Do Your Communications Need Decluttering?

By David Wyatt

When you move into a new home, you have big plans about your belongings, including what will go where, how to use furniture and décor and the function of your new space. But life gets in the way. Some things may get misplaced, while others never get unpacked. Before you know it, the boxes become invisible to you – or maybe they get repurposed as end tables.

The same could well happen at your association. Your overall brand and the elements of your communications toolbox could fall victim to the same sort of dynamic: big plans until reality interrupts. While the reasons are varied and understandable, chances are all the ways that you have come to communicate haven’t changed for a good while. You’ve likely inherited some basics, such as how you’re communicating with your members, your board and your civic leaders. Just as your methodology slowly evolved, with budget and time constraints focusing your approaches, some outcomes have somehow just stuck. Like the boxes you keep meaning to unpack, these aspects of your brand and playbook may not work anymore for your mission or your members. But it’s difficult to really see them when you pass them by every day.

This is exactly why it’s time for preventative maintenance. At least once every five years, it’s truly essential to do some spring cleaning for your brand. Everything needn’t “spark joy” to be retained, but you should study what works with the other ways you market your association. This review is known as a communications audit and it’s a process that can be simple or elaborate; it can involve an internal team or outside consultants. Regardless of the details, an audit should involve the buy-in of leadership and result in an approved and circulated document that guides your team going forward.

How Will You Know When it is Time?

While communications audits should occur at regular intervals, they often are most desperately needed at a time of change, company growth or when members and other external stakeholders need to act. Your association membership might be expanding – such as by adding an industry or merging with another entity – or you might want an overall rebrand to boost membership recruitment and retention.

Since it’s a process that can take time to establish buy in and to identify participants and to implement, plan ahead six to
nine months.

What are Key Considerations for a Smooth Process?

Aside from a solid head start on your association’s communications audit, there are a few other topics that deserve consideration before moving forward.

Does the executive director understand current deficiencies and support this investment of time and budget? Does the board have an advocate for the process? Are there staff members or technology that require special attention? Is there institutional will for change once issues and opportunities are identified? Does your group have the capacity to gather, assess and evaluate properly in-house, or do you need an outside – and objective – independent body to assist?

It’s important to remember that a successful communications audit will evaluate the professionalism and integrity of the tools and messages with which your association expresses its mission; it does not evaluate the professionalism and integrity of those communicating. If all understand that premise, the outcome will reflect everyone’s excellence and make their jobs easier, thus shaping a smoother journey.

What Will This Process Involve?

While you may think of your association’s communications channels according to job titles or strict definitions, such as direct marketing, membership, social media and website, your members and other stakeholders experience your brand in a much more fluid way. As such, you will need to take a very broad view of the audit and consider how such changes might function to those with the least amount of knowledge or context about your association.

Interested in more ways to improve your association’s communications? Join us at our first Membership, Marketing & Communications Conference and Expo on November 12-13 in Pflugerville!

As you ask all involved to gather materials, you will need to provide the entire staff or representatives of each department with clear instructions, including examples of materials you will need – a thorough audit will include not only more formal communications like print collateral, email newsletters, website and publications, but also the more informal, such as email signatures, social media profiles, event signage, branded clothing and office signs. Even someone’s notes explaining how to answer phones can be illuminating.

Once gathered, every item should be assessed and compared as you look for consistency, outliers, strongpoints and potential issues. But don’t rely on any one person’s opinion as these determinations are made. Set criteria that matter to the association and its members at the outset, then use that list as you work your way through the process. Critically involve members and other professionals to ensure against incorrect assumptions or that you aren’t too close to the brand to determine what might not be working. (You probably are.)

What Should the Outcomes Be?

At the end of the process, you should create a report and also a separate guiding document on messaging, brand use, communications channels and opportunities for improvement or expansion. These are key steps to providing your team with a document that is deemed “the right way.” Such materials are as important for incoming staff, volunteers and board members as they are for those who have difficulty with change and may be stuck in certain habits. These documents will also give you an invaluable tool for direction and approvals as you look to uphold the new standard. If you consider how out of line your communications might become when done by feel, by personal preference or based on potentially incorrect assumptions, the best way to create consistency and structure is to provide guidelines and then keep that document up-to-date and always available.

Another outcome of a communications audit might offer just as much value as the insights, plans and structures that develop from a report and guidelines: building consensus. Often in an association, each team member views communications tools and messaging relative to the individual’s own skill set and area of responsibility. Such an approach leads brands astray, as they get out of whack because each person is communicating for job-specific goals rather than considering the overall association. One of the most important aspects of pursuing a communications audit is the understanding that comes from sharing perspectives, hearing insight from “outsiders” and stepping back to look at the big picture.

A Cleaner, More Organized and Appealing Association

Just as with a home that’s been cleared of clutter, a thoughtfully arranged overarching plan will allow your organization to expect more “space” to think and plan. Following your communications audit, things will be easier to find, visitors will feel more welcome and everything will be in its place. While it may feel daunting to unpack every box and clear out every closet, the result is worth the effort. When you’re done, your mission will be clear.

David Wyatt is a vice president of account management for Elizabeth Christian Public Relations, an Austin-based agency dedicated to developing and delivering meaningful, strategic and measurable communications for clients across the state and nation.

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