the original message turns into the opposite of what the statement said: It’s not important.

Middle management is well trained in deciphering these statements; with the effect that on a practical level, nothing much happens. It’s institutional cognitive dissonance if you like.

Implementing a communications strategy is all about logistics

As Microtodd wrote in Knuggets Knowledge, a blog on knowledge and skills for leadership in the modern tech industry “amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” — a quote from Gen. Robert H. Barrow, Commandant of the Marine Corps noted in 1980.

Microtodd refers to the movie Gladiator in which the Roman army defeats a Germanic horde in a brilliant battle. He says the tactics were pure maneuver warfare, “a main force engages and holds the enemy. Then a rapid flanking movement comes in and hits them from a second front.”

He first thought that this was brilliant tactics. But then he realizes that “the key to the Roman army’s success in that battle was not the flanking tactic, it was the logistics.” And this was indeed the bigger challenge than riding some horses in from the side. The logistics entailed:

  • “The Roman army was exactly in the place it wanted to be
  • …with a bunch of heavy siege equipment
  • …and all those horses and men
  • …and they were all well fed and equipped
  • …and they got all those men and materiel in place, set up, and were rested when the horde charged them”

Logistics was the basis for the Roman commander to fight the battle entirely on his terms — which on top of it all “probably really increased their morale as well.”

For Microtodd the real success of the Roman general’s leadership was the logistics, not the tactics. “He made sure each soldier in the army had what they needed to win the battle.”

The basis for a communications strategy in a development project

How does this apply to managing the communications of a development cooperation project?

Say you’re a senior management lead or even better you’re working on the client-side in a ministry looking at the general setup of an upcoming programme.

What are your key concerns for your teams? Is it tactics, i.e. what communications tools or which messages are they going to use? Will you spend a lot of your time working with the teams, micromanaging and questioning every communications decision they make?

Or is it really making sure that the team has:

  • A clear objective (a marching order)
  • Good computers and monitors that are geared towards the needs of communications tasks
  • Direct access to the internet
  • Software that’s needed to operate professional communications
  • Colleagues that are qualified to handle communications assignments
  • Supervisors, who know about communications and can therefore support communications people with their tasks?

What else is needed for your communications strategy to come out great?

With regard to the communications strategy process

Senior management has to make it mandatory for key staff to participate in the strategy sessions. It cannot be at staff’s own digression to join in or not, and it can also not be at the digression of their immediate supervisors. They will always have something more important to do with their teams than communications.

Clearly, this also extends to the delegated staff having to take on tasks and assignments. Just sitting the meeting is not cracking it.

As for the implementation of your communications strategy

Senior management needs to ensure that there is a fair amount of communications positions, including some more senior positions.

These positions have to be filled with trained communications people — that is who have experience with communications in a professional context. You cannot run the show with juniors only.

You will need communications pros to steer the communications work. Supervisors who are trained in a subject matter field cannot guide many of the intricate communications-related decisions. They might think they can, but they don’t — at least not alone without professional communications advice.

Project communications is like exercising these days

You cannot expect results if you don’t train with a certain frequency. There is just too much competition for attention in development cooperation.

Plus, communication has become so much more complex in the last 20 years.

You need to build up your muscle. Meaning you need to engage with your target groups beyond sending out sporadic factual information.

That just takes up much more time and effort than what most projects budget for.

Outsourcing needs to be handled professionally as well

You might think you can outsource the more complicated communications work to agencies and freelancers.

Yes, you can, but you need to be able to write ToRs that make at least some communications sense. You need someone with communications experience to write the ToR. Just knowing what you want is a shortsighted approach.

Once you have the agency onboard, you need to lead them professionally. The subject matter dimension is not enough.

Beware of the agency problem

As long as it results in billable hours all agencies will do what you tell them to do, even if it doesn’t make much sense to them. It’s naive to expect advice from an agency that has the slightest possibility to result in fewer billable hours for them.

So if you hire professional media agencies and then have them guided by your juniors with no communications experience, you’re unlikely to live up to what communications can do nowadays.

Make sure you can stand a chance to live up to these expectations out there. Throw in the resources!