How to maximize the impact of an understaffed communications department

Image people using post-it notes to plan out work.

I’ve been there. So much potential, so few resources. The conversation goes like this… imagine if we could…[fill in whatever idea you’ve had here].

When you’re working hard to keep up, sometimes what gets dropped is the (somewhat) risky stuff. The experimentation. The stuff that will take us places we’ve never been because we’ve never done it that way. It’s hard to justify experimenting when you’re managing a constant flow of needs and requests.

If you’re like me, you spend time daydreaming about everything you could do or want to do. And while visualizing is great (I’m a fan of manifesting), we also need to take action to get us to that future state. Communicators tend to be strategic by nature, so if anyone can figure out how to maximize the effectiveness of your work, it’s you. Here are some tips to help you.

6 tips for maximizing the effectiveness of a small communications team

1) Have a plan and a strategic approach

This is a no-brainer. If you’re in charge of communications (or you work with the person who is), make sure you have a strategic communications plan. This is a multi-year document that aligns with the strategic goals of your organization. There are many formats — there’s no one right way to do it. Make sure you outline:

  • Your communications goal — I like to write this in the present tense, so it’s the ideal future state we’re striving towards.
  • Your objectives — what are you trying to do with your communication? These should be measurable in some way.
  • Your primary and secondary audiences and any details you know about them.
  • Your strategic approach — what are the main strategies you’ll use in your communication? For example, one plan I wrote focused on customer service, storytelling and stakeholder engagement. These strategic approaches guided our work and decisions about work.
  • Your communication activities/tactics – here you outline what you’ll put in place over the length of the plan. I suggest creating icons for your organization’s strategic goals (unless they already exist) and then use those icons to show which goal(s) the tactic aligns to. This helps your senior management understand the value of your communication efforts.
  • Evaluation — do you have a method to measure your effectiveness? The evaluation ties back to your objectives. You could create an annual survey that’s sent to a random sample of your customer base each year and measuring change over time. You can also use digital metrics. You can track media mentions and sentiment. And participation and feedback from events. Evaluation is a means, not an end. While we do it to show the value of our work, we’re also doing it so we can learn and evolve what we are doing.

Other plans to work on include your crisis communications plan, social media plan, content strategy, and an internal communications plan.

2) Make tools and systems

You have repeatable processes in your department or organization. Even if it’s just your news release writing process. You can systematize anything that’s repeated. That means you can create standard templates and steps to follow. Taking the time to create templates and processes saves you time in the long run. It’ll be easier to train staff or interns and everyone knows what’s expected of them.

3) Look for compound activities

Cross promote whenever it makes sense. This should be done in a way that’s natural for your customer. Ask yourself, what other information/product/program/service do we have that might be of interest to the person who is looking at this content? Show people where they can go next. This approach compounds the impact of your communication efforts.

4) Get curious about people

We need to craft messaging that resonates. We also need to convince leaders to try different approaches. Working on your understanding of people and yourself is one way to strengthen these skills.

Over the years, I’ve completed many personality-type programs, like DISC (I’m an ID), One Smart World, Strengths Finder (most of my strengths fall under strategic thinking) and Myers Briggs (I’m ENTJ). I also did some of these programs with my teams. And though these programs bring criticism, I believe for all their faults, they do help us better consider the people around us and what we do might influence certain results. Recently, I’ve found a tool called the Enneagram (I believe I’m a social seven). It has opened up a world of exploration.

5) Create a learning culture

The fundamentals of good communication haven’t changed, but the channels we use have. Communications teams need to set time aside to learn. And as professionals, it’s a good idea to continue our own learning on our own time. We also need to accept that learning is part of the process — in fact, doing is one of the best ways to learn.

Not everything we do will work the way we hope. But everything we do will teach us something. If you’re managing staff, your approach to this is critical because you set the tone. Be willing to admit what you don’t know (it’s so freeing to not need to pretend to be the best at everything), model curiosity, don’t label mistakes as being something bad. Allow debate.

6) Build capacity in your organization

I used to run a lot of workshops when I worked in organizations. One of my key messages was communication is everyone’s job. That’s because we all communicate! It doesn’t mean everyone will be a professional communicator and put us out of business, but it does mean we can work toward a standard, and it’s our job to lead that.

For other departments, much of their communication may be internal, which is the most important communication because it lays the foundation for effective external communication and impacts culture/morale.

You can build capacity in your organization by having a style guide that outlines your organization’s tone and by providing workshops on effective communication and customer service. This work never stops.

You got this!

The world of communications is fast paced. And while we’re often behind the scenes, we can deal with a lot of criticism or nastiness (especially nowadays on social channels). We might come up against execs who are afraid to try different approaches or to open up.

We can’t control everything, so my best advice is to focus on what you can impact. Keep your learning mindset, stay hopeful and continue to visualize that ideal future state as you move forward. You got this.

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