Audience Dialogue

Communications auditing

Every organization has a number of different stakeholders that it deals with. They can include other words, anybody who deals with the organization in any way. All will have particular views of the organization, framed by their particular interests, but none of them will have a complete view. Their attitudes and actions relating to the organization will depend on those views. Stakeholders crucial to the organization's future (such as dominant competitors) are considered individually, while others can be considered as groups.

If the organization is large, it will have internal publics, such as different divisions and different branches. There are likely to be communications gaps between the board and management, and management and general staff. The problem with auditing internal communications is that just about everything done inside an organization can be called internal communication - so the challenge is how to summarize that huge flow to provide useful conclusions. Random sampling of messages (such as every 100th email, over a week) may help. The content is not as important as who communicates with whom, and how often.

A communications audit (in the sense normally used) focuses on the outgoing messages from the organization and its different components. The concept of integrated marketing communications involves coordinating all these outgoing messages so that they all reinforce the same point of view. The saying "all singing from the same hymn book" applies. Public relations people try hard to achieve this. If it's effective, the organization can become so dull that it disappears from public view. Sometimes that's exactly the intention, but a large organization will always generate a lot of talk within its industry, and too much spin-doctoring can be counter-productive. PR might control all the messages that go out from the organization, but it can't control messages about the organization that are generated by others - customers, competitors, and other stakeholders.

Though most communications audits only look at outgoing messages, Audience Dialogue has a broader approach to the communications audit. It aims...

  1. to discover the number and types of messages received and sent by all the different publics.
  2. to assess those messages in the context of the publics - how the organization is seen to fit in with its peers.
  3. to compare those external messages with the messages sent and received by the organization.
Unless the organization has ephemeral products and a huge advertising budget, public perceptions - specially among those with little contact with the organization - often run several years behind. It's therefore also helpful to compare present inputs with outputs from a few years ago.

If your organization is a publisher of some kind (print media, broadcast media, or has a web site) many of the messages sent out in the normal course of business may be interpreted by audiences as messages about your organization - even if you think you're only passing them on from another source. Interested audience members are always receptive to clues about an organization they deal with.

How is a communications audit actually done?

The first stage is internal: interviewing members of the organization, particularly management, to discover the forms and purposes of communication used. The focus here is to find out what communications are sent out, and the desired views of each stakeholder group about the organization. This is often done with a workshop involving all the main staff; here is an example of an all-day workshop we organized.

The next stage collects data from all stakeholders on communications received and sent. This includes both the content of the messages and the channels used. Stakeholders often don't send many messages to an organization, but they have a strong interest in how their messages are received. Our consensus group technique works particularly well for studying such messages. Often, a telephone survey is done as well.

In the third stage, the two sets of messages are then compared, to find out the differences between the intended communications and the actual memories. There is a particular focus on messages thought by senders to be important, but not correctly understood by the receivers. Gaps between desired and actual views are clarified.

The final stage is to try to bring the actual and desired views of the organization into alignment. If there is a large difference, it is usually not feasible to enforce the desired views. An organization can't make people love it, no matter how much it spends on advertising! So this stage often includes recalibrating the expectations of management. Because perceptions change very slowly (specially among stakeholders who are not much interested), a phased, long-term communications plan is often the outcome of a communications audit.

Output of a communications audit

The output takes two main forms: a summary communications map and a detailed table.

A communications map shows the flows of information about the organization between the different groups of stakeholders. Usually, there are about 8 main groups, as shown in the list above, but not all of them communicate with each other about the organization. Many stakeholders deal with only one aspect of the organization, but the more time a stakeholder group spends dealing with the organization, the more it differentiates between various aspects of the organization. The communications maps we do are star-shaped: they have the organization at the centre and the stakeholder groups radiating out from it. Most of the communications about most organizations are directly between it and stakeholders, but for some organizations there are significant flows between stakeholder groups. Stakeholder groups that inter-commnicate most are shown next to each other on the map, to minimize the total length of lines.

The lines between groups represent the communications that flow. Each of these lines - for example, there might be one between the organization and its customers - corresponds to two rows in the detailed table - one row for communication in each direction. The columns in that table show relevant issues such as:

Of course, a lot of this information is likely to be unknown. For any factor that's clearly important, it will be useful to do some research, or set up a monitoring system.

Further reading

An article in the Public Relations Journal by Richard Kopec (volume 39, pp 24-27, 1982). Online at Tips & Techniques: The Communications Audit [opens in new window - registration required]

A thorough summary, though a little outdated now (pre-internet), is in the International Journal of Information Management for 1993 (volume 13, pages 134-151) by D Ellis, R Barker, S Potter, and C Pridgeon. This makes a useful distinction between information audits, communications audits, and information mapping.

Related pages on this site: outline of a communications strategy workshop.