Forming strategic alliances with complementary organisations is an excellent way to enhance and/or protect an organisation’s reputation and, I suspect, increase company profits. It is always high on my agenda when formulating communication strategies for an organisation.
The three main benefits of forming strategic alliances are:
- extending the reach of the core organisation’s communication ‘footprint’
- providing strong ROI for resources expended
- the generation of 3rd party credibility through being associated with the strategic alliance ‘partners’.
The context of strategic alliances in this discussion is ‘communication’ or relationship management.
It is not the forming of organisational structural alliances, though in my experience where there is actual work being done together by the alliance organisations (other than communication alone) then the forming of the communication alliances is made easier. It presents a more obvious business case, you could say, and makes potential alliances more receptive to your ‘sales pitch’.
Strategic alliances in the full business context are common these days. They help organisations achieve results in a cut-throat business environment where competitive advantages are highly prized and come in many forms. Applying the strategic alliance approach to communication, then, is really just giving this an added dimension, one which enriches an organisation’s relationship management programs and embeds the organisation deeper within stakeholders’ consciousness.
A powerful aspect of strategic alliances is that it extends or stretches the boundaries of the initiating communicating organisation’s ‘norms’. Two examples of this are alliances I initiated for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO):
ANSTO is a nuclear science and medicine-generating facility. To some, nuclear is scary and/or bad. With both of these initiatives, the boundaries of what ANSTO is actively involved in (and stands for) were stretched because they added value to school students’ and the general community’s knowledge and awareness of, and support for, science in all its guises, not just nuclear science and technology.
The credibility of both the initiatives and, by extension, ANSTO, was enhanced by the involvement of high profile and very credible organisations. These included:
- Australian Institute of Marine Science
- Universities such as Melbourne, Sydney, Monash and many more
- Museums such as Melbourne Museum and The Powerhouse.
In essence, the strategic alliances with non-nuclear (but science and education-relevant) organisations enhanced ANSTO’s credibility. Market research proved this.
The ANSTO communication and stakeholder engagement activities, as well as information on ANSTO’s activities themselves, received coverage in alliance communication mechanisms, such as newsletters, magazines and websites. This extended the reach of ANSTO’s communication footprint.
In the case of Velocity, media alliances were also generated, so coverage of the e-newsletter and its content was included in magazines such as COSMOS Online and Australasian Science.
A further fundamental characteristic of strategic alliances, as exemplified in these cases, is that the communication to stakeholders through alliances varied in only the very slightest of ways from what ANSTO disseminated. This is unlike going through the filters of traditional media, so information on ANSTO remained exceptionally close to how it was intended to be received.
As the alliance is a cooperative arrangement (ANSTO promoted the alliances’ work as well as the alliances promoting ANSTO’s work) it is highly unlikely that the information/messaging will ever be ‘editorialised’ by an alliance through its communication mechanisms.
The ROI dimensions of strategic alliances will be self-evident by now. You cannot buy:
- the credibility of being associated with some of Australia’s leading brands
- the additional communication reach provided by alliance communication mechanisms – to a target audience very relevant to ANSTO (students, science teachers, media, relevant government departments, those interested in science – even those not that interested in science, actually, simply because of the strength of the alliance brands…).
These two ROI points are the communication outcomes. The ‘inputs’ are time and cash. In the case of the two examples discussed here, the alliance-generating component was mainly a staff time investment. Of course, this equates to dollars, but it is not so hard to bear as a pure cash investment.
Additionally, whilst the alliance dimension of the stakeholder engagement tactics made them more attractive, they both made absolute sense and were consistent with the organisation’s overall strategic communication approach
The alliance-generating time, once strategised, can fit into niches of team time. It does not have to be an onerous commitment. It just needs to be, of course, thorough and professional and value-adding for all parties.
Which leads to the key point that there must be something in it for the alliances (e.g. a promotional/reputation-enhancing leverage to make them look good). It needs to be a win-win scenario, which is what high achieving public relations is all about, anyway, when you get down to essentials.
In regards to cash, however, often the most elegantly conceived communication strategic alliances do not need to cost much, anyway. The pure fact that two or more powerful brands are doing something together can be enough to turn people’s heads and get them to tune in. As with any public relations program, if the stories being told are powerful enough – and here I am talking content rather than the strategic alliance connectivity story – then they will be engaged.
If not, no matter how hip the alliance, the program will be scorned or, maybe even worse, ignored…
A further benefit of forming strategic alliances with credible organisations is that the approach epitomises an issues management methodology. It acts as a form of ‘reputation insurance’ for organisations for instances when its reputation comes under threat. Stakeholders that are aware of the relationships and web of connectivity that exists between the initiating organisation and its alliances are much more likely to be hesitant to modify (i.e. downgrade) their perceptions/knowledge of the organisation than if alliances did not exist with other organisations.
One strategic alliance I have been observing for a while that seems, on the surface, to make a lot of sense for its three main protagonists is the (NSW) Premier’s Reading Challenge. This program has been running for a long time and though some partners do vary, the main ones seem to be:
- the NSW Premier’s office (kudos there due to encouraging kids to read)
- Dymocks book store (um, guess where you can buy all those great books?)
- The Sun-Herald newspaper (kudos for promoting reading to kids. And reading and newspapers is a good match, no?).
There are other partners as well, especially charities (which enhances the credibility of all three of the alliance’s big players noted above), so it looks like a win-win strategic alliance to me and hats off to all involved.