What Exactly is a Communications Consultant?
When I meet small business owners and introduce myself as a Communications Consultant, I’m sometimes met with a blank expression. Or, they may ask something like, “What do you mean by ‘communications’? Is that like installing phone systems?” Maybe I need to work on my pitch… But I’m also glad they asked the question, because it provides an opportunity to talk about the value communications can bring to every business, large or small.
Here, I want to talk about the Communication profession its most basic form and, ultimately, how a communications expert can bring value to your business.
Let’s start with the basics. So what exactly is “Communications”? Merriam-Webster defines communications as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” It’s important to note here the word exchange. Communication is more than just the delivery of information; inherent in effective communication is also the receipt of information. Thus, communication necessitates a symbiosis between two or more parties—both of which are communicating to each other.
Let’s break this down a little more with an example. You run into an old friend by chance at a coffee shop and strike up a conversation. While you are regaling your friend with details about your daughter’s recent softball game (i.e., you are delivering information), your friend is also delivering information to you at the same time through facial expressions, body posture, and occasional “uh huhs”. In order to know if your friend is actually interested in the story, you’d need to understand the meaning of her physical communication. Therefore, even though you are the one verbally delivering information, your friend is also delivering information about her interest in the story to you at the same time. This symbiotic delivery and receipt of information is what we call communication.
That’s great, but what does this mean for my business?
Glad you asked! Like the example of the two friends, a business is constantly communicating with both internal and external audiences, and those audiences are constantly communicating back with the business. And like the example, a business does not have to sayanything (i.e., verbal or written statements) in order to communicate a message.
For instance, if a company is facing public criticism on a particular issue, and the company chooses to say nothing and avoid any public statements about that issue, a non-response is inherently in itself still a response. The company is sending a message to the public that, perhaps, it does not view this issue as one that warrants addressing. A non-response may or may not ultimately be the right approach in the long run, but the takeaway here is to show that a company is constantly sending some sort of message, whether directly or indirectly.
Controlling the message
Understanding the messaging your company is sending (both directly and indirectly) is critical to achieving your business strategy. However, understanding audiences perceive the message (how your company is perceived) is only 1/3 of the overall equation. A successful company is able to:
Understand how the company is perceived both internally and externally
Determine how the company wants to be perceived (branding)
Create the messaging that furthers that perception to obtain business goals (communication strategy)
Once a business has a handle on these general areas, then the business is in a much more advantageous position to quickly respond to market pressures, negative public perceptions, organizational changes, and other internal and external forces. A business is also in a much better position to retain clients, as a business’s outward perception often reflects on its clients—just think of the volatility of the advertising industry when a celebrity or business has a scandal and is negatively viewed by the public. This is not to say, however, that if a business has a communication strategy, then that business will therefore be successful; it is simply a vital component, among others needed areas.
Like a business strategy, a communication strategy is not something a business can copy and paste from another business, even if that business is in a similar industry or is a direct competitor. An effective communication strategy should be tailored to your specific business and intimately tied to your business goals. Thus, a communication strategy takes into account not only your business’s internal and external messaging but will also directly tie the creation of that messaging to both your overall brand and will seek to achieved desired results as defined by your business goals.
The role of a Communications Consultant
A communications consultant can be viewed much like a business analyst. You can bring in a consultant to assist with a variety of needs—large or small—depending on the issue you’d like to address. For example, you may want a communications consultant to help with:
Developing a communications strategy or plan
Advice on communication best practices
Assistance with communicating organizational changes
Reviewing current communication activities and identifying areas for improvement
Developing measurement tactics for gauging the effectiveness of communication activities
Training internal teams on effective communication tactics
Assisting with responding to a crisis or negative public perceptions
Developing methods to effectively align internal communication activities within different parts of the organization
Developing key messaging for external audiences
Small businesses may not have a dedicated communications resource on staff to manage day-to-day communication activities and will therefore typically delegate these responsibilities to various staff members. And this makes perfect financial sense for small businesses with tight budgets. A communications consultant can work directly with you and your staff to develop a holistic strategy and train them on best practices so they can be effective messengers for your business. Or, a consultant can come in for short stints to help you through specific communication concerns or needs.
Medium-sized businesses may or may not have a person or a dedicated team who is responsible for managing communications, and corporations will typically have multiple internal communication teams. A communications consultant can be of value for these businesses who may want an outside, third-party perspective on certain communication activities or plans, or they may need additional advice before implementing a new communication strategy. Some communication consultants are also trained in Organizational Change Management (OCM), a skill these businesses may not have in-house.
Should I consider hiring a Communications Consultant?
Although I may be biased (of course you should!), the short answer is it depends. If you already have one or multiple communication resources on staff, a third-party consultant can help ensure your current communication strategy and practices are meeting industry standards and are actually driving business results. If you’re a small business, a communications consultant can help you implement strategies and practices that will help you grow and succeed in the market.
Some business owners are content and satisfied with their current state, and that’s great. Just keep in mind that markets change, marketing and communication practices evolve with culture and new technology, customer needs continually shift, and competitors are always looking for advantages. A communications consultant can help ensure you and your business are aware of and prepared for those circumstances.