When an internal comms project goes off course, it’s often because we didn’t start out with the right objectives – or any at all. Only when you set clear objectives as the reference point for your IC initiative can you create real change.

11th April 2019

There’s nothing like the excitement of a new project. That blank sheet of paper, that buzz of new ideas and opportunities, and no end of things to be decided and designed.

But in the midst of this, it’s easy to forget the small matter of why. Why are you doing this?

Chloë Marsh, head of communications and engagement at housing provider RHP, understands the feeling.

“We’re all probably guilty of jumping straight to the tactics sometimes, because often that’s the fun and exciting part. And if you do that, you often don’t get the outcome you wanted. You might spend a lot of time and money on something and at the end think, why haven’t we achieved what we set out to?”

Making a difference

Your project must be structured around the specific difference you’re looking to make. What is the improvement or change you are trying to fulfil?

“These set the foundation for a successful project,” says Neil Jenkins, who has worked in internal comms for Coca-Cola, Siemens, Vodafone and BT. “It’s really important that everybody involved is clear on what they need to achieve, and that this is agreed up front so you can track success. That’s something that should be a conversation between the internal comms person or team and the business stakeholders who they’re supporting or delivering for.” 

If this doesn’t happen, Neil adds, “you can get into a project that is ill-defined or that changes in scope or expectation, and can fall flat on its face”.

Helen Deverell, an independent internal communications consultant, agrees, saying that objectives are imperative not only to achieve the desired change, but as part of the IC profession’s ongoing mission to prove its impact and value. 

“If you don’t set objectives, the best-case scenario is that it lands really well, but you can’t prove it. Worst-case scenario, you lose credibility and the trust of leadership and colleagues.”


Find time to focus

Carefully defined objectives will guide everything from prioritising workloads to selecting channels and fine-tuning your tone of voice. And yet, in reality, it seems that objectives too often fall by the wayside. 

“I don’t think setting objectives is as widespread as it should be in our profession,” says Chloë. “If teams think about the number of pieces of work they get involved in, there’s probably only a handful that have had a robust process to set objectives.

“One reason for that is time. You’re under pressure to be seen to be getting something started, or you get a last-minute request and there isn’t time to think about why you’re doing it. I think the profession is improving in this, but there’s definitely some way to go.”

Meaasuring the intended change

Helen agrees that the IC world could be doing more when it comes to setting objectives. 

“As a regular judge of industry awards, I see a lack of objectives in some of the projects put forward as exemplars of good practice. Measurement may have been carried out, but if no objectives were set, how do you interpret what the findings mean? Was the outcome or change in behaviour intentional or mere luck or coincidence?”

It’s easy to see why internal communication professionals might think that setting out objectives explicitly is a waste of time – you do this for a living and you already know what your broad team aims are, right? Don’t be so sure. 

Neil says: “Sometimes people are clear in their own minds what needs to be done and they just go for it. But if you are relying on other people to deliver, and they’re not clear what the objectives are, you may not get what you’re looking for.”

Helen agrees. “When I do internal comms audits, I interview multiple stakeholders and ask them the same question about objectives to see if their answers align – and sometimes they don’t.”

Bringing clarity to projects

To be fair, none of this is easy. Setting effective objectives requires skill, effort and time. And often the outcomes you’re aiming for don’t yield easily to measurement. Annique Simpson, who looks after internal comms at a major financial services business, says that, in her experience, the desired outcomes “tend to lean towards the more emotional, intangible... it’s a feeling, it’s a thought process. Things that are difficult to measure.”

But that’s not a reason not to do it. Although setting objectives can be a big challenge, the benefits are big too. Even the process of discussing and developing objectives has value in itself, helping everyone involved to focus and clarify their thinking. 

“It’s a worthwhile exercise making the commitment to think about it,” insists Annique. “Sitting down and thinking about communications objectives allows me and my stakeholders to assess the project in the broadest aspect.”


Aligning with the broader business goals

It can help sharpen and clarify the wider objectives of the business or of other functions.

“It’s not just about having communication objectives that sit in a silo, it’s about matching them with the business objectives. If they can’t fit, there might be a problem with what the business is trying to achieve,” says Annique.

After all, there’s no shortage of wrong reasons to pursue a project: pleasing your boss, pleasing your boss’s boss, following a fad, trying to look busy, or just sheer force of habit. 

But, Neil says, “there can be a reluctance to challenge why a project needs to be done in the first place”.

Questioning senior staff about the reasons behind a new initiative is never an easy conversation to have, but it’s important to be able to push back if a project is going in the wrong direction or being pursued without a valid case for strengthening the business. 

Chloë says: “Senior people want to see things quickly, and they might not want to have a conversation about what the outcomes are, because sometimes they’re not that sure themselves.”


