Get Started on Your Communication Audit: There's No Better Time Than the Present

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If you've been thinking about doing a communication audit, now's the time. The challenging economy is likely just the catalyst you need to take an objective look at your communication organization and activities to determine if they are as effective and efficient as possible. What better way to demonstrate to management that you are focused on return on investment and not falling into the trap of making assumptions or stale thinking?

Just ask Wendy Heshka, ABC, a partner at Communication Solutions. Based in British Columbia, her firm hired a consultant to conduct an audit and survey clients, prospects and influencers. What they learned made a real difference--in dollars and cents.

"The findings shaped considerable changes and facilitated strategic growth for our firm," says Heshka. She said the audit pinpointed the attributes their clients most valued and how the agency differed from its competitors.

Heshka and her team made a number of changes. They refined the language they used to define themselves, reworked their web site and redecorated the office to reflect their brand personality. They reorganized the agency, emphasized cross-selling, and set up quarterly "coffee chats" with clients, prospects and influencers. One of the real benefits, she says, was that the audit opened communication with their client community--and brought new business opportunities.

"We've grown 100 percent [in revenue] in the past year," she says, "and the audit was a significant facto,."

Audit or assessment?

An audit is often referred to as a snapshot of an organization's health. But it's not a "silver bullet" that will cure all your communication woes. And there's no one-size-fits-all approach. Audits can be small and targeted (like a web audit), and they can be focused on internal or external audiences. They can be comprehensive, covering the breadth of communication activities and audiences. Generally, a more thorough audit includes a review of the communication plan and policies; an analysis of communication vehicles; interviews with management and key constituents; and an audience survey. The research is followed by a summary, highlighting strengths, weaknesses and recommendations for improvement. Audits don't have to be expensive, and they can be done in-house or by an outside professional. Most communicators agree that doing an audit every year or two is invaluable.

Michael Zimet, president of Dialogue Solutions in Newtown, Pennsylvania, prefers the term assessment to audit; assessment, he says, is "infinitely more descriptive because you're assessing the effectiveness of your communication strategy and programs."

Zimet generally works on internal assessments, using both surveys and focus groups. "Surveys provide a wonderful set of data--e.g., x percent feel this way and y percent feel that way...but the focus groups tell you why they feel that way," he says.

Audits: A best practice

If the bottom-line results haven't convinced you and you need more ammunition, consider this: Auditing your communication is a best practice. Janet Nagly works for Deloitte Australia in Sydney and is in the process of planning her firm's audit, most of which will be done in-house.

"We want to learn which communications are working well for the entire company so that we can eliminate the ones that aren't effective," Nagly says. "We are hoping to uncover which activities are working well in one business unit so we can share those ideas with other units."

Elsa Mercado of Scotiabank Mexico in Mexico City did a two-part audit to evaluate how employees perceived the bank's communication channels, and the changes made as a result yielded demonstrable financial benefits as well as improved communication.

"We started with management interviews and employee focus groups to assess whether the current tools were useful, attractive, interesting and clear, and get their views on timing and frequency," she explains. …