Environmental Scanning for Effective Communication

The information environment is constantly changing and it requires the communication planner to continually reassess the strategic context of the organization he or she is working for. Detailed communication plans can take weeks and perhaps months to develop, but what may have been a viable communication plan several weeks ago could quickly become outdated based on a change in the strategic context. For this reason, having a good understanding of the strategic context is essential in developing relevant and effective communication plans.

Environmental scanning is a method to assist in understanding the strategic context. It is the process of monitoring internal and external factors, patterns, trends, and relationships relevant to an organization’s operating environment that may influence current or future plans and operations. Most of us conduct some amount of environmental scanning every day like monitoring politics, business and finance, entertainment, and technology trends. The better way to conduct an environmental scan for an organization is using a methodological and repeatable process.

Why Do it?

Environmental scanning should be done to make adjustments to both current and future operations. At 9:20 a.m. on July 20, 2012, a journal associated with National Rifle Association sent out a tweet that said, “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” Given a typical day, this tweet would be perfectly fine for them, but several hours earlier a mass shooting had occurred at a midnight screening of the movie The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. The Journal understandably received a lot of negative feedback. Why? Because the strategic context had changed and either they were not aware of the incident or they had pre-scheduled the Twitter post prior to the incident occurring and did not reevaluate the language used.

Synchronizing the communication plan with the organizational activities is important, but considering external activities that make up the strategic context can be just as important. Maintaining this awareness, adapting your plan, and synchronizing your activities can improve the effectiveness of your communication plan. This in turn can improve public opinions, attitudes, and the perceived reputation of the organization by those with whom you are communicating to.

How to do it?

 • Determine the Categories. Since every organization is unique, it is important to develop a specific set of categories to examine on a regular basis that are relevant to that organization. In the military, the acronyms DIME (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic) and PMESII-PT (Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, Information, Physical Environment, and Time) are used as a way to begin examining variables in the strategic context. These are not the only categories, but it provides a starting point with which to pivot off of depending upon each unique situation. Just as the military planner has a starting point, so should the communication planner in any other organization. Look at your specific organization and come up with a set of categories that will serve as the starting point for continual assessment. These categories can be a generic term (i.e. Technology) or a series of more specific terms (i.e. Mobile, Social Media, Government Regulations, etc.). The number and specificity of each category will vary depending upon the type of organization.

• Identify Key Events. This could be things like upcoming hashtag holidays, new hardware or software releases, annual conferences, or political elections. Many events are cyclic and relatively predictable. Publicly traded companies release their earnings reports every financial quarter. Apple releases new hardware every fall prior to the holiday season. Every four years there is a U.S. Presidential election with a lead-up to the election lasting many months. The intent is to account for as many known events as possible that are relevant to your organization. You cannot account for the black swan event, or the event that comes as a total surprise and has a major impact on the organization, but there are many events that are known and can provide some degree of visibility on what the strategic context may look like in the future.

• Visualize. Gather all known events for each category onto a calendar, spreadsheet, or some other similar format. I typically develop long-range, horizontal calendars with colored rows for each category I’ve identified. This allows me to have multiple rows of categories containing known events along a timeline so that I can visually see all the events that are occurring within a given period of time. An Excel spreadsheet can do this, but there are also roadmapping software options available as well.

• Provide Analysis. One way to start an analysis is to ask yourself “so what?” In other words, now that you have gathered all these known events, determine what some of the key takeaways are. A calendar or spreadsheet with lots of data points is good, but the primary purpose of conducting an environmental scan is to determine how these events may or may not impact your organization and what, if any, recommendations there are for the organization.

• Continuously Update. These variables and specific events should be updated periodically in order to remain current. The frequency of the update depends upon the organization, but it should be done at some regular interval that is most useful to the organization and provides the greatest impact for decision-making. You may also want to continue populating the calendar with relevant external events as they occur so that you maintain a record of the strategic context during that timeframe. This is useful if you want to look backward in order to determine why something that was implemented was or was not successful. Environmental Scanning can be as simple or as detailed as is required by the organization. Developing a set of relevant categories, identifying key events, visualizing the information, determining the key takeaways, and updating all the information on a regular basis can provide you with a method for helping understand the organization’s strategic context.

Mike Nicholson

I've spent my career working in a variety of Strategic Communications, Public Relations, Public Affairs, Information Operations, and Executive Outreach positions. With a history of planning, preparing, executing, and assessing communication strategies in the U.S. and abroad, I use this site to write, think and share lessons learned on organizational communications.

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