The term strategic is officially reserved for echelons that few in government will work in without winning an election or political appointment. Most military public affairs officers (PAOs) technically work at tactical and operational levels, not strategic. Echelon naming conventions aside, the best communicators think and operate strategically.
“Strategic” is one of those seemingly professional buzzwords that we hear in meetings and read in think tank articles. But it is more than just an adjective that sounds cool.
Word choice matters. Communication professionals and good leaders choose their words carefully. What is their purpose for using “strategic” as a descriptor? It’s to force themselves to think in strategic terms.
The word “strategic” appeared in the mid-1800s, and has exploded in use over the last 50 years. Google defines “strategic” as “relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them.” In simpler terms, being strategic means:
- You anticipate the next step before taking the first.
- You deliberately try to merge your work into a larger team accomplishment.
- You consider and plan for the long-term effects of every action.
Thinking and acting strategically does not require advanced PowerPoint skills, an MBA or War College experience. Anyone can put strategy to work.
Professional communicators use strategy to design game plans to achieve a specific end. Advertising is the most immediate example: conveying messages designed to persuade an audience to make a choice.
In 2012, the Department of Defense officially dropped the term “strategic communication.” Joint military communication doctrine points to a process called Commander’s Communication Synchronization in its stead. Whatever realm you work in as a communicator, never restrict imagination and creativity over local rules of terminology.
Across industry, professional communicators write strategic communication plans. The reasons that these plans are “strategic” is because they begin with an end state in mind, plan for it and consider potential unintended consequences.
Strategic is not a term reserved exclusively for the Fortune 500 or instruments of national power. Thinking strategically can happen in daily life. Wise people plan for retirement and plan career moves against tax brackets strategically. Smart leaders think ahead to how different audiences will react to their message strategically. The best communicators plan for audience engagement strategically. These communicators and leaders are curious. They know the right questions to ask.
I recommend starting with these:
1. What is the goal of the organization, and how can I contribute to it?
2. Who relies on us? Who do we rely on? How do we earn and maintain their trust over the long term?
3. Which of our organization’s actions could risk public trust? How do I advocate for those publics and convince leaders that maintaining trust supports the mission?
4. What are the unintended consequences of our actions and words?
More than enough people think that taking a picture or posting to Facebook is all there is to being a professional communicator. Prove them wrong. Be strategic.
Copyright 2018 Chase Spears All Rights Reserved
My opinions are my own and do not reflect any official policy of the Department of the Army Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.
Image courtesy of Stefan Erschwendner