Strategic Communications

The Strategic Communications KnowledgeBase is an online resource to aid those leading or supporting communications in education in understanding the history, value, framework, planning, and execution of effective Strategic Communications to nurture and build strong relationships in education. Strategic Communications is essential to engage stakeholders and achieve goals at the state level. The elements, activities, and tasks in this KnowledgeBase are designed to better prepare communications professionals within state education agencies (SEAs) to plan for and respond to communication challenges and support implementation of education policy.

Element 1: What is Strategic Communications?

Purpose: To implement a Strategic Communications process, it is important to understand the key principles of Strategic Communication first. This element explores the definitions, descriptions, history, benefits, and major functions of Strategic Communications, as well as what distinguishes Strategic Communications from daily communication activities. Although the focus is on how to apply this information within a state education agency (SEA), background information often comes from other disciplines as well as other educational organizations.

Activity 1: Understand the Principles, Definition, and History of Strategic Communications

A variety of definitions, descriptions, and frameworks have been given for Strategic Communications by experts in the field. Many of the definitions and descriptions included in this activity come from disciplines other than education, but have transferable value. These include the United States Armed Forces, business, public and governmental relations, and higher education. 

Activity 2: Explore the Benefits of Strategic Communications

Strategic Communications can be viewed as an umbrella term that pulls together many communications and related functions from other disciplines under one process to implement an agency’s strategic goal or priority. Although this can be a time- and resource-intensive process, it can also have significant benefits to connect these various core functions with the agency's strategic direction.

Task 1: Understand the role of organizational structures in Strategic Communications


Guideline: Nearly each SEA is organized differently. Organizational structures include formalized vision, mission, values, and goals; strategic plans; policies and procedures; organizational charts or divisional groupings; task forces, standing committees, and cross-divisional teams, and these structures vary from SEA to SEA. The way in which strategic planning and policy-making is connected to communications functions likely varies with each of these structural differences. For example, an agency with a formalized strategic plan may have communications strategies embedded in that plan, whereas another agency may have a more informal mechanism for aligning communication activities with essential goals and initiatives. Some SEAs have established formal policies for communicating directional changes across divisions and units, but others have only informal processes that may not be followed consistently.

Furthermore, each SEA assigns communications functions and strategic planning tasks to units, divisions, individuals, or groups based on a variety of factors. For example, one SEA may situate a communications unit within the organizational chart so that there is direct communication with the Chief State School Officer who is leading strategic planning, whereas another SEA may distribute communications activities to each academic division based on their assigned components of a strategic direction.

Regardless of how communications functions are assigned, it is critical that the individuals responsible for Strategic Communications have access to those setting and implementing the strategic direction. They also need access to the right tools and resources as well as the professional learning opportunities appropriate to enhance their skillsets for this purpose. This task explores the considerations of an SEA as it develops its Strategic Communications structures, assignments, and processes.

Four Steps to Building a Strategic Communications Capability

In 2012, Harvard Business Review provided these four steps to building a strategic communications capability, addressing the structural considerations for implementing a Strategic Communications process. 

What Skills Should a Communications Team Have?

This December 7, 2011, non-profit blog explores what skill sets communications teams should have to meet the demand of being more strategic.

Corporate Communications Benchmarking Study

Edelman executed a benchmarking study to survey how 36 different corporate communications teams are structured and utilized.

How to Design a Modern Marketing and Communications Department in an Agile Marketing World

Cinc offers a presentation on how to break through the old paradigm of organizational structures for marketing and communications teams to meet the changing demands of the modern age. These recommendations prove instructive for Strategic Communications structures in SEAs.

Strategic Performance Management in Action

The Building State Capacity and Productivity Center offers examples of how two SEAs (Arkansas Department of Education, and the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Education), have formalized their vision, mission, values, goals, and strategic plans and revised other structures to support a process of Strategic Performance Management.

Element 2: What background information is needed to develop a Strategic Communications approach?

Purpose: Before developing a Strategic Communications process, it is important for an SEA to research the organization, including its vision, mission, values, and desired outcomes; its history, leadership, and structures; its various audiences, including both internal and external stakeholders; and its goals for Strategic Communications. The SEA should also explore promising practices of Strategic Communications that are likely to be successful based on the information gleaned about the organization. This element explores each of these components and provides resources for how to conduct research or collect the background information needed before designing or improving upon an existing Strategic Communications process.

