02

It is all about strategy

There may be more noise out there, but the job is actually simpler – as long as you have a strategy.

Politics can be a very bruising business. Hour after hour, day after day, you are under intense scrutiny. Attacks, many of which you will think are unfair, come from every quarter.

I still wear the scars of those days. But the world today is very different. My political campaigning with Tony Blair came largely before the arrival of social media, Twitter and rise of the blogosphere. I can understand why there are many who believe the noise and instant rush to judgement makes the job of communicating much harder. But while it can seem counter-intuitive, I believe instead that this revolution has actually made communicating – whether you are a political party, a campaigning organisation or a business – more straightforward.

In a world in which opinions are no longer the preserve of a few newspapers or broadcasters but are shared in countless conversations across the web, it is frankly pointless to think you can control what others say about you. The priority is to think about what you want to say about yourself and ensure you do it as effectively as possible.

It is why, in an era of breath-taking change which you will read about in these pages, it is essential first, as John Major might say, to get back to basics. Your focus must not be on how to get your message over – the channels or the tactics you should use – but what you want to say and why. It is only when you have this nailed down should you start thinking about everything else.

Political parties understand this imperative even if they might not always get it right. I am still not sure after five years what the Coalition Government stood for. But too many businesses still seem to think it is not even necessary to try.

I hear repeatedly how corporate clients only want tactics and not strategy from their PR advisers, whether in-house or consultants. They have got it the wrong way around.

The importance of knowing your objective – and having thought of the strategy to achieve it – is greater in this new communications environment. The more noise there is, the greater the need to focus on what’s important; the more essential it is to have clarity over what you are saying.

This must start with objective – what you want to achieve. From this flows the strategy – the approach to achieving it. This allows you to shape a compelling narrative. Only then do you start thinking about tactics, which are the actions and tools needed to deliver the strategy.

Without an agreed and clear strategy, you will not develop effective, coherent tactics or successfully promote or defend reputations. Nor will you find the courage to stay on course, no matter how choppy the waters, or get buy in from across your organisation. And in a time when it is likely that far more of your employees will be sharing opinions far more widely than ever before, you need everyone, from the boardroom to the shop floor, rowing in the right direction.

This is why it is no good handing this strategy down from on high, like tablets of stone. This is often done not out of egotism but to get round vested interests within an organisation. But developing a strategy is about having arguments, not avoiding them. It is not going to survive the battering from an external crisis if you don’t have the confidence to open it up to internal debate.

Avoid the temptation as well to make so many concessions to get agreement that you lose clarity. The best strategy can be written down as a phrase or short simple sentence. And that’s also what you have to do. It’s not a strategy at all unless it is written down.

So despite all the changes in the communications environment, it is the basics which will decide success and failure. And this also includes the relationship between the political leader or CEO and communications chief.

Trust and confidence are absolutely essential. Without it, the CEO won’t listen to the advice of their Corporate Affairs Director and he or she, in turn, will find it difficult to take the action needed. The influence I had in Downing Street came from the fact that everyone understood I was acting with the Prime Minister’s authority. But this confidence also comes from having an agreed, clear strategy in place. It’s at the root of all effective communication.

Alastair Campbell is a member of Portland’s Advisory Board. He is the former Director of Communications and Strategy at Downing Street.

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