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How to build a corporate communication strategy: a step-by-step guide

Creating true business communication strategies is still a challenge for organizations. Even in large companies, we regularly see communication departments without a documented corporate communication strategy.

This is surprising, because CEOs invariably say that they expect their chief communications and public affairs officers to be true "strategic" partners.

Egon Zehnder (again) concluded this in their most recent CEO survey:

"CEOs expect their CCOs to bring more than just a high level of specialist expertise to the table – they also expect management and strategic competencies, above all. Almost without exception the CEOs questioned say that they want their CCO to be a kind of sparring partner."  (source: Egon Zehnder, 2017)

So why don't these strategic partners have a strategy?

Part of the reason is that the word strategy is used too loosely. If everything is 'strategic', then the word strategy doesn't have meaning anymore. But it's not just that. It has to do with the process corporate communication departments use to create their 'strategy'.

Tell me if this is familiar to you: you are asked to come up with a communication strategy, so you make the rounds of a number of departments and management layers to get their input.

You schedule meetings with top management, HR and some business unit leaders. They all deliver you their shopping list of their "strategic" priorities. Next, they ask you to fit all this information into a strategy, but what they really mean is a calendar which neatly includes all these priorities.

By the time you're finished, you have a full workload for the year, but not a strategy. You created a calendar. 

Here's how you can build a true business communication strategy, by making a few smart changes in your process.

1. The difference between a strategy and not a strategy

But first, it helps to have a clear vision of what a strategy should do.

According to Richard Rumelt, the author of 'Good Strategy, Bad Strategy and why it matters', a good strategy "honestly acknowledges the challenges being faced and provides an approach to overcoming them."

Richard Rumelt on strategy

A good strategy, says Rumelt, consists of three parts.

A diagnosis:

The diagnosis is a cold, hard look at yourself. Note that a diagnosis is different from a list of symptoms. A diagnosis is a way to make sense of all your symptoms, and it also offers the first hint at therapies that might cure the patient.

Says Rumelt: "A diagnosis (...) defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical."

A guiding policy:

The second is what Rumelt calls the "guiding policy", but which is probably best understood as the path that you see to overcome the challenge:

"A guiding policy (...) is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis."

Coherent action:

Finally, a strategy includes the actions you will take to address your challenge: "These are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy."

From this simple description of strategy, we immediatly see the difference with the "calendar" approach described above. It's fine to ask input from different departments, but the risk is that they will scatter the attention of the corporate communication department instead of focusing it.

In fact, this is the biggest enemy of strategy, says Rumelt. When the organization doesn't have an easy to understand mission, it's easy to become distracted and to chase too many goals - not all of which lead to a strategic outcome.

Says Rumelt: "Most complex organizations spread rather than concentrate resources, acting to placate and pay off internal and external interests. (...) Thus, we are surprised when a complex organization, such as Apple or the U.S. Army, actually focuses its actions. Not because of secrecy, but because good strategy itself is unexpected. (...)"

And then he adds this gem: "Strategy is at least as much about what an organization does not do as it is about what it does."

Strategy is at least as much about what an organization does not do as it is about what it does (R. Rumelt, "Good Strategy, Bad Strategy")

Looking at this definition of strategy, we see that the process used in many companies is broken. It doesn't create a place for a "diagnosis". Instead, it is a process where all departments list their symptoms and ask the communication department to cure these symptoms.

It is not using the corporate communication department as it should be used, but rather as a channel that will push the desired communication out. 

2. The place of corporate communication strategy

Now that we know this, it also helps to have a clear grasp of where we should situate corporate communication in the order of things.

What Rumelt is talking about is business strategy. Is corporate communication strategy a business strategy? Without a doubt. But where does it fit in?

Business literature distinguishes different types of business strategies:

The place of corporate communication strategy in business strategy
  • Enterprise strategy: defines what the organization wants to be on a societal level - what do we want to achieve for stakeholders? (The most aspirational level of the strategy)
  • Corporate strategy: defines in what disciplines and segments we want to compete - where do we want to play? (A mostly financial level, dealing with acquisitions, divestments,...)
  • Business strategy: what kind of business units do we have and how do they compete in the marketplace (a level that is mostly about the marketing)
  • Functional level: how can the business functions help realise the enterprise, corporate and business strategies? This is the level where HR, corporate communication, finance, legal,... come into play
  • Operational level: how will we do all of the above? This is the level of planning and execution
  • The answer to our question is that corporate communication strategy should make it possible to achieve the enterprise, corporate and business strategies, as well as other functional strategies like HR (in that order).

At the same time, the role of corporate communication is to give input to the enterprise, corporate and business levels about what is going on in the outside world and how that affects the organization.

This is the "sparring partner" that the CEOs speak of in the Egon Zehnder survey: the corporate communication officer needs to be able to give insights into "what's going on, and how will it affect our enterprise, corporate and business strategies?" 