Activity 1: Establish background context and current reality of the SEA

This activity explores the context and current situation of SEA through the strategic direction, history, leadership, structures, strengths and weaknesses, and cultural norms of the SEA.

Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals: Some might ask, “What if an SEA does not have a formalized vision, mission, values, and goals? Can Strategic Communications exist without those?” Based on the definitions, descriptions, and principles of Strategic Communications identified in Element 1, it is clear that a Strategic Communications approach is one that connects communications activities to the agency’s larger strategic direction, either holistically or for a particular initiative. If the agency does not have a formalized vision, mission, values, and goals, or if the agency does not follow these as a course of direction, it will be more challenging to implement a Strategic Communications approach. It is possible, however, for an SEA to articulate a strategic direction to which communication processes are tied without that strategic direction being formalized through a vision, mission, values, and goals. In this case, a Strategic Communications approach would be based on the articulated strategic direction.

History, Leadership, and Structures: Organizational culture, which is influenced by history, leadership, and structures of the agency, will drive various aspects of a Strategic Communications plan. It is not possible for any SEA to adopt another organization’s Strategic Communications plan because they are situated within different organizational cultures. The culture of one organization may lend itself to cross-divisional conversations without formalized structures, for example, whereas another organization may rely on formalized structures to ensure that cross-divisional conversations are productive. Similarly, leadership of one SEA may include a large number of people whereas another may defer to only a few people as decision-makers. These pieces of background information will shape the overall Strategic Communications plan because they shape the overall strategic direction as well as the specific components or activities included in a Strategic Communications plan.

Activity 2: Determine your audiences and understand their perspectives

Understanding the various perspectives of audiences and stakeholder groups requires research and information gathering.

Audiences, including Internal and External Stakeholders: Some have described the key to Strategic Communications as understanding the various audiences of the SEA and determining the best activities for engaging them in the strategic direction.  In most cases, every person, organization, and entity within a state and some outside of the state are stakeholders of the education system – either as a financial contributor, recipient of implemented learning experiences, employer of graduates, or provider of educational services.  It is important, then, to understand a broad array of perspectives and determine the scope of stakeholders for varying levels of intensity in a Strategic Communications plan.

Activity 3: Determine the purposes, objectives, strategies and tactics of your SEA Strategic Communications Approach

Writing specific goals and objectives for the Strategic Communications plan assists with selecting the most meaningful strategies and tactics for implementing it.

Purposes of Strategic Communications: Not every activity that is considered communication is part of a Strategic Communications approach. Understanding what the agency intends to accomplish with its Strategic Communications approach will assist in determining which activities need to come under the umbrella of Strategic Communications. For example, one SEA may choose to use a Strategic Communications approach to build support for one new initiative while another SEA may desire to use Strategic Communications for all activities related to a new set of goals for the state.

Promising Practices: When selecting specific strategies, activities, or tactics for a Strategic Communications approach, SEAs will want to conduct a review of proven and promising practices to maximize the likelihood of success for the strategies.

Element 3: What are the processes for developing, implementing, and evaluating a Strategic Communications Approach?

Purpose: The iterative process of developing, implementing, evaluating, and revising a Strategic Communications approach is critical to its success. All steps of the process must be considered before implementation to monitor the effectiveness of the approach.

Activity 1: Explore examples of Strategic Communications plans and templates

In this activity, a variety of Strategic Communications plans are presented, including examples from inside and outside of the education field.  Examples of specific strategies and activities are provided to illustrate how a plan gets turned into actions and deliverables.  Additionally, templates, checklists, and guiding questions for key components of Strategic Communications plans are shared. 

No magic formula exists for Strategic Communications approaches, so the variety of plans presented are intended to be instructive and provide opportunities for SEAs to modify promising practices to meet the context of the agency. Remember: Stay true to the word "strategic." These samples and templates reflect the principle of proactive, impact-focused Strategic Communications. Resisting the temptation to be reactive and tactic-focused can be difficult in the fast pace of state agency work, but it is essential to successful outcomes in this arena.

Activity 2: Monitor and measure the success of your Strategic Communications Plan

It is imperative to monitor implementation and measure the success of the SEA’s Strategic Communication approach. Decision-makers need to see evidence of expected impact and, where necessary, which elements require adjustments for improved outcomes. Additionally, audience feedback is critical to communications success. Listening to stakeholder input, and reflecting changes based on it, will enhance and accelerate the work.