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Laura Gardner
Professor Hollingworth
November 10, 2008
Discussing the Communication Audit

Communication audits are a “package of instruments used in the assessment of

employees’ perceptions of the communication processes in their organization” (Dewine

& James 144). The process involves the communication auditor researching the climate

of the organization by means of multiple research methods and various techniques. The

methods used to conduct this research begin vague and become more comprehensive

throughout the process. Methods used by communication auditors include survey,

questionnaire, interview, observation, comparison, and measurement. One way to

imagine the process is to picture a strainer. An auditor gathers information, ideas or

subjects that may be of interest or need more clarification, and pours it into the

questionnaire strainer. This process continues until the auditor has detailed quantitative

and qualitative results that can be analyzed and used in the audit process. It is important

to add that observing and talking to employees is not the only information that an auditor

should use. Other resources include newsletters, annual reports, mission statements, and

the company websites (public and intranet). These sources allow the auditor to determine

what messages are being sent to the internal and external public and can also show the

role of employees in communication. For example, a newsletter with submissions from

several employees from multiple departments points to a high level of employee

involvement. After observations have been completed, the job of the auditor is to

interpret the information that has been gathered. If the auditor has data from a similar

organization he can compare the two, allowing the auditor to make similar

recommendations. The following paragraphs explore the methods of a communication

audit; the use of different techniques, and the steps that are taken after the data has been

collected. This includes the role of an auditor, evaluation of the audit, and follow-up


Role of The Auditor

Before pursuing the methodology of communication audits, it is important to discuss the

role of an auditor, the challenges, and the benefits that can be gained. The role of an

auditor is to provide the organization with an unbiased, research-driven view of their

organization. According Clair Badaracco, “the auditor must first of all be accepted, must

have credibility in order to function. That credibility comes from objectivity, the ability

to be perceived as making a clear statement” (28). Julie Coffman1 says that one role of an

auditor is to identify possible levels of practice. In order to improve strategic

communication the organization and audit team should know the current climate in

regards to communication. According to Coffman there are five levels that an

organization may fit in:

• Ad Hoc- unassigned, uncoordinated, and has no resources

• Planned- deliberated/managed, resources allocated, responsibility assigned

• Institutionalized- regularly performed, “best” practices, coordinated

• Evaluated- performance measured, progress tracked, practice predictable

• Optimized- regular reflection, continued improvement

Furthermore, it is imperative that the auditor understands the audience to whom

organization delivers their messages. This affects how the auditor judges the messages

that are currently being sent, the techniques that should be used to change these

messages, and what objectives the organization will benefit from. (Strenski).

1 Information taken from Strategic Communication Audit, a paper prepared by Julia Coffman
for the Communications Consortium Media Center in October 2004.

The benefits of a communication audit are wide-spreading and usually show in

the long-term. Specific benefits include:

• building support for a change initiative

• demonstrating a commitment to improving communication, receiving

practical recommendations for improving communication

• enabling programs to be scrutinized in order to eliminate wasteful


• saving cost and effort by minimizing or eliminating programs that do not

add value or strength (Basili)

The ambiguity of organizational communications makes it difficult for non-

communication professionals to evaluate their own programs and create the necessary

plans to deliver change.


There are several challenges that must be addressed before any benefits can be

gained. The first hurdle is to have the full cooperation and support of senior management

(Strenski 1). Without this a communication audit will be less inclusive, take longer to

complete and employees are less likely to take it seriously. Many employees may be

afraid of the change that a communication audit could bring. The term “audit” has a

negative connotation to it and employees may need to be reassured of its purpose.

Assessment is a word that could be used as a replacement (Hollingworth).


The survey is the most vague method in the audit. Surveys are meant to introduce

the subject (Hollingworth) and gather a wide variety of information, allowing the auditor
to determine which subjects and issues he should seek more information on. The first

step in conducting surveys is to choose the sample. This can be difficult since the sample

probably will not be completely indicative of the group. Several methods can be used to

improve the validity of the sample. In the case of a communication audit the best method

is random sampling. If the auditor were to use the method of biased sample framing,

there would be a greater risk for misinformation and picking a sample that is not truly

representative (Frey et. al 186). The survey should also incorporate a cross-sectional

design. This design “describes the current characteristics of a sample that represents a

population at one point in time” (Frey et. al 188). A communication audit aims to capture

a snapshot of the current communication situation within an organization, not the past or

the future. When constructing a survey both the types of questions asked and they way

they are worded have to be taken into consideration. The method of using double-

barreled questions, asking several questions at once, should be avoided because of the

vague nature of surveys. The survey questions should be worded in a neutral manner to

avoid unintentionally swaying the opinion of the participant. This helps to maintain the

validity of the survey.


