The 5 biggest communications fails, and how to avoid them


Sarah Anderson

Ah communications; the panacea for all organisational and leadership ills…

In my past life as a strategic communications advisor to governments, big corporates and nonprofits, I would grimace, regularly, at the unrealistic expectations people have of communications. Comms are often treated like the world’s biggest band-aid to treat everything from cultural problems (“the lack of transparency makes me really not trust management”) to strategic gaps (“yes, we know this idea needs work but the competition have just put out a press release so we need to put one out too”) to leadership issues (“he is a great leader, but needs to communicate better…”) to crisis management (“Oh God. The Financial Review has just rung…”).

Don’t get me wrong: communications is critical to almost every facet of effective leadership, strategy, collaboration and operations. When done well, it’s the magic substance that smooths the waters between people, projects, silos, shared goals, collective change and ultimate success. But more often than not, it is only one part of the “fix”.

Whether trying to share your own story as an entrepreneur or thought leader, or leading a large organisation or team, you will face struggles and blind-spots when it comes to how you, or your organisation communicates. We’re all human. As strategists, advisors and storytellers (and often all three at the same time), we see the same challenges emerge in every setting we work in: from government, to large corporates, nonprofits, entrepreneurial and activist spaces. We see the same good people making the same avoidable mistakes, with really unfortunate consequences.

So we’ve compiled the five most common communications fails we see, and try to solve for, and our top tips for avoiding them.

1. Strategy via communications

This is probably the most common problem we see - even for seasoned and strategic leaders. We’ve written before on the relationship between core strategy and communications strategy, but it bears repeating as it’s the number one piece of feedback we give when asked to help people with their visibility or communications, whether for an individual leader or an organisation. Without a strong strategic backbone and plans that back it up, you risk talking into the air; overpromising and under-delivering; going in all directions with no impact; or doing serious reputational damage to yourself, your organisation or both. Communicating your strategy or ideas shouldn’t be the way you determine what they actually are.

Top tip: Invest in a really solid core strategy development process, use it in daily decision-making, and ensure it’s well understood and can be taken forward by all who represent your team, brand or organisation. Then create your communications strategy, linked to the realistic outcomes of your core strategy, and embed the two together through aligned implementation. Strategy via comms will fail - every time.

2. Starting with message, not goal

I can’t tell you how often we hear leaders - even seasoned communicators - leap to message first. Whether it’s a courageous conversation they need to have (“I have to work out how to deliver the message gently”) or a major communications strategy (“We have to land the message with the market”) it’s one of the most common communication fails - because it starts with what you *think* you want to say rather than 1) what you’re trying to achieve with the comms and b) who you need to really engage to get the outcomes.

Top tip: We have created a fail-safe formula for strategic communications, GAMPER, which prevents this common pitfall and ensures every piece of communications, large or small, has strategy at its heart rather than what it is you think you want to say. We can guarantee that if you start with your goal and get clear on your audience, your message will land beautifully.

3. Failing to take into account the audience’s needs

How many times have you been in a meeting where it’s clear the other party has given zero thought to your needs or agenda? Conversely, how does it feel when they have clearly had you in mind? Or think about great advertising: when you feel like they’re speaking directly to you or reading your mind.

Knowing your audience is critical: this sounds so obvious, and yet under pressure (which is a lot of the time for many people!) it gets forgotten.

Top tip: Our biggest recommendation for ensuring you hit the mark with your audience is to incorporate design thinking into your communications planning process; or even better, invest in customer or employee journey work - so your audience’s pains and needs are at the forefront of your communications. We recommend, and collaborate with, Naked Ambition.

4. Lack of leadership alignment

Another common one: when an entrepreneur or CEO invests in an all-singing, all-dancing communications strategy…and then it sits in a (virtual) drawer; with the storytelling and engagement that actually happens bearing no relation to the strategy. We’ve watched, with our heads in our hands, as senior leaders go off in all directions, with little regard for the strategic goals or messaging needed… then despair when they fail to bring their teams along or engage effectively with their customers, and don’t meet the goals. While some have natural ability, in many cases leaders understandably need to be supported on how to use, integrate and lead a communications strategy, and the need to pause and check in with it before going out with messaging - either as a spokesperson themselves or empowering others as advocates for the message. While big organisations will have communications teams to support this process, we can’t advocate strongly enough for upskilling leaders to understand how communications strategy works in practice, and be able to apply it themselves. There are so many inspiring examples of leaders doing this well, and they are the ones leaping into impact.

Top tip: Upskill your leadership team with strategic communications and visibility skills, to make the most of their respective strengths and ensure the consistency of message across leadership and other teams. We design and deliver executive visibility programs - so speak to us if this is you.

5. Lack of implementation

Just as a lack of strategy can be a huge inhibitor of effective communications, on the other hand, comms strategy without implementation skills and resources is like having a burger without a bun: an absolute waste of time (and pretty messy!). It’s so important to match the comms strategy to the capabilities and resources of the team or organisation - if you create something that is too big to deliver, or too small to inspire, it isn’t fit for purpose and all that potential impact will go to waste. (That’s why we have the “R” in our GAMPER formula - to give you a Reality check before you progress with a strategy. Read more in our GAMPER blog.)

Top tip: Strategic communications implementation requires care, thought, talent and good systems sitting behind it. Creating and scheduling your communications, ensuring the visuals match the words, and landing your comms in a timely and relevant way is a specialist skill-set. If you’re an entrepreneur, be realistic about your skills: you might need to outsource this work. If you’re in a large organisation, manage your expectations: those who can bridge the gap between strategy and implementation are a rare bird, but they’re out there! Ideally, your communications team would bring a mix of strengths and skills: high-level thinkers with effective doers, who can write great copy or speak the language of your audience.

Of course, there are many other fails we see in communications and engagement, but we hope these have given you pause for thought and are useful to you. And that some of our other tools and ideas give you the steps to avoid them consistently.

Let us know, what do you struggle with? What gets in the way of great communications? Get in touch if you need support: we provide communications strategy development, comms advisory and leadership and visibility coaching and facilitation.

About Visibility Co.

Working at the intersection of leadership, strategy and visibility, we seek to be strategic provocateurs and catalysts of systemic change, supporting you to unleash the potential within so you can create a better world from wherever you are.

While we’re not big on labels, we’re often referred to as social impact and communications strategists, or strategic leadership advisors, or visibility experts.

Fancy words for a business, led by Julia May and Sarah Anderson, that brings together purposeful leadership, strategy and communications in truly integrative and innovative ways.

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