Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Bottom Line of Communication Audits

A local practitioner recently contacted me because she had a client who wanted a communication audit. She had lost her notes and resources about communication audits and asked me for a refresher or to reference resources.

So, I thought I would share some basics about communication audits in case others are wondering or perhaps hadn't heard of the practice. By the way, it's something my students do in my Corporate Communications class for clients in the community, and I'm looking for clients for next semester. Read about being a class client and then contact me at GVSU if you are interested.

A communication audit, also called a communication effectiveness study (CES), is like a financial audit. It's an effort to see that everything is accounted for and in balance. The difference is that, whereas a financial audit looks at numbers related to assets and liabilities, a communication audit looks at various aspects of an organization's communication efforts. Based on research I have seen, the management of a business or nonprofit often resist doing communication audits  because they think a) communication audits are too expensive, b) communication audits are unnecessary because they already know what they're doing and it's all good. Such managers should be encouraged to a) think again. There is no b.

The practitioner who contacted me asked for a "checklist." Another word for checklist is template, and those are dangerous in consulting because they ignore organizational nuances and uniqueness. But there are general categories of what should be examined in a communication audit and a few standard methods of how to do so. You want to identify what is being done and where the gaps are that need to be addressed.

What to review in a communications audit

  • Publics. There is no such thing as "the public" or the "general" public. Strategic communication involves segmentation. The more specifically you segment your publics, the more specific you can make your communication. This makes messages more relevant, and therefore more effective. So identify the various specific publics an organization has been or should be reaching. Don't focus only on publics the organization wants to reach; consider  the publics who may want or need information from the organization even if there is no financial relationship.
  • Objectives. There should be specific objectives for each public. To be clear, these are not about what the organization wants to do (what we call "output" objectives), but what we want the publics to do in response to organizational communication (we call these "outcome" objectives). Typically we want publics to: become aware of an organization, cause, product line, issue; develop a deeper and broader understanding and not just a superficial name recognition; develop a positive attitude about whatever is being communicated; or take a specific and relevant action. Think in terms of the 3 As of public response--awareness, attitude, action.
  • Messages. Given the above, does  the organization's current communication stress messages that drive the objectives desired? Too often, organizational leaders say they want a specific action, but their communication is a lame "get the word out" informational method that is vague and unpersuasive. This is a red flag that a good communications audit can catch.
  • Strategies. Related to messages, are there apparent strategies in the messages in terms of persuasive appeal, targeting a specific public and their demographic or psychographic characteristics, timing, focusing on influencers, etc? 
  • Tactics. What specific communication tools are being used? Are they appropriate for the public, objective and message you want to deliver? Sometimes, tactics that would be most  effective are overlooked. At the same time, a tactic like social media that is currently trendy is employed poorly or is not appropriate  for a specific communication objective.
  • Evaluation. Are there evaluation methods embedded in tactics or at least planned regularly to assess whether stated objectives are being met? These could be natural response vehicles such as a reply envelope as well as intentional efforts to engage publics in dialogue, such as online or at regular events.
How to review communications in an audit
  • Depth interviews. A good consultant (and by the way, communication audits work best with an objective outside consultant who doesn't make assumptions and therefore miss red flags) will start by interviewing the president and vice presidents, as well as any level of employee who regularly engages with publics on behalf of an organization. Management and staff should be asked about with whom they communicate, for what purpose, and how. This provides a starting point for the items in the list of what to assess, and often results in obvious disparity between what management and staff think are the key publics and objectives. That can be awkward, but is a huge help to getting things in "balance."
  • Materials review. Collect  every form of communication an organization uses--annual reports, web and social media sites, speeches, newsletters, news releases, brochures, advertisements etc. Review them carefully to see if what is actually being communicated seems to be focused on the publics, objectives, messages etc. stated above. For example, is the language too general with no apparent appeal to the specific interests of a targeted public? Does the message fail to provide  reason to adopt a desired attitude or make a specific call to action?
  • Perception studies. This is the part that can be time consuming and expensive. Some communication audits yield a lot with just the first  two steps above. But this added  step can be of great value because it involves not an internal assessment of communication materials, but actually talking to targeted publics to get reaction. Most often this is done in the form of content analysis of feedback communication (emails, online comments etc.) as well as more  formal focus groups and surveys.
The final communication audit report should show where things are  in balance, and where they are not. The bottom line: is an organization's communication reaching all the right publics, in the right way, with the right messages to accomplish what that organization says it wants its communication to accomplish?

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