PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION
Maximizing the Value of Communications: Conducting a Communications Audit/Assessment
Do your employees have the information they need? What's the
most effective way to reach your customers and really get their attention?
Are there any barriers preventing your organization from achieving
A communications assessment, or audit, determines and improves the
value of communications both within an organization as well as to
key outside audiences.
Here's a quick example. The president of a human resources consulting
firm retained JRS Consulting to address why her company's growth had
recently slowed dramatically. Her threeyear-old organization
had grown exponentially and she had added six staff members in the
last year alone to accommodate her expanding client base. But within
the past five months, business had decreased unexpectedly.
JRS's confidential interviews with customers and employees revealed
an interesting phenomenon. While customers continued to respect and
value the firm's charismatic president, their experiences with
her rapidly expanding staff weren't as positive, and they felt
cut-off from the firm's president. Staff members, in turn, sensed
this issue but they were reluctant to bring it to the president's
attention because they felt it would reflect poorly on them. Instead
of facilitating the president's involvement in critical client
relationships, they perceived their jobs to focus on freeing the president
from client contact. Clients were leaving because they weren't
receiving the attention to which they were accustomed.
JRS worked with the firm to improve the channels of communications.
Training with staff improved their client relations and clarified
expectations for involving the firm's president at key junctures.
The president personally contacted clients to communicate how she
valued their business and her ongoing involvement in their programs.
The assessment identified a critical break in communications at this
company and provided input into how to repair it and get the company
back on the track for success.
OVERVIEW OF THE ASSESSMENT PROCESS
A typical assessment involves a series of steps that begin by broadly
identifying the major areas of communications within the company.
We then identify communications successes and weaknesses in order
to focus communications planning on the most actionable areas with
the highest potential rewards for the organization and its audiences.
We prefer to use the word "assessment" rather "audit"
because we find that "audit" is associated with uncomfortable
topics like tax returns for most people. We refer to our needs-based
analyses as communications assessments because our process focuses
on identifying and enhancing value.
Our overall approach for an assessment usually involves four to five
steps, although each assessment is customized to meet client needs
(for example, it is not always necessary to conduct a survey):
1. Analyze existing communications vehicles
2. Conduct executive interviews
3. Facilitate employee and management focus groups or interviews
4. Coordinate a communications survey (as appropriate)
5. Develop a needs-based communications plan
1. Analyze existing communications
In this step, we assemble samples of the communications vehicles distributed
to your target audiences and evaluate each one for effectiveness,
accessibility and timing. It is helpful to prepare a master chart
for plotting all of the vehicles so that your team can determine which
stakeholders are receiving what media as well as the overall volume
and timing of communications in distribution. You can get additional
input on communications vehicles from employees in interviews, focus
groups and surveys, as outlined below.
Communications gaps sometimes surface in this review. For example,
one client we worked with had reorganized and assigned a third of
its workforce to work remotely. However, they didn't provide
these employees with any of the tools they needed to work from these
locations. Without fax machines or high-speed connections, employees
were sometimes waiting up to three hours to download documents. As
a result, they were frustrated and failed to receive timely information.
2. Conduct executive interviews
Here, we conduct interviews with executives to ensure that the communications
assessment reflects their issues/concerns for the organization's
success beyond those of the communications department. One-on-one
interviews with executives should explore the following areas:
Their view of the role/purpose of employee communications in
How they visualize ideal communications.
What they expect each team member to know about the company.
Communications strengths and weaknesses (includes subjects
being communicated and the media currently employed).
Major company goals that are communications sensitive.
What they think team members want to know about.
Interviews should be conducted with senior management of the overall
organization. They can be conducted in-person or over the telephone
and should last from 30-40 minutes.
3. Facilitate employee and management
focus groups or interviews
Step three involves conducting focus groups of 8-12 employees and
managers, with employees and managers in separate groups so that respondents
feel comfortable expressing their views. If geographic dispersion
prevents the use of focus groups, then telephone interviews with employees
and managers can be conducted. The content of the discussion is similar
to that of the executive interviews, with group discussion for the
The focus groups/interviews allow us to compare employee/management
attitudes with executives' perceptions. For example, one division
director retained us because he wasn't getting the regular flow of
information he needed from his staff. While information flowed well
at times, there were days when he failed to get the updates he needed.
Staff interviews revealed that their director's moods varied so greatly
that they had instituted a "red light/green light"system
outside of his office. On days with a green light, they felt free
to approach him. But when the red light was out, they avoided him
because of his angry outbursts. Communications consulting benefited
this director and led to a greatly improved information flow with
Of course, not every team member can be a participant in a focus group
or interview. Choose team members that represent your important audiences,
taking care to include any audiences that you believe may have particular
communications issues. For example, if some employees don't have
access to computers or voicemail, they may have particular communications
needs and it would be wise to include them in a focus group. When
identifying who to invite, include both positive and negative vantage
points and a mix of gender, tenure and personality styles.
The focus groups should last from 60-90 minutes and can be held in
a conference room. You should plan to recruit about 20% more respondents
than you think you will need to allow for last-minute cancellations.
For example, if you want 12 people in your focus group, plan to recruit
4. Coordinate a communications survey (as appropriate)
A survey obtains hard numbers that serve as a baseline for measuring
future improvements and identifying differences between various audience
sub-groups. It may not always be necessary to conduct a survey, particularly
for smaller organizations. However, for larger organizations with
business units or divisions, a survey can provide very effective direction
for development of a communications plan as well as allow measurement
of communications over time. For example, our survey research helped
the communications director of a large organization to implement our
research-based communications plan. The research showed that the number
of employees who received the information they needed increased from
47% to 79% over two years. The value that employees placed upon internal
communications also multiplied dramatically, leading to a department
in great demand.
The survey contains questions about communications with multiple-choice
responses. Results can be statistically analyzed and compared with
new results over time to gauge improvement. The questions include
the following areas:
General attitude questions (credibility, timeliness, upward
communications, horizontal communication).
Distribution/effectiveness of key media.
Follow-up questions based on executive interviews and focus
One or two write-in questions.
Demographic questions to identify differences between sub-groups.
Before distributing the survey, it's a good idea to test it on several
members of your target audience to make sure that your instructions
and questions are clear. Accompanying the questionnaire with a letter
from senior management asking for participation will encourage a better
5. Develop a needs-based communications
It's time to put the results into action! This critical finale
to the assessment process is the ultimate benefit of a communications
assessment delivering a strategic communications plan based
on key stakeholder needs.
The introductory part of the communications plan should report relevant
research findings that will lead into the communications recommendations.
The research will identify needs that the communications plan can
then address. For example, if team members have reported that they
are receiving information in inconsistent ways and their managers
feel confused about when to use particular media, then development
of a communications protocol for the department will be a logical
way to address this need.
The communications assessment findings serve as both a baseline and
a springboard for developing an outstanding and targeted communications
process that all involved know
will be effective because it is based on solid research findings.
Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting,
Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently
attract and retain employees and customers. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter on www.jrsconsulting.net/newsletter.html
© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2007