3. Building the strategy (building blocks and non-complex organizations)

With these insights, we know what our strategy needs to do and where it fits in the larger framework of the organization.

Now we need a roadmap to build the strategy.

It's good to know that we need a diagnosis and a guiding policy - but what is the right sequence to arrive at these? Which symptoms are important for the diagnosis? Who decides on what the diagnosis is? And once we have the diagnosis - do we all agree on the treatment?

Especially in larger organizations, these are not easy questions. Conceptually, Joep Cornelissen offers a good framework, building on Mary Jo Hatch and Majken Schultz' model for corporate brands (Hatch & Schultz, 2001).

What Cornelissen tells us it to start from the vision of the organization (or the "enterprise strategy" if you will). 

Hatch-Schultz model for corporate branding

This is excellent advice. C-level and board level should be encouraged and challenged by the corporate communication department to use the vision as a management tool.
All too often, the vision is a vague jumble of words that doesn't actually mean anything. But if C-levels want a "strategic partner", they should be held accountable for formulating a strong vision. Only then can the corporate communication department deliver with strong communication.


Case: When C&A was attacked in the Financial Times for using forced labor in its supply chain, it reacted with rapid and effective communication. CommunicatieOnline, a Dutch communication blog, complimented C&A on its prompt response, calling it "by the book communication".

It's true that C&A communicated much faster than H&M, but it's also true that C&A has a very clear vision on forced labor in its value chain. This is the e-mailed statement by C&A’s chief sustainability officer Jeffrey Hogue: "We have a zero tolerance policy for any form of modern slavery including forced, bonded or prison labor. If we detect a case, we immediately terminate our relationship with the supplier".

This is easy to understand and easy to communicate. The example shows how a strong vision can help the organization communicate better - and boost reputation. The fact that C&A has such a clear vision does not detract from the communication (or CSR) department. On the contrary, it shows that at C&A, corporate communication and CSR are playing their role as strategic "sparring partners" of the C-suite. There is zero doubt that the corporate communication function helped top management understand the need to make this policy so explicit and clear.


Corporate communication strategyThe next job for the corporate communication department is to measure the "reputation" both inside the organization ("culture") and outside ("image"), and to check for any gaps between how the organization wants to be perceived and how it is perceived.

This fits well with Rumelt’s advice on good strategy: It invites us to formulate a diagnosis by looking at what sort of organization we want to be - and how far we are currently removed from being that ideal organization.

In terms of building blocks, this is the right sequence: Update the vision, measure the culture and the reputation. Next look for the gaps and formulate the "strategic intent", before moving on to the communication plan (audiences, channels, budget etc.). For a smaller organization, this is probably all you need.

In fact, you can run through this sequence in a 2-hour meeting with your CEO and some other C-levels if you're a smaller organization.

But for larger organizations, with complicated stakeholder maps, dozens of issues and a dose of internal politics, it does not provide a true roadmap for arriving at a corporate communication strategy.

4. Building the strategy (actions and deliverables for complex organizations)

Fortunately, Benita Steyn, a South African academic, did create a practical process for building a corporate communication strategy, suitable for even the most complex organizations (Steyn, 2000).

The following step-by-step process is based on Steyn's work and our own experiences of building strategies for clients with complex stakeholder environments.

Step 1: Analyzing the internal environment

Before any communication can start, we have to know where the organization wants to go. So the first step is to take stock of the existing vision, mission and values - and to ask top management whether the vision/mission are still up to date. (This is the "vision" part of the Hatch-Schultz diagram)

In parallel, you want to find out how the internal stakeholders are acting and feeling. (The "culture" part of Hatch-Schultz)

The best way to get this information is to talk to HR, and even better is to do an internal reputation survey. Some companies with large customer care departments also have metrics and qualitative feedback on the behavior of employees, like satisfaction scores or focus group reports. These reports will potentially identify so-called vision-culture gaps or image-culture gaps.

Steyn also advises the corporate communication department to take a look at current formal and informal policies inside the company, because they also have an impact on the culture. Imagine a fast growing, venture-backed scale-up that wants to gain access to the C-level of enterprise clients - maybe it’s time to talk about dress code and the use of emojis in e-mails this year?

Finally, it's crucial that top management as well as the business unit directors formulate their (enterprise, corporate and business) strategies and communicate them to the corporate communication department.

Step 2: Analyzing the external environment

Now it's time to look outside. We want to know as much as possible about how the outside world sees us, but also about how the outside world might see us in the future.

Useful instruments here

PESTEL analysis: by analyzing the (P)olitical, (E)conomic, (S)ocial, (T)echnological, (E)nvironmental and (L)egal context of the company, we will understand our relationship to the outside world. This is where the corporate communication department brings in its strategic understanding of the business and the context in which it operates.

