7 Steps to a Successful Communications Audit

(Modified from article published in Campaign & Elections Magazine April 2014 US Edition.)

Have you ever stared at your closet? And then stared at one of those closet organization system advertisements? You know, the ones where everything is on a matching hanger spaced exactly an inch and a half apart? Argh. When does anyone have the time to make a closet look like that?! And how long would it stay just like the picture?

This is the kind of frustration many organizations feel about their communications programs. With day to day tasks driving your “to do” list, it can be difficult to find the time to throw everything out on the table, take a look and what you have, refresh outdated materials and reassess all efforts.

As spring approaches, now is the time to audit your communications program. Much like an organized closet, an effective communications program needs to be well-edited, focused in presentation, and tended to with a set of clear rules.

Here are seven steps that will get you on your way.

1.) Remind yourself of the mission.

Even if you have it committed to memory, never begin a communications audit without acknowledging the mission statement of your organization. Elevate the purpose of your communications to serve that mission. Without this higher-level framework from which you can evaluate the purpose of each communications tactic, you run the risk of judging each effort in a microcosm. (Uh, of course the calendar successfully reminded people of key dates!) This is not what a communications audit is about. As you scour your materials, the question you are asking is: Does this communication further advance our organization’s reason for existence? If not, how can it be made to do so?

2.) Decide what you’re auditing.

The answer may seem obvious. But it isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Communications is not always limited to what the communications staff handles. Emails from leadership, speeches, social media, marketing or fundraising materials, multiple web properties, event materials, mobile apps, even standardized email signatures – all of these can be part of your audit. If it is meant to support your organization’s mission, it falls under communication. However, it is important to limit the scope of your audit to what will be easily explainable to others and digestible by you. The important action in this step is to draw a line around the items you are auditing.

3.) Lay out all your materials.

Physically gather all your materials (print out copies of digital assets) and lay them across a table. How do they look? Is the logo used consistently? Is there a discernable brand style? Do some materials look as if your organization put a lot of time and money into them while others don’t? Do the materials align with your audience buckets – in other words, is it easy to tell who each set of materials is speaking to and why? Do you have materials that have not been updated for years but are still referenced by many within your organization? Do you have content that should be eliminated all together? (As the saying goes, if you haven’t worn that outfit in more than two years, throw it out.) And finally, do your materials translate to digital and social media environments? Many of these answers will pop right off the table once you have everything in front of you.

4.) Ask for feedback.

In the world of closet organization, this would be where you invite your best (or worst) friends over and ask, “Does this look good on me?” You want an honest opinion, even if it doesn’t spare your feelings. Consider sending out a survey using a mechanism that promises anonymous feedback. Or ask a third-party to collect data for you. Ask your core audience questions such as: How do you feel about the frequency of communications? What kind of communications would you like to see more of? What would you like to see less of? Would you prefer a different format? What kinds of materials do you see from other organizations that you find effective? Often the most underutilized communications tactic is to simply collect ideas from those you communicate with regularly. Before you launch into A/B message testing for your next campaign – take the time to ask thoughtful questions of your audience first.

5.) Take a step back.

Evaluate what you have seen and heard. By now, themes should be emerging. Group the positives and negatives into categories. Does there seem to be agreement on how content is delivered but not how often? Do some stakeholders seem more satisfied than others? Is the purpose of each and every piece of communication clear? Make a list of the top five challenges that your audit has identified.

6.) Dream big. Define the steps to get there.

Not everything is going to emerge from just looking at what you already have. You also have to think about what you want to achieve. What goals does your list of challenges not address that you, as the communications strategist, wish you could achieve? Here is the time to dream big. Then, divide your challenges and stretch goals into short term and long term objectives. Short term objectives can be achieved by making realistic adjustments using the resources you currently have. Long term objectives require a strategic plan that will likely include rationale for additional staff resources or budget.

7.) Set the date for the next audit.

The best way to ensure steady progress towards your objectives is to know exactly how long from now you plan on evaluating success. An ever-present deadline keeps distractions at bay. While the audit process is fresh in your mind, make a list of things you would have liked to examine but didn’t in this round and note which questions should be followed up with later. Have a plan in place to check on your progress over time by reaching back out to your audiences. The act of setting a date for the next audit will serve as a reminder to your organization that sloppy communications, just like mismatched socks, are never out of sight, out of mind. They stare you in the face – every time you reach into the drawer.