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. Click here to see a quick introduction to this KnowledgeBase.

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 2: Understand the organizational culture of the SEA

Guideline: Like organizational structures, the organizational culture of an SEA impacts the processes of communication, both internally and externally. Organizational culture includes history; leadership; relationships between and among individuals, units, and divisions; norms or rules of engagement; shared experiences and values; and the degree of engagement with the strategic direction via vision, mission, values, goals, and strategic plans.

For example, an SEA with a history of formalizing the path of communications between divisions based on “chain of command” has different expectations for Strategic Communications strategies than an agency that typically functions without regard for hierarchical structures. Similarly, an organization that has long-engrained vision, mission, values, and goals is likely to communicate about new initiatives very differently than an SEA that has a newly-adopted or informal direction for the future.

Typically, organizational culture is thought of internally, but outside forces and outside culture influences the organization.  An SEA situated in the South likely functions and communicates differently than an SEA situated in the Northwest. Additionally, as beliefs about education change within a community, those beliefs are likely brought into the organization through the individuals who work there. Those beliefs influence norms of the SEA.

Although these cultural norms are likely to have the most impact on internal communication strategies, they also affect external communication processes in at least two ways: (1) Whether each individual in the agency or only official spokespeople are viewed as ambassadors of the SEA’s priorities impacts Strategic Communication decisions about who should carry messages to external audiences; and (2) How internal messages get translated often affects the degree of reliability of the message as it gets translated externally. Therefore, Strategic Communications plans should consider the degree of uniformity needed for messaging both internally and externally and how the organizational culture influences the messages delivered.

The way individuals and teams within an organization view the organization and its “way of doing business” influences the likelihood of success for promising practices. Having a deep understanding of the current organizational culture provides insight regarding which Strategic Communications processes are likely to be most successful.

PRSA: Establishing Effective Internal Communications Counseling: A Practical Approach to Building Trust and Delivering Results

Tips from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) show how to use a communications unit for building a culture of internal communications consultants.

Diane DeBacker - Around the World in 365 Days: Lessons Learned from Communicating about Rigorous Academic Standards - In the Lands of Oz and Aladdin

Diane DeBacker sets SEA Strategic Communications within the context of the organizational culture and external community culture, as she shares her experiences of leading policy change in Kansas and Dubai. This 2015 presentation was made to SEA chiefs and communications teams during a Strategic Communications convening hosted by SC3, C3, and the Building State Capacity and Productivity Center.

Terry Holliday - And Today's Challenge Is...The Critical Role of Leadership in Strategic Communication

Terry Holliday explains the critical role of leadership in setting the strategic direction and connecting it to the state education agency’s Strategic Communications plan. This 2015 presentation was made to SEA chiefs and communications teams during a Strategic Communications convening hosted by SC3, C3, and Building State Capacity and Productivity Center.

State Education Agencies’ Acquisition and Use of Research Knowledge in School Improvement Strategies

This September 2013 White Paper from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education provides examples of how SEAs structure their work flow and information sharing across divisions, engage audiences, and use social networks to the benefit of school improvement practices.

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.