Reputation audits. These come in different shapes. Surveys and interviews are a great tool here - either quantitative surveys or qualitative research (like focus groups or qualitative semi-structured interviews). But you can also learn a lot from a deep dive into the media (media audit), using software to identify issues and the stakeholders and publics that organize around them.

Stakeholder identification and mapping. Through the reputation audits, you should be able to identify and map most of the relevant stakeholders.

Step 3: Identify key issues

Through your close reading of media and the communication and reports of stakeholders, you should be able to create a list of all the key stakeholder issues that confront your organization.

Next, identify the publics - that is, stakeholders that organize around issues. Technically, stakeholders are regarded as actors who are impacted by your organization or by the issues in your industry but are not organizing around an issue. Publics, on the other hand, are stakeholders who become active around issues and organize themselves.

The distinction between stakeholders and publics might be a bit nitpicky, and too much jargon can be confusing for your management team.

But it is crucial for the corporate communication department to be able to explain to top management what the status of any issue is: is it emerging and still somewhat marginal, is it maturing, or is it fully salient and likely to create major disturbances for the organization? And if stakeholders are organizing: which other stakeholders are aligning? Where are the overlaps and differences in their positioning?

Lastly, identify the consequences for the organization of the various issues, with special attention for issues that appear small and marginal but are accelerating.

For instance, looking back at 2017, it's clear that some industries were particularly vulnerable to impact from #MeToo, because of how the industry operates, because of their own corporate culture (formal and informal policies), but also because of their business model and their stakeholders. Industries with big power imbalances (like film and television but also the humanitarian sector) are more vulnerable to charges about abuse of power. Companies with tech savvy, plugged-in and connected stakeholders can quickly face angry, well-organized and loud publics (ask Amazon and Netflix).

Do you have a firm grasp of the impact of all these issues on the enterprise, corporate and business level? Do you understand the issues and societal and economic forces bearing down on the company?

It's in this understanding of the inside and outside environment, which is both analytical and intuitive, that corporate communication and public affairs officers truly show themselves to be a strategic partner of the C-level.

Step 4: Issues & stakeholder report

Before you talk to the CEO or top management about any issues for the communication, they need to be filtered and categorized. This is the point where you create an "issues and stakeholder report".

Steyn proposes an elegant categorization of stakeholders, distinguishing between four levels of stakeholders according to their "linkage" to the to the company: 

Stakeholder classification based on "linkages"

She also offers a categorization of issues according to communication's ability to have an impact on the issues:

Categorization of issues: is communication the cause of the problem or not? (based on Steyn, 2004)

Step 5: Priorities & trade-offs

By now, we are at the point where we can involve the C-level in the corporate communication strategy. Building on the research and categorization of issues and stakeholders, you are now ready to present a full picture of the health of the company's vision and reputation.

You can confidently present to your management the following:

  • mature issues and emerging issues
  • stakeholders and publics, their position on the issues and the level of organization on these issues
  • alignment (or lack thereof) between the organization and all its stakeholders
  • challenges and opportunities (SWOT) for the organization to position itself

Based on the presentation of the facts, you can guide the management towards decisions on priorities and trade-offs. Usually, this is done through a "forced ranking" exercise, where you ask all the internal stakeholders to award "points" to certain issues and opportunities.

This is the point where your expertise as a corporate communication and public affairs officer will make the difference, and where your expertise and creativity will guide the entire organization. Why "creativity"? Because the "diagnosis" that Rumelt speaks of is not an exact science - it is a blend of analysis, intuition, storytelling and data science.

(It's useful to note here that there's a danger that your presentation will focus a lot on risk and not enough on opportunity. It pays to force yourself to think actively about opportunity - even at the heart of risk. Take C&A for instance: it managed to create opportunity by adopting a bold and proactive stance on forced labor.)

At the end of this presentation and workshop, top management and the corporate communication department should have arrived at a consensus - an agreement about the diagnosis, and a rough idea for the treatment as well. It should also be clear which business outcomes will show an improvement if the strategy works (e.g.: reputation, employee engagement, industry rankings in CSR,...).

Step 6: Corporate communication strategy

Now, the corporate communication department can confidently draft a corporate communication strategy: a document that explains what must be communicated to strategic stakeholders and publics - and in what order of importance.

The corporate communication strategy should also explain what the goals are of the communication (e.g. "to inform", "to change attitudes”). It should define the objectives and key results (KPIs) that the corporate communication strategy must achieve in the next 12 or 18 months.

Lastly, it should offer guidance on who can communicate what to whom (communication policy).

Only then can you start working on a list of all the actions to be taken during the year, the channels and tactics that you will use. Yes, only now is the time to make that calendar or the communication plan.

What's your experience with corporate communication strategies? We look forward to discussing.

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