Planning Communication Audits

Planning Communication Audits

By Louis C. Williams Jr., ABC, APR, IABC Fellow

There are many good reasons for an audit, including:

  • Assess the effectiveness of the overall communications process.
  • Determine how to leverage communicators in multiple divisions.
  • Evaluate relevance and usefulness of various communication channels.
  • Assess whether audiences have received and understood key messages.
  • Develop an ongoing process for measuring effectiveness of communications.
  • Define a strategic communication plan.

Even that short list makes it pretty clear that audits are not one-size-fits-all projects. Their variety in scope, method and cost is astonishing. An audit can take several weeks or several months; many cost US$40,000 to US$60,000. Some audits can be squeaked through for as little as US$25,000, and others run several hundred thousand dollars. Audit scope and cost are heavily influenced by project objectives, organizational size and complexity, and geography.

Audit components

Common components of communication audits include:

  • Analysis of existing communication channels.
  • Qualitative research.
  • Quantitative research.
  • Report and action planning.
  • Follow-up.

That said, audits are not off-the-shelf surveys. Audits must be individually designed in light of an organization’s needs, industry, culture, resources and audiences. Audits can measure a total program, or any single project within a larger program—internally and/or externally. Communicators usually find some components of the audit useful for monitoring communication performance, and they incorporate those pieces into their ongoing processes.
There are some particularly beneficial times to conduct audits. These include:

  • Installation of a new CEO or management team. This is a wonderful way for a CEO to assess the nature of a communication support structure, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the communication function.
  • New or changing market conditions. When major changes confront an organization—as when an agribusiness concern faces a grain embargo, for example—an audit can explore perceptions that may exist among target audiences, including customers, suppliers, competitors, etc.
  • New regulatory restrictions.  New or tougher regulations or legislation affecting a company’s products or business methods may call for an examination of communication messaging and audiences. A prime example of this would be deregulation, as occurred in the U.S. banking and airline industry a few years ago.
  • Recent mergers or acquisitions. These kinds of changes demand a detailed examination of how to focus communication efforts. An audit can help foster the more efficient integration of resources made possible in a merger.
  • Organizational restructuring. Whenever internal reorganizations occur, they need to be accompanied by a rethinking of how communication can be effective. An audit will help uncover the issues, dysfunctions and fears that need to be addressed in a program—both internally with employees, and externally with customers and suppliers.
  • New or increased competition. Any time your marketplace sees an influx of competition, or if the competitive landscape is altered through economic conditions, a communications audit may be a useful tool. One could make a case that such tech-based organizations as eBay, Amazon and Microsoft have been able to survive the recent economic downturn because they did pay attention to communication.
  • Poor public image. Organizations facing rising costs, economic downturns and environmental concerns would be wise to explore how communications could improve their situation. If they fully understood the issues facing them and how audiences important to them respond to those issues, then they might be able to deliver an appropriate, effective response that could help immensely.
  • Threats to management’s authority or credibility. Looming circumstances like a product boycott or a strike can be ideal times to audit an organization’s communication capability. Understanding pertinent issues and audiences will be key to responding appropriately.
  • Major expansion plans. If your organization is about to launch a major new product line, it would be well to understand not just what needs to be done tactically to hit the right media at the right time, but also to understand both negative and positive issues surrounding the product. You’ll want to have messaging that gets in front of issues, as well as supports the sales effort.

There are, of course, some moments in an organization’s life when an audit is not a good idea, such as when the organization is in the absolute middle of a traumatic experience. For example, if a CEO has been fired or left to take another job, then you may want to wait until a new CEO has been put in place before attempting an audit. There would be far too many questions in people’s minds and too much uncertainty to get a clear picture of the communication atmosphere. That isn’t to say that sensing at such a time isn’t important and appropriate, just that a formal audit may not be the best course of action at that moment.

Bottom line, however, is that there is only one way an audit can be truly successful: It must be viewed as an ongoing process, not just a final report. An important element of every audit is integrative processes—that is, how we take what we’ve learned and apply it to the entire organization in an orderly, structured manner. For our audit to succeed, we must integrate the results into the everyday life of the organization.

Excerpted from Communication Research, Measurement and Evaluation by Lou Williams, ABC, APR available on the IABC Knowledge Centre.