Communications Audits: Let your cage be rattled.

Back before we called it disruption, I called it “rattling cages.” Originally defined as annoying behavior, rattling someone’s cage means getting their attention in order to get something accomplished. Maybe this seems less relevant to you because you are already doing exceptional work despite a high volume of meetings and to dos. The cage rattling is relevant to you. Shifting your focus and letting others influence your priorities can be a means for taking your own already high contribution to the next level.

Which one are you?

  • Are you annoyed when an outside expert gets your attention? Or do you embrace the unexpected idea because the result might be worth any potential disruption?
  • Do you discount a proposal because you were already planning to do it but just hadn’t gotten to it yet?
  • Are you committed to continuous improvement and always thinking ahead? Or do you shrink from guidance that stretches you beyond your own experience and impressions?
  • When you have a problem, or when you suspect you might, is getting advice the first thing you do?

Understanding communications audits.

If you lead a communications team, when’s the last time you stepped back and thoughtfully evaluated why your team does what they do?

A communications audit can help you answer these questions:

  • Are we doing work that is valuable?
  • Can we stop investing time in tasks that don’t really benefit anyone?
  • How do we prioritize projects and initiatives we could be involved in?
  • Do we have the right number of people in the right kinds of roles?
  • What should we do to gain support from the executive leadership on our campus?

In 2006, Michael Stoner wrote a blog post that referenced a Communications Consortium Media Center paper on communications audits by Julia Coffman. Strategic Communications Audits, written in 2004, offers an excellent overview for a leader who needs to understand and conduct a strategic communications audit. It’s a classic.

How to get started.

Go to Google.
At a minimum, research on the web can inform your path. Find out what others in situations similar to yours are thinking, planning and solving. Keep two things in mind: 1) You can make whatever case you want to make with your search results. Reading blog posts and white papers that support your current position and shying away from content that rattles your cage is not the best approach. And 2) You are interpreting what you read and sometimes translating what works for Fortune 500 company to the .edu context. Fresh ideas from outside .edu can be good and/or not applicable enough.

Create a visiting committee.
Ask a few individuals you respect to audit your team’s work. Pay them a small stipend and cover the costs of their travel to your campus. To begin, outline your goals and challenges for them, and share relevant research and background. Next, let them meet (in person) with your staff and a sample of those you and your team work with in other departments. The visiting committee’s discovery work, summarized in a report, should include recommendations, considerations, and points of action for you.

Hire a partner.
Identify a consultant who can bring higher ed experience to the table. I’m proud of mStoner’s focus on sustainability. Our deep understanding that it takes people and process to sustain communications work is one of the reasons I hired mStoner when I worked at William & Mary. People and process is the simple answer to sustaining your team’s work. But you’ll need to wade through a lot of complexity to get to that simplicity. Perhaps a collaborating with a partner is the best option for doing that.

Look for asteroids.

You need your cage—it represents your purview, your sphere of influence, and the resources you control. You can do exceptional work in your cage; but occasionally, let it be rattled.

One of my former bosses described unexpected ideas from outsiders as asteroids – for him, they were transformational projects that we couldn’t pass on. He embraced the opportunities, and because of my time working in his organization, I look for asteroids. You should too.

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Author: susantevans

Susan T. Evans is director of corporate and foundations relations at the College of William & Mary. She is a proven strategic leader with deep expertise in advancement, communications, brand management, marketing, digital strategy, technology, administration and organizational development. She is known for creative and strategic approaches to challenges within higher education, nonprofits and business.

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