At various points in our career, it’s common for us to take stock of what we have or haven’t accomplished and what we want to achieve going forward. Such introspection can be valuable in seeing your circumstances in a new light. It can also help you celebrate how far you’ve come, and refresh and recharge for the future. But the demands on our time are many, including for those of us who lead communications functions. It’s a luxury to pause and reflect on how your department is staffed and run, and to assess what benefit (either real or perceived) your day-to-day work brings to your business. To stay current and relevant to your organization, however, it’s vital to pause every few years to assess and calibrate if needed. This often takes the form of a communications audit.
Communications audit, defined
A communications audit can be an important tool to assess the effectiveness of your internal communications, public relations and marketing. But what is it? A communications audit is a comprehensive evaluation of an organization’s ability to send, receive and share information with internal (employees, board of directors, etc.) and external (customers, community influencers, etc.) audiences. To be as effective and meaningful as possible, these audits include some form of qualitative and/or quantitative research.
The outcomes of an audit are usually shared in a report to key internal audiences, including internal and corporate communications, marketing and sales, and institutional development teams. As applicable, findings can be used to maximize your strengths and fill in weaknesses. They can help you make changes to product positioning and identify unmet internal communications or marketing needs. They can also help you make staffing decisions regarding the communications and marketing functions.
Preparing for a communications audit
While we’re champions for the value of a communications audit, it requires careful planning. Here are several key things to think about before you start an audit:
Who will conduct the communications audit?
So, you’ve decided you really want to do a communications audit. Now, who will do it? Are you objective with your work? Someone who can see your own successes and flaws clearly? If results of a communications audit show that your department structure or staff represent the greatest area of improvement, will you be able to objectively assess this and make the necessary changes? Or, if the findings say you need additional staff, are you ready to sell this need to your boss, alone and without third-party support? Do you feel comfortable telling superiors when their behaviors or decisions are negatively impacting your department’s outcomes? Do you have about 150+ extra hours available in your schedule?
If you answer “no” to any of these, then you cannot afford to do the communications audit. Yeah, we know what you’re thinking, “of course they advise us to hire outside for an audit, they’re consultants!” Speaking from years of experience, we (and our clients) can confirm that hiring an outside consultant to do your audit is the smart choice.
What are your objectives for a communications audit?
If you have unlimited budget, you don’t need objectives because you can find out anything and everything. Likely, that’s not your situation (don’t we all wish!). No, more likely, you have a few key issues on your mind respective to your PR and marketing that have been eating at you for a while. Start there for your communications audit.
What research findings do you have available?
If you’ve done qualitative or quantitative research on your organization within the past year or two, you’re likely a step ahead—as well as several thousand dollars ahead—in starting a communications audit. Your external partner doing the communications audit will cull this information for relevant findings.
What budget do you have to conduct qualitative or quantitative research?
Simply put, if you don’t have existing findings and don’t have budget to do research, you can’t determine what impact your internal and external communications are having. For clients who have been in this situation, we’ve advised them to hold off on doing a communications audit until more financial resources are available. Assessing the effectiveness of your communications is time and budget intensive, so it just makes sense to wait until you can do it well.
What internal stakeholders should be included in the audit process?
Don’t go it alone. Engage key internal decision-makers from the start so they understand what you’re doing, and why. And they might help you find budget if you need it!
What’s your timeline?
A thorough communications audit can often take eight to 12 weeks to complete depending on whether research is conducted as part of it (versus poring through findings from existing research). It’s important to set realistic expectations with your leadership and staff on the process and timeline.
Who could be a barrier to completing a communications audit?
This is important to think through so you can build understanding among people who might be skeptical or downright opposed to doing a communications audit. We’ve found that a communications audit is more likely to stay on track with clients who take the time to identify potential barriers early in the process. In worst-case scenarios, people who are vocal skeptics can undermine the credibility of the communications audit.
What’s your organization’s readiness for change?
In other words, if significant changes are called for based on the findings of a communications audit, will your organization (you, your boss, your staff) be willing to rise to the occasion?
Is your organization ready for change?
Let’s take some time to break down this last point, because it’s critical. Why? We’ve counseled many companies that think they’re ready for change, but aren’t. They spent precious time and money on a communications audit, only to get to the end and admit (or realize in hindsight) that their organization isn’t able or willing to change. We don’t want this to happen to you. So how do you know if your organization is ready? Consider these questions adapted from research done by Prosci:
- Do you have a culture and value system that support change?
- What’s your organization’s overall capacity for change? If your organization is already experiencing a large degree of change, then implementing yet another change can be more difficult.
- Will leadership support the change? Do they have the appropriate leadership style to champion change? Leadership’s support is critical. Take time to assess their leadership styles as well as power distribution in your organization.
- Does your organization have negative, residual effects of past changes that could be barriers to this change? Your organization’s history is part of your starting point when managing any change.
- What is middle management’s predisposition toward the change? Will they support it? Are they prepared to make the sacrifices necessary, whether that’s working differently or better, making staff changes, or finding new financial resources?
- Can you identify what level of resistance you can expect from specific audiences regarding any changes that are necessary from a communications audit? In other words, do you know who your skeptics and champions are? This point ties back to knowing what your barriers are to completing a communications audit.
If you answer no to most or all of these questions, we recommend holding off conducting a communications audit.
These steps and questions should be great thought-starters for planning a potential communications audit. Based on your own experience, do you have others you’d add to this list? If yes, we’d love to hear from you.