Proactive communications will lead to effective communications

Proactive vs reactive: why is fire-fighting the norm (and how can we change it?)

Proactive vs reactive communications

As with most things in business, if you wish to deliver effective and persuasive communications, detailed strategies need to be researched, planned, and evaluated. Why then, do so many businesses believe communications is a one-stop shop for last minute crisis prevention, press release writing, and <shudder> poster making.

As communicators, we’ve all been there – it’s 5:30 pm on a Friday evening and your email pings. “Urgent!” screams the heading. You sigh, grab another cup of tea, and spend the next two hours sorting out a problem that could have been solved (and should have been prevented) with a little forward planning.

Endless meetings and time is put into developing business strategy, sales strategy, marketing strategy, so why not communications? The answer is simple. Much like a cobbler’s bare-foot child, communicators have done a really poor job of communicating the impact their function has on the bottom line. As a result, communication is still seen as a nice-to-have, not a must-have. The communications team is seen as a function that comes in at the end of a process, not one that’s an intrinsic part of the organisation.

As a result, too many communications teams spend their time moving from one crisis to another. This leads to slapdash communications to patch up a leak. If communications were more proactive, however, you wouldn’t have quite so many holes in the first place.

So how do we start changing this? First, let’s have a closer look at what we’re dealing with.

What is reactive communication?

Reactive communications, as the name suggests, is when you’re reacting to a situation. It’s something you haven’t planned for, something unexpected, something that has caused a response you didn’t foresee. This type of communications normally takes place after the fact – when something has already happened. The result is disjointed and often defensive. Reactive communication tends to be one-sided. It is broadcast communications with little evaluation and no feedback mechanism.

In short, reactive communication usually means ineffective communication. Click To Tweet

What is proactive communication?

Proactive communication is when you prevent problems instead of fixing them. You answer questions before they’re asked. You deal with complaints before they’re made. You work with your audiences to have a conversation about the issues important to you (and them). Proactive communication is planned, flexible, and delivers on objectives.

How do we put proactive communications in place?

It’s easy to say “we need to be more proactive in our communications” but the reality is normally quite different. In a corporate world full of conflicting priorities, lack of resources, and restricted time, it can be simpler (and quicker) to go the reactive route. You can deal with issues as they arise and then move onto the next thing.

However, I would urge you to reconsider. Wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what you’re going to focus on for the year and be able to share your successes? Wouldn’t it be less stressful to have everything planned out instead of scrabbling for content? Wouldn’t you prefer your time was spent on communicating, rather than panicky meetings?

There are a few simple steps you can take to move towards a more proactive method of communications

1. Give yourself time

I can almost hear the hysterical laughter from here. But seriously, the first thing you need to do in order to become proactive is to give yourself time to plan, to think, to ask yourself difficult questions. The whole process of developing a more proactive approach to communications is going to take time (see steps below) so make sure that you factor this into your planning. If you’re looking to develop communications strategies for 2019, for example, this process needs to start in August or September of 2018. Effective communication isn’t something that can be thrown together in a month.

2. Understand where you are now

In order to effectively drive communications in the future, you need to understand where you are now and what’s happened in the past. You can’t improve a situation if you don’t know what the problems are.

Go through a comprehensive communications audit and risk analysis. Understand what works and what doesn’t in your current set up. Make sure you understand what obstacles and opportunities stand in your way. Establish if there are any concrete changes you can make to improve your situation or is it just a question of mitigating risk? Who are you likely to be talking to? How do they wish to be communicated with? What kind of information do they want? What kind of information do they need? How much awareness do they currently have about business-critical issues?

At this point, you also need to be completely clear on overarching business and communications objectives. All the work you do moving forward needs to slot back into these brackets. You shouldn’t be undertaking any communications work that doesn’t help you achieve your communication objectives. In turn, these communication objectives need to play a bigger role in helping your business achieve its strategic objectives.

3. Get everyone involved

In most organisations, if a project is to work, it needs to be adopted and championed by senior leaders. The easiest way to get buy-in is to consult your key stakeholders and work with them to develop your communication plan together.

Set up a number of face to face meetings with your stakeholders and use them to:

  • Discuss upcoming priorities in the department
  • Outline current challenges within the team
  • Establish the key projects they’ll be working on over the next year which will need communications support
  • Question priorities and challenge assumptions
  • Understand their audience and key messages
  • Define SMART objectives
  • Confirm the timing of the project
  • Get an indication of budget (if any)

All these elements will help you anticipate need, offer strategic counsel, and most importantly, write detailed campaign plans for each stakeholder.

4. Know where you’re going

Ah yes! We’re back on this old chestnut. Planning!

Once your research has been done, it’s important that you don’t store the information away but you put it into a comprehensive communications strategy. For every department or stakeholder you’ve spoken to, you should develop an individual campaign plan. This campaign plan will outline the strategy the communications team is going to take in order to reach the business objectives.

These campaign plans should be prioritised to determine the amount of time, resource, and budget allocated.

By the end of your planning session, everyone in your team should understand every detail of every campaign including:

  • Objectives;
  • Key audiences;
  • Communications strategy;
  • Timelines and deadlines;
  • Tactical implementation; and
  • Evaluation measures.

It’s also important to plan for the unplannable. Crises happen and it’s important you have a skeleton plan in place to deal with them when they arise. Ensure that you have a clear communications structure to ensure a steady of flow of information. Run scenario planning to see how well your methods work. Understand who is going to lead your communications and how (what platforms do you have? Are there any alternatives?).

5. Know when you’re doing it

Once all your plans have been written and are in the revision stage, it’s time to plot out your time for the year.

Draw up a campaign calendar so it’s clear which projects are running when. Are there overlaps? Are there four campaigns running in the same week? Is there a dead period in the middle of July? Make sure that you’ve indicated any important events that you may be able to hang communications off (annual or quarterly results, townhalls, award ceremonies, anniversaries). Spread your communications out evenly across the year so that you’ve got a steady flow of information and your team is overloaded.

Develop a campaign tracker to show the status of each project. Use it in team meetings to highlight and deal with issues before they develop.

6. Give yourself room for evaluation

As with all plans, while it’s important you have them, it doesn’t mean they’re set in stone. All of your campaign plans should have clear evaluation measures in place. You need to track every element of your communications to ensure that

a) you’ve achieved what you set out to;

b) you can amend any elements that aren’t working; and

c) you can show your value to your key stakeholders.

Being proactive in your communications isn’t easy. In most cases, you and your team will have to undertake a huge culture change – not only in the way you work, but also in the way you work with other people.


Although it seems like a lot of work, the value of taking the time to plan out your communications can’t be underestimated. You’ll have a happy, motivated team who understand their priorities. You’ll have happy leaders who can see real, measurable progress. You’ll have happier employees who are kept informed with business strategy and know their place in delivering final results.

If you’d like any help implementing a more proactive approach to communications in your team, get in touch. We’d be more than happy to have a brainstorm and come up with some quick wins for your team.