After the surveys have been completed and analyzed the auditor can then create a

questionnaire. There are two strategic ways that questions can be written. Open-ended

questions allow respondents to be more open with their answers. This way of non-

directive questioning may allow the respondent to express themselves and their ideas

freely. Close-ended questions are more directive in their nature and are typically “yes” or

“no” questions or multiple choice. The way to decide between these two types of

questions depends on the situation. Close-ended questions are quick and easy, potentially
cutting down non-responses. Open-ended questions have a couple advantages. They

reduce the likelihood of words being put into the respondent’s mouth and researchers

may learn something that they had not anticipated (Ruane 132). Putting together the

questionnaire should be strategic. One of the most important aspects of a questionnaire is

the flow. Questions can be grouped in several ways including time order and topic. It is

also important that the auditor be aware that the order of questions, as to avoid

influencing how they are answered (Ruane 136). One way of answering close-ended

questions is to use scales. The Likert scale identifies “the extent of a person’s feelings or

attitudes toward another person, event, or phenomenon” (Frey et al. 103). This is a five

point scale raging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Some critics oppose the use

of this scale. According to Sue Dewine and Anita C. James, it “reduces the usefulness of

the information for the client. (Scholars have argued that) the ordinal scale restricts the

opportunity to measure the finer changes in an organization’s communication pattern”

(DeWine & James 147). Another example is the semantic differential scale that uses a

word or phrase as the referent and asks that the respondent indicate their feelings by

checking a space, either to the far left, far right, or anywhere in between.


The next step in the communication audit process is the interview. In this part of

the audit the questions begin to become more focused but are also more likely to be open-

ended. The interviewer is typically interested in finding out specific information by

seeking to have an in-depth interview. An in-depth interview is primarily initiating a

conversation, as to elicit more information from the interviewee (Marshall & Rossman

81). Maintaining neutrality in an interview is impossible, says Denzin and Lincoln. The

conversation aspect of the interview “creates the reality of the interview situation” (48).
One problem with interviewing face-to-face is that certain respondents may feel

uncomfortable and respond with normative responses and answer questions in a socially

desirable way (Ruane 155). To avoid this there are rules that the interviewer must follow

including being honest and open, conducting the interview in a comfortable environment,

and most importantly guaranteeing anonymity (Miyomoto). Active listening is one of the

most important skills that an interviewer can have. By utilizing active listening the

interviewer can strategically probe throughout the interview. For example, the

interviewer may stay silent after the interviewee answers in order to prompt them to say

more or ask directive follow-up questions. Also it is the interviewers responsibility to be

clear with instructions and to moderate. One example of this is to provide the interviewee

with feedback on how completely they are answering the questions (Hirsh et al. 132).

Group interviews are an option to save time and money. During a group interview

the questioner can choose to keep the interview structured or unstructured (Denzin &

Lincoln 71). The interviewer would probably want to employ both strategies. An option

that uses both of these would be to use a guide, unstructured tools that list the general

topics or issue to be covered in an interview (Ruane 149). This would enable the

interviewer to maintain focus within the group, but also allow the group to speak freely

and perhaps divulge more information. According to Ruane, the focus group (group

interview) produces social interaction that is both dynamic and insightful (157).

In interviewing, the auditor is looking for qualitative data instead of statistical

information. Data analysis is the process of “moving from raw interviews to evidence-

based interpretations that are the foundation for published reports” (Rubin & Rubin 203).

Ideas, expressions, and opinions are the types of data that are going to make the interview

useful. There are several methods for analyzing this kind of data, which include sorting
and ranking, sorting and comparing, weighting and combining, as well as checking and

modifying (Rubin & Rubin 229). After organizing the data, the results of the interview

can work towards what is called middle-level theory by “asking how far the principles

and processes (you have) discovered in (your) research might extend” (Rubin & Rubin



Observation typically follows the interviewing process. Observing is extremely

useful to auditors, making it unfortunate that it is one of the most difficult ways to obtain

research. A situation where the organizational climate is complicated may entail more

time and be more difficult to code. Complicated social dynamics within an organization

may challenge the validity of the data gained. Maintaining a high level of validity is

difficult in observation. Another possible problem is the Hawthorne effect. This can

occur if participants are sensitive to being watched and may cause of them to act

differently than they normally would (Frey et al. 127). This is partially caused by the

need for privacy as noted in my previous paper on research techniques.2 To avoid these

problems the observer can concentrate on text, also known as indirect observation.

