Beyond the Newsletter
From the Fall 2022 issue of CCI Toronto Condovoice Magazine, Volume 27, Issue Number 1.
When film composer and conductor John Powell said, "Communication works for those who work at it," he could have been talking directly to Board members in condo corporations. It's probably safe to say that most individual Board members these days consider communication to be a high priority for their Boards, but successful Boards know something that unsuccessful ones don't: it's not enough to post minutes as required by regulation and occasionally slap together a newsletter. Maintaining and enhancing good relationships with owners and residents is essential to the smooth functioning of both operational and strategic activities. And good relationships are predicated on a strategic approach to communication.
What Does "Strategic Communication" Mean?
The term strategic communication is most easily understood by examining its two components.
A strategy means articulating a longterm goal and delineating how that goal can be approached. Communication is often defined as a reciprocal process of exchanging information and ideas based on understanding shared meanings of words, symbols and approaches. If that's too academic for day-to-day applications, there's a simpler way to look at it.
Strategic communication is goal-oriented, planned, deliberate and intentional. In action, strategic communication includes the following elements: a plan for the operational, day-to-day communication of informational material to specific audiences and a long-term plan for communication activities that will contribute to the successful completion of corporation activities and the development of positive community relations.
Posting minutes of meetings and distributing a newsletter occasionally do not constitute strategic communication. On their own, they will do little to enhance relationships or smooth the way to achieve Board goals successfully. Don't misunderstand, though. Both Board minutes and well-planned and executed newsletters certainly can be important tactics in a communication strategy. But that's the point: you need a strategy.
Avoiding Seat-of-the-Pants Communication
Over time, a Board that faces few significant problems can become complacent about its relationships with its important publics. If the monthly complaints to management are minor, the budget manages to get by without complaint, and there are no shouting matches at the AGM, a Board can think it's running smoothly. This attitude is what writers call pantsing: writing or in this case, running a condo corporation without a plan. I call it the firefighting approach to communication avoiding proactive communication unless a fire breaks out.
For example, you might take the following views:
- We won't bother to develop a dialogue with our owners until they threaten to call a meeting to oust us.
- We don't need to consider how we communicate with owners regarding the budget until we need to implement a special assessment.
- We don't need to carefully consider how we word email correspondence with individual owners and residents until one threatens to sue.
As I have written before, "Many problems that organizations face with their relationships are a direct result of dealing with communication issues in a reactive rather than a proactive way."
Strategic Communication Requires a Plan
For over a decade, I taught the basics of communication and public relations planning in a four-year university program designed to prepare future corporate communication and public relations practitioners. Every year, when presented with cases, students wanted to jump into finding solutions immediately. Before gathering information or asking a single question, their reaction was to move directly to solutions. That illustrates the direct opposite of strategic planning.
Have you ever been confronted with a problem at a Board meeting only to find several directors leaping into the conversation saying, "We should do this," or "We should do that," before the Board has a chance to define the problem? And defining the problem isn't enough, either. The Board needs to know, among other things, who is most affected by the problem and what the objective of a solution will be. Strategic communication requires that and more.
When it comes to communication, the following pre-planning questions are key:
- Where are we now?
- Where do we want to go?
- How do we get there?
- How will we know when we arrive?
The answers to these questions for strategic communication planning require researching the current climate, developing objectives for where you'd like to be, defining the strategies and tactics for achieving those objectives and evaluating how well you've attained those objectives.
What Does a Communication Plan Look Like?
A strategic communication plan is based on the four elements I discussed above. Let's apply these elements to a specific communication issue that arises yearly for every condominium board of directors: the annual budget.
It happens every year like clockwork. The Board nears the end of the fiscal year and begins the process of creating a budget for the following year. Successful budgeting requires three things: accuracy, fiscal responsibility and planning. But, during that planning process, does the Board consider how strategic communication to owners is included?
Developing specific objectives for a plan is key to maintaining focus. These objectives then provide the basis for developing targeted messages designed to imbue all communication tools regardless of the medium. Also, note that creating the tactics that will form the implementation can be an exercise in creativity. The primary consideration will be the Board's knowledge of the demographics and preferences of its owner group. For example, a condo corporation with a younger demographic might be best served by providing much of that budget material via video rather than simply on a document and adding a private social media group for dialogue.
Finally, the evaluation step is the most often ignored aspect of communication planning. It's essential for the Board to know what works and what doesn't to avoid what has failed and to capitalize on the opportunity to apply what worked in the future.
Outcomes of Strategic
Communication Planning One of the most beautiful aspects of a strategic process for communication is finding that a Board has significant support when more controversial issues arise. Building trust is one of the most important overall goals of communication planning. For example, when you find yourselves in the position of having to levy a special assessment, an owner group that already trusts the financial knowledge and skills of its Board will be far more amenable, providing this communication strategy is implemented well in advance, thus preparing the owners. Or if the Board is considering making a major change to a common element, such as repurposing an amenity room, prior communication and trust will go a long way toward smoothing that complicated process.
When considering communication as a strategic tool, condo boards need to keep three characteristics in mind. Communication must be:
Strategic communication is a Board's purposeful use of communication to achieve its objectives. A well-planned newsletter might well be a tool that helps achieve those overall objectives, but on its own, it does little more than pay lip service to a board's responsibility to communicate with its owners. A board can achieve much more – it just needs to take the time to plan its communication activities.
Even Pablo Picasso said, "Our goals can only be reached through the vehicle of a plan. There is no other route to success."
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