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Understanding Strategic Communication and its Importance

The term “strategic communication” is one that scholars define in different ways. This essay is supposed to show some main research factors in this field as discussed by Zerfass et al.: the main task of strategic communication, the difference between strategic and non-strategic communication and the value of it. Adding on, I will present my personal link to strategic communication.

The main task of strategic communication

Strategic communication is a broad term that is understood differently depending on the context in which research experts are perceiving it. In their research paper “Strategic Communication: Defining the Field and its Contribution to Research and Practice”, Zerfass et al. suggest four main contexts of strategic communication as viewed by various researchers:

  1. Strategic communication as synonym for integrated communication, meaning all kinds of goal-oriented communication performed by organizations to their stakeholders.
  2. Strategic communication as link between management and communication in large organizations to reach goals and assist in decision-making.
  3. Strategic communication in the context of war, meaning propaganda that is supposed to help a state to communicate their interests and goals to their own people and to foreign nations. Because of its negative connotations, this view is oftentimes neglected though.
  4. Strategic communication as synonym for public relations, meaning the management of mostly external, but also internal communication.

Although these views on the term vary in their context, they quite well seem to agree on what’s the main task or goal of strategic communication: to help one party bring across what they consider important for another party (or several ones) to understand. These parties may be states and their people or foreign states, or any kind of organizations in communication with their stakeholders of shared interests. Thus, from the analysis of the various studies mentioned by Zerfass et al., one can conclude, that strategic communication is always goal-oriented.

The difference between strategic and non-strategic communication

As simple as “strategic communication” seems to be defined, as difficult it is to grasp in terms of scientific research. Hence, Zerfass et al. attempt to clarify the definition by differentiating strategic from non-strategic communication. But this difference is not easy to see either, as “strategic” to some means good or successful, whereas the terms that are mostly viewed as being the opposite, “tactical” or “operational” communications, and even routine communications also serve a purpose.

Also, operational communication is just as important as strategic communication, so there is no real differentiator here either – although “strategic” might sound of higher importance. The authors, Zerfass et al., therefore suggest strategic communication to be substantial for the survival and success of an organization or another entity. In consequence, strategic communication is purposefully significant to the entity’s goals.

This as well doesn’t exclude non-strategic communication from being important to reach goals but still implies that not all communication is necessarily strategic. And it doesn’t narrow the field of strategic communication down to only organizations or governments, but encompasses all kinds of entities, as long as it has a specific responsibility, given or perceived purpose in their sphere and limited number of resources to achieve that purpose.

In order to count as strategic, the authors claim that it has to be clear to whom the communication matter is substantial – no matter if the entity itself recognizes that or not. Non-strategic communication therefore only includes those issues that are objectively not substantial in retrospective and are also not identified subjectively (by the entity of matter) as being substantial.

The value of strategic communication to organizations

Strategy mostly deals with complexity: communication situations that can’t be handled with a blueprint anymore or that are too important to do so. Strategic complexity typically is driven by critical resource decisions, pressure by competition, changes of the environment, high risk, innovative behavior, engagement and / or altered operations.

The value of strategic communication therefore is to make sure complex situations with any of these above factors are handled well and aligned with the goals of the focal entity. Generally spoken, communication deals with the way the organization is embedded in society and as such has great impact. It can totally alter the way of how the focal entity is perceived or how society thinks about a specific matter.

Researchers in this field also claim that a communication strategy is able to answer – at least partly – why some organizations are more successful than others in achieving their communication goals or enjoy competitive advantages.