Researchers examine newsletters, company training videos, speeches, or meeting minutes

(Frey et al. 114). This eliminates the chance of affecting the actions of those observed

with the researchers presence. Videotaping and audiotaping are also ways to reduce the

Hawthorne effect, if the participants can forget they are being taped.

Before beginning observation, the auditor will need to decide on the focus of their

observation. What types of interactions are they looking for? This is the best way to

develop a coding scheme. A coding scheme is a classification system that is used to

2 Exploring Research Techniques: Surveys, Questionnaires, Interviews, Observation and

Comparison, October 6, 2008.
decipher observations. An example of this would be if the auditor wanted to observe a

meeting. The auditor could be looking for codes like verbal cues and nonverbal indicators

(smiling, frowning, etc.). This would allow the observer to count the number of cues and

produce quantitative data (Frey et al. 116).


Comparing organizations is a useful way to determine which methods are the

most valuable for specific situations. Financial institutions are probably not going to have

same problems that hospitals or universities have. By comparing like organizations the

auditor is able to find like solutions. One example of this is the audits of two school

districts, the Chesterfield County Public School District3 and the Lewis-Palmer School

District4. Though the formats of the audits are very different, it is easy to see that both

school districts have similar problems. Briefly, here is a list of weaknesses that the audit

exposes for both districts:

• trouble keeping up with rapid growth of the community

• lack of strategic communication

• general negative view of the school board from parents

• poor reviews of the district websites

• poor media relationships

The auditors for both school districts use similar methods. These include focus

groups, interviews, analyzing supplements, and commenting on meeting protocol. Both

audits concentrate on parents and as well as others in the community. Another similarity

is the recommendations that are given. Key recommendations include rebuilding trust,

listening to feedback from external sources, provide more training for employees in

3 http://www.chesterfield.k12.va.us/CCPS/news/files/Communication%20Audit.pdf
4 http://lewispalmer.org/media/EDocs/LPSD_Communications_Audit_Report_052307.pdf
regard to communication, multiple improvements to text sources, and to clarify and

define roles.

While the two audits have similarities, they also have differences that each could

learn from. The Lewis-Palmer School District is provided with a strong list of public

perceptions. The auditors also provide an extensive explanation of data that the focus

group participants provided and how those views can affect the school district. The audit

also includes a section labeled “Now What”. This section provides the school district

with detailed and realistic implementation methods for their recommendations. The plan

is listed in phases and includes an ideal timeline. The Chesterfield Public School District

audit also contains strong aspects. The auditors in this situation explain in detail how the

communication goals of the district are directly linked with the overall goals and

objectives. This explanation is vital in explaining to those who are not communication

professionals why certain recommendations are made. The audit also provides a detailed

explanation of how the district can re-brand itself. They suggest designing a name logo,

adopting a new slogan, and developing a stylebook for all publications to maintain

consistency. The two audits provide in-depth insights to both school districts and provide

useful recommendations. By comparing the two side-by-side it is clear that each have

their strengths that the other could learn from.

Qualitative Measurement

Qualitative research is an integral part of the communication audit. Denzin and

Lincoln define qualitative research as “a situated activity that locates the observer in the

world” (4). This definition is generic and lacks the visual that it takes to grasp the idea of

qualitative research. The best way to describe this type of research is to consider what it

measures. It measures thoughts, opinions, and perceptions. There are three challenges
that this types of research faces: (1) developing a conceptual framework for the study that

is thorough, concise, and elegant; (2) to plan a design that is systematic and manageable

yet flexible; and (3) to integrate these into a coherent document that convinces the

proposal reader—a funding agency or dissertation committee—that they study should be

done, can be done, and will be done. (Marshall and Rossman 6). Creating guidelines is

extremely difficult in this type of research since the nature of it is based on

communication, and communication is constantly evolving. The most common

perception of research it has to always be uniform in how it is conducted. Qualitative

research, on the other hand, attempts to combine thoroughness and logic with fluidness

and flexibility. To understand how the different types of research are related, consider

that quantitative research provides the numerical evidence to support the statements made

by qualitative data (Holland & Gill). For example, a researcher organizes a focus group

of fifty employees and gathers from their statements that they are generally unhappy. To

provide numerical support for this statement the researcher gives the same employees a

survey using the Likert scale. The average outcome of the survey will probably be low,

thus providing hard data that describes the opinions of the survey.

