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Communications Strategy for Museums

26 July 13 -- jsuess
Jessica Suess, Partnership Officer, Oxford University Museums

On Friday 12 July, 10 delegates gathered at the Ashmolean Museum to participate in our latest workshop: Communications Strategy for Museums.  The workshop was delivered by Carolyne Culver, Head of Strategic Communications at the University of Oxford, on behalf of Oxford ASPIRE.  We were also treated to a case study by Liz Hide, the University of Cambridge Museums Officer.

Writing a Communications Strategy

Carolyne kicked off the day with a discussion of what a communications strategy is, and why it is important. Key to a good communications strategy is how it links to and supports an organisation’s overall strategic plan.  So, what is a communications strategy?

  • A written document – not just in people’s heads
  • Collaboration between the project leader(s) and the communications professional(s)
  • Contains clear and measurable objectives
  • Identifies relevant audiences
  • A plan of activities and a timetable
  • Identifies resources – financial and people
  • A reference document against which to judge progress.

Carolyne also addressed the often posed question: why is a strategy important? Why don’t we just get on with it?  A strategy allows the team to agree what they want to achieve, plan ahead to exploit all the available channels, identify the necessary resources and allocate responsibilities, and gives a clear plan against which to measure success.

A comprehensive communications strategy should include:

  • Research
  • Mission (purpose)
  • Vision (ambition)
  • Aims
  • Objectives
  • Audiences
  • Messages
  • Channels
  • Timing
  • Resources
  • Risks
  • Evaluation

Background research is essential to planning an effective communications strategy.  It allows you to learn lessons from previous projects, and from their experiences of your peers and competitors.  It allows you to assess your past successes and failures, identify what works, what doesn’t, and where investment should be prioritised.

Objectives should be SMART: Specific, Measurable; Achievable; Relevant; Time bound.  Stakeholders and Audiences should be identified and prioritised based on their power/influence and interest in your organisation.  Messages for your individual audiences should be clear, and you should be very clear on what you want them to think, what you want them to know, and what you want them to do, and the best channels for communicating those messages.

Finally, a strategy allows you to evaluate your success! This is often neglected, but it is the only way to demonstrate the value of communications, and inform future activities.

Carolyne suggested that organisations may want to publish their communications strategies online as an advocacy tool and source of information for stakeholders and supporters.  Published communications strategies can also be an excellent first port of call for desk research when constructing your own strategy. Check out the Tate’s online strategy publications.

Case Study: The role of communications in developing the University of Cambridge Museums Consortium

Following the morning’s general discussion Liz Hide, Museums Officer at the University of Cambridge, provided a case study on what steps are being taken to establish communications for the new University of Cambridge Museums Consortium, laying down the foundations for developing a more comprehensive strategy.  The consortium comprises the eight museums within the University of Cambridge, which although all being linked by the university, in the past have acted very separately.  As a result of joint Arts Council funding currently being received from 2012-2015, the museum are working more closely together through the ‘Connecting Collections’ project, which aims to provide an outstanding, joined up cultural offer to wider and more diverse audiences.

Liz identified 8 things that the museums are currently doing to establish more joined up communications.
Setting up formal communications structures between the museums to facilitate staff networking and knowledge exchange.

  • Production of and reference to key marker documents, including the consortium’s funding bid, the Connecting Collections activity plan and Museum strategic plans
  • Development of a collective web presence, visit their website
  • Creation of a social media identity to facilitate engaging online audiences where they are active
  • A logo to clearly identify the collective museums
  • Developing joint print media, experimenting with styles and strategic distribution
  • Audience research: who are their existing audiences and potential audiences, and what do they value from the museums
  • Consulting with a professional branding consultant to develop a joined up brand for the museums that still maintains their individual identities.

Cambridge are currently evaluating this research, development and experimentation, and they will use what has worked, their increased knowledge of their audiences and new branding to develop their next communications strategy.

Download Liz's slides.

Putting it into Practice

In the afternoon delegates worked together to come up with small scale strategies to deal with individual communications issues.

The first exercise looked at objectives and outcomes and asked delegates to identify SMART objectives, audiences, key messages and channels for individual scenarios.

The second exercise looked at persuasion and how you might persuade a stakeholder to participate in or support a certain activity.

The third exercise had delegates developing elevator pitches and how to sell your message in 60 seconds.

What Next

Feedback on the day was overwhelmingly positive, delegates in particular appreciating time out of their busy schedules to dedicate to the topic.  Delegates were asked what, as a result of the workshop, they will do differently in their organisation:

 
Set up a Communications Strategy, first for a small project, then for a larger fundraising project.
Encourage colleagues to be involved in a Communications Plan.
Write an overarching Communications Strategy and use mini strategies to manage smaller projects.
Identify potential struggles before they reach us!!

See what other ASPIRE workshops and events are coming on our Events Calendar.

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