As a small business, your company obviously isn't in a position to commit substantial resources to communications. You can, however, benefit from the fundamentals of communications thinking and processes that large companies employ.
In a major corporation, communications can involve scores of people divided into numerous specialty areas, including employee communications (usually in tandem with human resources departments), charitable donations, community relations, government relations, special events and media relations. Strong links also exist between communications and sales and marketing. In addition, companies may employ a variety of external specialists to handle everything from the design and production of annual reports to crisis management. The cost for all this internal and external expertise can run into millions.
But your company shares something important with the giants: It has stakeholders people who for one reason or another have a vested interest in your success and it pays to stay in touch with them and keep them informed. Your company many not require a full fledged communications effort, but it's helpful to think your way through some of the basic elements, including the need for an overall strategy that may look one or more years ahead.
Here are some of the broad considerations to keep in mind:
1. Know your stakeholders
The first step in effective corporate communications is recognizing who you ought to be communicating with. Who are the individuals or groups that have an interest in the health of your business? Owners, partners and employees are obvious stakeholders. So are customers and suppliers everyone from your financial services provider to the company who supplies the paper towels for the plant washroom whose business health is directly related to your company's fortunes.
Other stakeholders may be less apparent, but important to consider. Is there a need to interact with any of the three levels of government? Does your business have a significant interaction with public service bodies, advocacy groups or regulatory agencies? Are there professional or market organizations you should be involved with? Should you have regular contact with print or broadcast media?
2. What's your story?
Every company has a story to tell about its products, services, sense of community and role within its industry, even its view of national or international developments. So do you, on however limited a scale. To understand what that story should be, you have to go back to the fundamentals: how do you want to be known? What impression do you want people to have of your company and its products? Do you just want to be known as the world's best widget maker? Or do you value being regarded as a company dedicated to excellence that sees itself as an integral part of a local and national community, with values that go beyond profits and losses? Do you want to be an industry champion, advocating changes in legislation, regulation or market conditions?
By asking these questions, you can begin to arrive at the essential messages you want to send to your employees, customers and the wider public. You may end up with a simple tagline that sums up your company or a more elaborate series of messages. Whatever shape it takes, the point is the same: think of it as corporate self knowledge that translates into an established reputation.
3. What are the factors that affect your business?
Just as important as grasping the dynamic of your own company is developing an understanding of the factors that affect the health and welfare of your business. Since good communications begin at home, start by asking yourself about internal factors that influence the business. This can include everything from working conditions, salaries and benefits to policies concerning employee recognition and promotion, staff additions or layoffs. Many large companies expend the lion's share of their communications effort on internal, employee-related issues and smaller firms could be well advised to do the same.
Close behind is an understanding of external events and trends. Are there health and safety issues related to your products and services? Are there regulatory or political trends that will have a near-term or medium-term bearing on your success? Are there competitors entering or exiting the business? Are there market developments domestically or abroad that will affect your revenues?
These are just some of the questions you have to ask yourself if you expect to fully understand the operating environment and then formulate an effective communications response.
4. What's your plan?
Armed with knowledge about yourself and the world you operate in, you can begin to isolate the communications issues that are important to you. Then you can develop a plan to manage them. Part of this exercise, and it doesn't have to be elaborate, is to figure out what your position will be on key issues.
If, for example, a union is attempting to organize your factory, what is your response? Will you take a hard, resistant line or consider extending benefits and making improvements in wages and working conditions that might counter the argument for unionization? If new provincial or federal legislation is in the works that could affect your business, how should you respond? Will you want to lead the charge for changes in the legislation or wait for other companies to shoulder the burden? If it's apparent the general public is developing a particular view of your industry which may not be positive, what position would you take to counteract it?
These are all elements of strategic planning, an effort that organizes important issues into positions that, in turn, suggest the kind of arguments you should make and where best to make them.
5. How can you get your messages out?
For employees, you can hold one-on-one conversations, meetings or use everything from bulletin boards and newsletters to e-mail. For customers, meetings, phone calls, e-mails and letters should be used regularly. The specific method depends on the preference of the people you want to influence. For a wider audience, you may want to engage the print or broadcast media, although it helps to remember that successful media relations take time and dedication, not to mention a certain immunity to occasional criticism. Many companies find they can cover this base and many others with a well-designed and informative website. The internet provides the opportunity to have a cost-efficient and multi-faceted communications effort that literally covers the stakeholder waterfront.
6. Why bother?
Many business leaders, including those who run large and sophisticated public companies, regard communications warily, as an expense item that has no measurable return. So when business conditions get tough, communications is one of the first areas to come under the cost-cutting microscope. This is outdated thinking that overlooks the fact that communications has a vital role in protecting your company's greatest and most delicate asset your reputation. A consistent communications effort can enhance customer and public perception of your products and services. Indeed, successful communications, along with other marketing and sales efforts, can establish a fundamental image of your company in the public mind, one that will pay additional sales benefits when times are good and provide a cushion for your reputation during downturns.
That's certainly worth some of your time and money.