Monday, March 26, 2007

The Communications Audit

I wrote up this piece for in-house use some years ago and reprised it here for WIW. Audits are a potentially powerful tool we corporate communciators too often overlook, perhaps because they are so often used polemically, or to get business. I drew heavily (though not I trust plagaristically) on PRSA white papers, as well as other online sources.

1. What is a communications audit?
Essentially, it’s a strategic estimate of any organization’s communications function. Audits look at structures (people, how they are linked, and what they do) as well as content. They look at how an organization spends money and profits(or loses) as a result of communication activity. According to a white paper from PRSA: “…..It is a complete analysis of an organization's communications, and effort to "take a picture" of communication needs, policies, practices and capabilities, and to uncover necessary data to allow management to make informed, rational decisions about future communications programs and resources. An audit should also lead to a series of recommendations.”

2. What is the scope of an audit?
The audit is distinguished from a project’s “creative” or “development” phase in that it is more comprehensive and refrains from defining executional questions. Instead, audits help define communications priorities and assign resources to address them. Audits can be very focused or very broad. “The scope can range from very specific attention to a single topic to a comprehensive review of an entire organization’s communications operations. Audits can measure the effectiveness of programs throughout an entire organization, in a single division or department, or within a specific employee group. It can examine communications on a particular subject or communications via individual media; it can uncover misunderstandings, information barriers and bottlenecks, as well as opportunities. It can help measure cost effectiveness, evaluate ongoing programs, confirm hunches, clarify questions, and, in some instances, reorient concepts among senior management”.

3. What does the communications audit provide?
An audit should be grounded in some objective material and be delivered from a detached point-of-view. Audits may use opinion surveys, statistical data, web traffic, independent observations or journal entries for empirical input. They should interpret data with rigorous analytical methods, such as those commonly accepted among professional management, finance, or the social sciences. An audit should… “provide meaningful information to members of management concerned with efficiency, credibility, and economy of their communications policies, practices, and programs. It also provides valuable data for developing or restructuring communications functions, guidelines, and budgets, as well as recommendations for action tailored to an organization's particular situation as uncovered by an analysis of the collected data.”

5. What subjects are covered in an audit?

• Communications philosophy
• Objectives and goals
• Current organization, tasking and staffing
• Existing communication programs and techniques
• Existing media used
• Personal communications
• Attitudes toward existing communications
• Needs and expectations
• Specific areas of concern

An Audit Method
1. Hold a planning meeting.
Determine the audit's scope and objectives. Identify question areas, plan an approach, and develop a schedule. Determine research questions and methodology (interviews, surveys, focus groups, statistical reports and analyses). Develop a budget and submit it for management approval.

2. Look for impact data.
What objective evidence for the effectiveness of current communications exists? Do we know how well current efforts are working? If not, we may need to design research to find out.

3. Talk to management.
Broad audits should first determine management's attitudes and beliefs about communications in general, as well as to pinpoint their particular views on the program, campaign or operations under study. More focused audits should find and tap key players’ background knowledge and experiences on the specific topic being audited. Management beliefs about communications’ relative effectiveness, value, cost and ROI are crucial to gathering resources for new communications initiatives.

4. Inventory and analyze existing communication material.
Gather samples of all existing communication vehicles and programs. Review them in light of the needs identified in the interviews and questionnaires. Map out the material against the desired communications objectives to identify strengths and weaknesses and gaps in the organization's current communications.

5. Conduct employee or end-user interviews.
Interviews are held with focus groups of employees (in the case of internal communications audits) or users (for external) who discuss the organization’s communications under the guidance of a consultant trained as a group facilitator. These sessions may probe issues and weaknesses identified in existing communications analyses or other impact data. They create soft data auditors can sift in order to find nuances, themes, attitudes and language that can be applied in later communications.

6. Gather additional impact data as required.
Survey data, among internal or external audiences may still be required. Auditors would draft and administer a questionnaire deriving items identified in earlier steps of the process.

7. Prepare a Final Report
Auditors gather all the data and write to the initial questions of the audit. They should make some determination of weaknesses and or gaps in current communications operations/campaigns/topics and arrive at a suggested strategy for correcting them in light of overall corporate objectives. The report should also make allocative recommendations, suggesting the appropriate staffing, tasking and media mix reflected in future communications pieces.

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