Strategic thinking in communications

By: The Government of Canada Communications Community Office with excerpts from the Canada School of Public Service courses and

The communications function is evolving quickly and continuously, requiring communicators to adapt to new realities. Becoming a more strategic and effective communicator is essential in today’s public service. Communications professionals must understand their role within the broader context of government, how priorities fit into their work, and how tools such as a public environment analysis must be used to adopt a strategic focus.

What are strategic communications in the public service?

A sophisticated, professional, and knowledgeable approach to communications is essential for government communicators to succeed. Government departments and agencies must consider government and departmental priorities (for example, those from the Speech from the Throne and ministers’ mandate letters), and the considerations and constraints of the public environment in order to achieve the desired results.

True strategic communications always involve an assessment of the larger picture and a plan for achieving results. The communications plan examines the public environment and defines the communications context, identifies opportunities and challenges, defines issues and audiences, challenges existing ideas, points out strategic considerations, and describes a communications direction and approach, including themes and ways of achieving the objectives.

Defining success in strategic communications

Setting objectives is the most important part of the strategic communications function. They need to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely) and clearly define what success looks like. Begin with the end in mind: clearly state what you plan on achieving with your communications strategy when its objectives are met. To do this, make sure there is a clear difference between program objectives and communications objectives. Evaluation must also be integrated from the beginning of the planning phase.

The following excerpt from the Understanding and applying strategic communications: participant’s manual provides an in-depth explanation of how to set SMART communication objectives:

Program objectives versus communications objectives

Program and business objectives (or the organizational priorities requiring action) are examined during the communications planning phase, but are not the communicator’s job to set. That being said, it’s beneficial for communicators to be included in the design of programs, and to foster partnerships with program colleagues.  The communicator should have a clear understanding of what the program is trying to accomplish in order to plan a strategy or plan that supports it.

For example, if the program states that enrolment should increase by 30 % within 6 months, this is a target that communications will support, but it is not a communications objective. An example of a communications objective could be to increase visits to a program enrolment webpage by 50 % compared to last year, between January and June, through a variety of communications channels and products, such as social media posts and advertising.

What is a public environment analysis?

A public environment analysis (PEA) is a thorough gathering of information and research data from numerous sources. Once analyzed, it provides a clear picture of the nature and scope of an issue or subject at both the macro level (general) and micro level (audience segments) within a specific period of time.

A PEA gives communications strategists answers to one of the first questions in planning, which is how people perceive the issue. This gives them insight into potential reactions and perceptions to consider in the rollout of the communications strategy.

A PEA is an analysis of several sources of information and data sets that outlines reactions to what is being said, and how, where, and when it is being said. It also helps identify an audience’s emotional response to the material. A PEA can include information from the following sources:

When monitoring and analyzing the public environment, it is important to assess what is being said for signs of misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation and disinformation are real and greatly affect the public environment, and, therefore, impact whether your communications plan will successfully meet its objectives.

Understanding your audience

People can feel inundated with information in today’s environment, so it is important to understand your audience. The goal of a public environment analysis is to understand your audience’s needs and motivation so you can shape your message in a way that increases the chances of it being understood.

Market segmentation, or placing audiences into categories based on shared common traits, is a practice that has been used in marketing for years and should be an integral part of communications work. By developing audience segments, communicators can develop profiles or personas that make communications more effective in meeting their objectives, as the messages are tailored to suit each audience segment.

What are strategic considerations?

Strategic considerations are factors that will influence the plan’s rollout (events, issues, anticipated reactions, socio-economic conditions, etc.). They can be negative (weaknesses or threats) or positive (strengths or opportunities). Ignoring them can make it harder to meet objectives or can even derail a plan. A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis is a tool you can use to explore internal and external factors that may influence your plan.

For every strategic consideration listed, you should include a strategy to address it, including how to approach it if there are factors outside your control. The solution could be organizing an activity, a new or revised message, a product, an event, or recommending another strategy, such as advertising. You should also include information on which group within your department is responsible for implementing the strategy to address each consideration.

Strategic considerations are also about understanding the audience’s perceived barriers to doing the thing you need it to do (which is the program objective). Knowing the audience and being honest about what those barriers are helps you to reduce them through messaging and better positioning of the approach for successful outcomes.

In conclusion, being strategic in communications requires thinking ahead, linking back to business objectives, having SMART objectives, planning and evaluating, conducting a public environmental analysis, tailoring messages to your audiences, and accounting for strategic considerations. These best practices are the foundation to meaningful and effective communications.

Integrating behavioural science into your planning

Behavioural Science (BeSci) is a multidisciplinary approach to the study of human behaviour and decision-making, combining the findings and methods from psychology, neuroscience, and other social sciences. World-leading data-driven programs of applied behavioural science research has informed policy development, program interventions and strategic communications through rigorous analysis and research methods. Overall, this work is leading to a better understanding of what works and for whom through advanced behavioural segmentation. From improving Canadians’ financial health, to improving environmental outcomes, to slowing the spread of COVID-19, BeSci [drives] better outcomes for all Canadians. Learn more by visiting the Behavioural Science webpage by the Impact and Innovation Unit.

Additional learning and resources:    


  1. T712 Understanding and applying strategic communications: participant’s manual, version 1.03, Canada School of Public Service, 2004 (Revised December 2014).
  2. I712 Orientation to government communications: participant’s manual, version 1.02, Canada School of Public Service, 2013 (Revised 2013).
  3. Government of Canada. (n.d.). Behavioural Science.
  4. Government of Canada. (n.d.). Impact and Innovation Unit: 2021-22 Annual Report.

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