Quantitative Measurement

The other type of measurement is known as quantitative research. This type of

measurement focuses on numerical value. One example of formatting this data is through

a frequency table. For example, an auditor may have observed a conversation and

counted how many times each participant interrupted someone. Using status (supervisor,

subordinate, etc.) the auditor could formulate a percentage of who interrupts more and

how often they do it compared to the other group. Using this quantitative data the auditor

may theorize that supervisors consistently interrupt twice as much as their subordinates.
Quantitative measurements cannot be taken during certain phases of the audit because

variables can be changed. An example of this is interviewing. Poorly worded questions,

inadequacy in judging responses, and not knowing the proper time to probe further can

lead to ambiguity. For instance, depending on the skills of the interviewer, the answers

may be different (Hirsh et al. 129). It is important to note that errors should be expected

in this type of research. Every measurement will contain two components, true score and

error score. The true score component is measured over time, while the error score is the

score from the one-time interview or survey. The average of multiple error scores would

be more accurate (Frey et al. 120).


After all the research has been completed and the data has been analyzed then

recommendations can be made. To ensure that these recommendations can be properly

executed its important to provide the organization with implementation methods. Before

making suggestions to the client several questions have to be taken into consideration.

Sue DeWine and Anita C. James address these issues by working through a process

called POMRIE. This acronym stands for problem, objective, method, reality,

implementation, and evaluation. The first four steps are meant to evaluate the audit

before it reaches the organization.

First, the problem needs to be pinpointed and put into a statement that the client

can understand. For example, similar problems can be grouped together, preventing the

client from being overwhelmed with too much information. The audit group should also

“use data to demonstrate how the problems are occurring in the present, and not

concentrate on their future impact” (Coffman).

The objective should also be phrased specifically for the client. This statement

provides the organization with goals they should aim to meet. For example, the audit for

the Lewis-Palmer School District lead to many recommended objectives. They include:

simplify the homepage, make the website friendlier and warmer, make navigation bar

headings clear and succinct, and connect with non-parents. These basic objectives

directly relate to the problems within the organization.

The implementation method is the action the organization can take to achieve

their objectives. Giving the client multiple methods is the best choice. One objective that

a communication audit team recommends to the Chesterfield Public School District is to

consider publishing their newsletter every other week. The audit explains that in the focus

groups that they conducted they learned that participants wanted fresh news and enjoyed

seeing their colleges highlighted. Another suggestion was to put the newsletter online. By

making this change more information could be linked, thus providing more material

without crowding the newsletter.

Reality also has to be considered. The communication audit team should be in

touch with the special needs and abilities of the organization. Providing the organization

with unrealistic goals and methods of implementation will prevent any recommendations

from being used. Using the example of Chesterfield Public Schools again, auditors

recommended that school administrators visit the schools more often. This is a

recommendation that is realistic and does not take any drastic steps to accomplish.

Finally, lack of follow-up is a major criticism but it is vital to the continued

success of the audit. Providing the organization with tools to assess itself is necessary for

continued progress. The best way to evaluate the effect of the communication plan is to

repeat the audit after changes have been implemented. One example is to examine
employee satisfaction scores. One method of doing this is to have the same sample size of

employees complete an identical satisfaction survey. The communication audit had the

desired effect if the correlation is positive (Hargie et al. 423). The time frame to repeat

the audit depends on the opinion of the auditor. Julie Coffman believes that they should

be done within five years. James B. Strenski on the other hand recommends an evaluation

after eighteen months. While a follow-up audit is the most useful evaluation technique, it

is important to leave the organization with its own evaluation tools.

Increasing the Effectiveness of Communication Audits

The effectiveness of a communication audit is heavily reliant on the skill of the

auditor but organizations are also responsible for their own success. In addition to

cooperating with the process, there are several steps that an organization can take to

maximize the effectiveness of an audit. According to Holland and Gill, who both

specialize in communication strategies, the most common reasons that organizations

reject the idea of seek consultation on strategic communications is lack of time, money,

and know how (20). Communication audits should be considered a way to save money in

the long run. James B. Strenski estimates the cost of an audit to be around $10,000 to

$13,000. One way that an organization can test its own communication climate is to add

questions on to employee attitude surveys. By adding on the right questions an

organization can peak into the “knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors as they relate to

business goals” (Holland & Gill 21). Another way of over coming cost is to plan ahead. If

someone within the organization already has a head start and can measure small aspects,

then costs can be cut back considerably due to the cut in time. Since communication

audits are considered consultants when they enter an organization it is important to have a

good idea what kind of expertise to look for. To save money on consultants it is
important to follow four pieces of advice: provide the consultant with as much

information on the company as possible, have a basic understanding of the techniques

that the consultants will use, have clear expectations of the consultant, and do not hide

anything. The best way to ruin an audit is to give false information. (Holland & Gill 22).

Following this advice is a smarter way to approach a communication audit, by saving

money and time in combination with the right research, communication audits are easier

to afford and more useful.



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