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Why communications programmes fail (and how to prevent it)

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

How to overcome organisational factors that put the brakes on successful communications delivery.

It’s a familiar tale. An internal communications programme is initiated to support a change within the organisation. The challenge is discussed and objectives agreed, research is carried out, a plan is put together, activity begins and all looks to be going well. Fast forward six months and the programme has hit the buffers, with little impact and failure to achieve the objectives. So, what went wrong? Could it have been the wrong approach, maybe the wrong channels were used, the content wasn’t compelling enough or the delivery team just didn’t manage it well enough? Meanwhile the communications team may be bemoaning the fact that leaders aren’t bought in to supporting the programme, that it’s not seen as being important enough since budgets were cut and team members diverted to new projects.

Having experienced and witnessed this scenario on a few occasions, I have found it often comes down to a few fundamental factors, some of which are beyond the core remit of communications and more to do with issues in the wider organisation than the programmes themselves.

1. Not fully committed to the long-haul

Most internal communications programme involves some form of behaviour change - and this takes time. Sometimes, communications plans may underestimate this, perhaps to gain initial agreement to go ahead, therefore setting unrealistic expectations from the outset. Other times timescales may be realistically anticipated, but this element is not underlined to stakeholders and their explicit commitment gained, which can mean there is a loss of buy-in as the programme progresses. Therefore, all stakeholders need to acknowledge and be prepared to commit to a realistic timescale for behaviour change to be seen if they are to see the programme through to completion. Setting expectations of what this might look like will also help , as often it’s more about chipping away then any big bang activities because behaviour change takes time and repetition.

2. Objectives aligned to wrong strategy

Sometimes the objectives agreed for the programme are aligned to an incorrect understanding of the business strategy. This can happen in organisations where communication of the strategy itself is unclear or even missing, meaning there are inconsistent views of the company’s aims, priorities and expectations. These circumstances make it almost impossible to develop objectives that are truly aligned with delivering strategic value and can mean that everyone involved has a different idea of what success looks like, sometimes putting stakeholders at loggerheads. Before embarking on a communications programme (or indeed the associated change), it is a good idea to ensure that everyone has a shared understanding of the organisation’s strategy. This should include a sponsor at the board level, who will be closest to the ‘true’ version of the strategy and therefore can provide assurance that the programme will be supported as it forms part of the wider strategic plan.

3. De-prioritisation

As a communications programme stretches out for several months, invariably there are other, newer things that crop up and may be seen as more important. The communications programme can start to slip down the pecking order, with a knock-on effect that resources, and sometimes even investment are diverted elsewhere, making it increasingly difficult to deliver the programme agreed at the outset. One of the first ways to combat this is to be really clear in plans about the resource and investment needed, breaking it down against both activity and timeline intervals (who and how much will be needed when). This should then be used in regular reporting, to serve as a reminder of the inputs to date so that business can see how much has already been invested - and how much could be lost if the programme is not successfully completed. It is also provides a view of what is still required to deliver the plan, meaning it remains front of mind when resource decisions are being made.

4. Inflexibility

Sometimes, with all the best intentions, things don’t work as well as we thought they would on paper. Messages don’t land, people don’t engage, things get confusing. This in itself is not a problem, the problem arises through ploughing on with execution regardless. The key is not to wait until you are halfway or most of the way through a plan before realising its simply not working and the best way to avoid this is to ensure you are taking the time to regularly review the effect of the programme and listening to feedback. It’s not about scrapping everything and starting over either. Often this approach will identify a number of smaller, more iterative changes that can be made in order to achieve the desired outcome, rather than a wholesale change. The main thing is to remain open-minded and be ready to adapt as you learn more about how the communications are being received, making the necessary tweaks to ensure you still achieve your aims and your change is successful. After all, which path you take is not that important, what matters is that you reach the top of the mountain.

Next time you find your communications programme losing momentum, look beyond the elements of the programme itself to see whether one or more of these four areas could be a more fundamental cause. Even the best communications programmes will struggle to deliver in organisations where these factors are present, so ensure you are set yours up for success.

If you are about to embark on a change and require a substantial communications programme, or if you are struggling to make headway with your current approach, please get in touch. We currently offer a free initial consultation hour to help identify some areas for consideration to deliver more impactful communications programmes.

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