The power to say no

Clear objectives also help to protect the IC function from requests that might achieve little and eat up valuable time and resources. 

Helen considers: “It’s really important to make objectives known and documented because it gives you the power to say no to colleagues around the business, as you’re able to clearly articulate why their communication request doesn’t support these aims.” 

Chloë has had similar experiences. “Too often, we get requests such as, ‘We’d love a video, we’d love an infographic’, and when you sit down with someone and provide a structure and ask them to break it down, often you leave the room with a whole different set of tactics to what they anticipated. Or you realise they don’t need to do it.”

Handling this sort of conversation about objectives requires not just the skills of strategy, planning and analysis, but also soft skills and relationship building. 

“Do you know your stakeholder well enough to understand where they’re coming from, and what’s driving the request?” asks Neil. “Do you know the business well enough to know yourself whether that feels right or not? Have you got examples of similar requests that have had either a positive or negative outcome that you can draw on? Getting answers to those kinds of questions lets you get under the skin of the request.”

Finding confidence

Setting good objectives – and holding yourself to them – takes guts. 

“Confidence is a massive part of it,” says Helen. “If you don’t meet your objectives, you’re very exposed. That’s part of the reason people don’t always set objectives or aren’t open about them – because it opens them up to failure and criticism. 

“Build good relationships with other teams and departments, and share with them what you’re trying to achieve and what some of the challenges might be.

“Objectives are rarely achieved in isolation, so work with colleagues around the business to meet them. And if objectives aren’t met, it’s an opportunity to learn from what didn’t go so well, which will help you get it right the next time.”    


A smart way to start

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy carries a warning of what can happen when project objectives are too vague. In the story, a vast supercomputer is constructed to answer “the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything”. The computer deliberates for millions of years, then finally delivers the long-awaited answer: “42”. When asked to explain, the computer points out that no one actually told it what the question was.

If your corporate goals are vague, unrealistic or inappropriate, your comms project runs the risk of being equally meaningless. Instead, make sure your objectives are smart – or even SMART (see page 22): specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. 

Frequently, the aim of a project will be to change people’s behaviour in some way. That means your objectives should focus on behaviour, and not just on making sure the message gets through, says Annique. 

“Raising awareness is great, but if we only did that, it would be a bit disappointing. The most important thing is, you’re trying to make somebody do something different or do more of the same. That’s the crux of objectives. Always have that in the front of your mind.”

By putting objectives in place, Annique adds, “you’re a step closer to being able to trace that thread between objectives, actions and outcomes”.

Know, Feel, Do

Chloë says: “I would advise people to keep it really simple. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to tie in things to a figure on our performance scorecard because we want to prove that link to the business’s outcome. Break it down into smaller chunks: you don’t have to have 10 objectives, it could just be three. They don’t have to be big lofty ambitions. They could be quite small manageable things.”

With this in mind, she recommends the Know, Feel, Do model. “It works really well for keeping things simple and making it real for people. It’s a great tool for my team to take to a business owner. Start with those three initial questions of what you want your audience to know, feel and do, and after people have thought about those, that’s when you can start to refine them and ensure the objectives are SMART.”


Revisiting your targets

Internal comms projects should be reviewed afterwards to refine future objectives. 

“Be clear about the outcomes you’re looking to achieve through the project, and once the project is completed, go back to them,” advises Neil. “Any good project should include a review phase where you can look at the objectives you originally set out, if you achieved what you wanted to and, if you didn’t, why not. That makes for a better outcome next time, because you can learn.”

And as well as better results for the business, there’s a more self-serving reason for the IC person to get better at setting objectives: it’s an important step in the profession’s journey to raise its profile and importance.

Helen concludes: “As an industry, we advocate the need for strategy and objectives. IoIC clearly says that a key component of communications ability is to develop internal communication strategy. So if we want to be seen as a profession that really does make a difference, then we need to be thinking strategically and demonstrating it.
We’re at a really exciting time where we’re now able to show the impact we’re having, and organisations are starting to recognise that.” 


Get smart

All objectives should be SMART. You may come across variations in what the letters stand for, but the gist is always the same.

Specific What exactly do you want to happen? Come up with precise quantitative or qualitative measures for what you want to achieve, and hold yourself to them. 

Measurable How will you know when it’s happened? Where’s the data that will show whether you’ve succeeded or not? If it’s not already being gathered, you may need to collect it yourself, for example by running a survey.

Achievable Can you really do it? Make sure what you’re aiming for is realistic, given the time and resources available. 

Relevant Does it matter? Make sure your project fits in with the business’s current goals and that now is the right time to get started. You won’t be thanked for spending the budget on vanity projects.

Time-bound When do you want it to happen by? Think about when you want to meet your objectives, and whether this project has a single end date or a series of milestones along the way.

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