The word ‘audit’ needn’t be scary

Much like an annual check-up at your GP, communications audits can be daunting, especially if communicating well is low on your organisation’s priority list. And that’s just the point of an audit – to highlight good practices that can be amplified, and figure out ways to address shortcomings.

And like that health check we might long-finger or decide we don’t need, using an audit to take stock of how we communicate right now and consider key factors that shape our current approach can really help us move forward.

What does a communications audit entail?

At a basic level, it’s a critical review of selected communication artefacts that represent a company’s approach to getting its messages out to, and forming relationships with, the people it needs to reach. It can be limited to a specific media or a class of communication materials but is just as likely to include examples of how an organisation engages its stakeholders.

An audit is similar to a literature review in that it starts off from a central premise, examines the evidence and arrives at a conclusion, but it doesn’t necessarily need an explicit thesis statement to prove. Often the premise is simply that an organisation’s standard of communication could be improved – but how, and what changes will have the most impact?

A recent example of a communications audit that informed an issue-specific campaign is the workplace wellbeing toolkit we developed for Emergency Management Victoria in the lead up to the 10-year anniversary of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires. We started by doing an audit to understand how and what emergency service organisations were communicating about mental health to staff. The audit comprised a literature review and a workshop with stakeholders, and this process ensured that the campaign was culturally appropriate as well as evidence-based.

Use it a benchmark and a tool for evaluation

For many organisations, communication happens in the thick of it. Unless someone takes time to hover above the fray, join the dots and report back on the bigger picture, things will likely stay the same. A communications audit can be done internally or by an external agency. An advantage of assigning the job to an experienced outsider is that they can spot patterns, find strengths and weaknesses and pinpoint areas for improvement based on their knowledge of best practice in that sector. And unlike the busy in-house communication professional they can recommend change without fear of offending colleagues, the CEO or the Board.

So what is best practice communication? That depends on factors like the size, sector, culture and available resources in an organisation, to name a few. For example, a government agency could use the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office’s Better practice guide to public participation in government decision-making as a benchmark to assess how it uses communication to engage communities in decision-making. A medium-sized private enterprise could reference IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum as one of many frameworks to examine the logic (or lack thereof) behind its stakeholder engagement program.

A communications audit report should map an organisation’s current communication landscape based on how it uses communication to help achieve business objectives. This can be based on desk research alone but is more effective when paired with recent stakeholder feedback. We should now be ready to define a new destination – how we want our landscape to look – and to make a plan to get us there.

by Alan Fitzpatrick