Making Sense of Strategic Communications

December 3, 2018

[bluedog studio]
[bluedog studio]

At one of our recent staff meetings, I raised the issue of strategic communications and when we were going to discuss how to accomplish the goals we had set for ourselves.

What I asked was, “Are we going to discuss our strategic communications plan for the next six months?” What I meant to ask was, “How do we strategically plan for all the content and materials requested of us by various offices on campus in a way that gets done on time and doesn’t kill the staff in the process?”

Someone asked, “What do you mean by strategic communications?” It was one of those beautifully horrific moments of great self-doubt. As director of media relations and strategic communications at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., I have the phrase strategic communications in my job title. Does nobody know what I’m talking about or what I do?

After the meeting, I went to my office and looked up my job description. I found the line that mentions strategic communications: “Develops a comprehensive content plan for strategic communications in print and digital media.”

It’s the content plan I was thinking about when I mentioned strategic communications, and how our small office would approach content production strategically. Because in the end, we can’t achieve strategic institutional and divisional goals unless we demonstrate how the University will approach communications — strategically.

Searching for a definition

In business, strategic communications is the new synergy — a phrase that is overused, with little understanding of (or with completely different interpretations of) what it means. It has become embedded in today’s higher education Ad-Mar-Comm-PR discourse, so much so that someone in our office (me) had to have it in their title. And yet, when I say strategic communications and think I know what I mean, it doesn’t necessarily mean my colleagues understand it in the same way.

For me, at the highest level, strategic communications is the merging of public relations and marketing, and to some degree advertising. I’m going to skip discussing all the various communications platforms out there and just focus on the overarching disciplines.

PR pros pride themselves on building professional relationships with media, government officials, the public and — in higher education — with students, faculty and administration.

But gone are the days of shaking hands, delivering a scripted message, faxing a press release to media and waiting for tomorrow’s newspaper to print back said message. Today, everyone wants results: How many read our message? How long did they read it? What did they do after they read it?

Enter marketing, which focuses primarily on delivering products and services using a number of fancy tools and techniques. Marketers rely heavily on data to measure results, adjust product development and messaging, and deliver said product to new consumers.

That’s great. But in higher education, using business-like practices that reduce students to consumers and education to a service is completely counter to the mission of most colleges and universities.
Instead, we still need those personalized human stories about overcoming adversity, triumphing against all odds and achieving success in order to get people to take notice. Most higher-ed communicators understand this very well. It’s why we write oodles of content, take lots of photos, and produce newer, shinier publications year after year. That, I assume, we can all agree on.

Trying to manage it all

The question remains — how do we manage it all? How do we give the schools we work for all the content they request, help them achieve their goals and do it with a staff of about a dozen people, with zero redundancy?

This is where we begin to assume and where we can get caught up: We can hopefully agree that strategic communications is the union of several different approaches such as public relations, marketing, advertising, media relations, etc. We can agree, I assume, that communicators are tasked with providing the institution with the tools, materials and expertise that go toward supporting overarching institutional goals. Where we come to a screeching halt is that all of us see different ways of getting there, getting the work done and meeting those goals.

In a July 11, 2017, blog post titled “Inside Higher Ed Call to Action,” Joseph Brennan and Charlie Melichar said, “Today, the best PR leaders among us are transforming their departments, moving them away from being a ‘job shop’ to being a partner with — and a resource for — their institutional leaders.” In other words, we — the communications leaders —must start defining what we mean when we say strategic communications.

Enter strategic planning: If strategic communications is the sum of all the tools we use as communicators, strategic planning is deciding how we’re going to get everything done on time and not kill the staff in the process.

There comes a point where we must set the stage for our own success and not just the success of others, because in order to help others succeed, we must first succeed ourselves. We must take ownership of — and pride in — the work we do as professionals.

First and foremost, it is about communicating purposefully. Organizations make strategic decisions all the time. But to accomplish its goals, the organization needs communicators to examine their communications holistically to create an integrated, multidisciplinary approach that helps the organization realize its goals. That doesn’t mean doing everything people ask. We first must ask how it will be used to advance their communication goals, then assess and finally come up with that strategic communications plan.

How the communications division decides to approach strategic communications is up to the team. But they cannot help the organization achieve institutional goals unless the professional communicators are part of the decision-making process, whether that’s at the leadership level or in the trenches. Being informed is part of it.

Most important is laying out a strategic plan for how strategic communications will succeed in accomplishing the goals at hand. This requires a bold approach of becoming strategic partners — and communication leaders — that our higher educational organizations desperately need today. Let’s not assume everyone gets that.

Ryan Deuel

Ryan Deuel is the director of media relations and strategic communications at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.


Joseph A. Brennan, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA says:

Ryan, thanks for your very thoughtful approach. It is vital to put the strategic horse in front of the tactical cart, by means of a thoughtful, inclusive planning process.

March 14, 2019

Carli Schiffner says:

Nice article, Ryan.

March 23, 2019

Mark R. Cheadle says:

Very nice article. I also believe SC is the synchronization of what is said and done, or not done, to frame and bolster the desired narrative of the organization or cause.

May 2, 2019

Meagen says:

Does your university also have a marketing team and if so how does strategic communications or strategic communicators work with a marketing department? And if not then if you had a marketing department as well how would you interact and define roles?

Aug. 23, 2019

Philip Ballard says:

Great article. I learned that any Strategic Plan, by definition, have four elements: Strategic Ends; Ways, Means, and Metrics. It's as simple as that. What's the overarching objective, how are we going to get there, what comms tools/vehicles/media will we use, and how will we measure results. I always come back to that and it has served me well.

Aug. 23, 2019

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