Communications planning doesn’t have to be overly detailed or time-consuming. In fact, it’s better for everyone if it isn’t. You can fit the bones of a good plan on two pages.
What is a strategic communications plan?
A strategic comms plan is a set of informed recommendations designed to result in a series of desirable and measurable outcomes. Through research and asking questions you gain a more thorough understanding of the current situation (messaging, audiences, outlets, status quo), the challenges that are faced (weaknesses, threats, other hurdles) and create a roadmap to a successful outcome (goals, objectives).
Many plans start with a “situation analysis” — a clear, concise description of where you are starting and where you aim to end up. It should lead to an agreed-upon definition of what a successful plan will look like, what it will address and how that success will be measured.
As you develop a strategic plan, you’ll start at the highest level by determining messaging, audiences, goals (e.g., Be an influential spokesperson), then narrow the focus to objectives (e.g., Book 10-12 speaking engagements in 2018). After determining strategies that will help achieve your goal (e.g., Raise director’s name recognition by leveraging public interest in ADHD) develop tactics that can be carried out. (e.g., Create speaker’s bureau, write guest viewpoint for local newspaper).
Strategic communications plans contain several consistent elements, including:
Who you are, what you do, what value you provide, who you help, and why.
Everyone with whom you must communicate, prioritized by those who are most vital to your organization.
Long-term aspirations or pictures of an ideal future state. They serve as signposts that provide a communications destination.
Specific, intended outcomes that are specific and measurable. They are the results of the actions that are taken and are signifiers of success (e.g., Introduce new module in January 2017 and increase awareness among millennials by 15 percent by the close of FY18).
Informed choices that provide direction, focus and guidance. They present intangible outcomes (e.g., Position center director as authority on autism education).
Specific actions that are tangible. They are actionable items that help to achieve strategies (e.g., Center director will write guest editorial on need for special education reform in Texas).
This is easier for most organizations to get their heads around, but by actively discussing audiences you’ll hear a lot of variations on, “Oh yeah, that’s a good one. I hadn’t thought about them.”
Look at audiences through the lens of who YOU want to communicate with, not who you think wants to hear from you. Leave no stone unturned. Go back to your messaging and ask who would find one of those messages important.
Once you have your list, break it up into groups by importance. Three is probably plenty. Remember, very important groups may not be of strong importance to you in terms of communications. For example, legislators may determine your fate in many ways, but your shop may not reach out to them directly.
Goals are the big ideas — what, in general, you want communications to help you achieve. It’s good to make them SMART if you can, and especially if you let them double as objectives, but we think goals should be broader and aspirational, and objectives should be SMART.
An example of a goal might be, “Dramatically improve our audience feedback from seminars” or “Increase attendance in rural districts.”
Not every organization has goals, or shares them with everyone, or is in the habit of celebrating successes. A comms plan can be whatever you think works best for you.
Objectives should be specific and measurable — all that SMART stuff. They serve as indicators of progress toward your goal, so each goal should at least have a couple objectives.
An example of an objective that gets you toward the goals referenced above might be, “Improve our average ‘I would recommend this seminar to others’ score 50 percent within three years’ time.”
Strategies, obviously, are at the heart of a strategic comms plan. In fact, they’re really the “plan” part of the plan. They answer the question of how.
Sticking with this example, how might you increase the “I would recommend” score? Maybe you need to get better, more dynamic presenters. Maybe your content is a bit stale, or not very interestingly presented. Maybe your materials aren’t very good. You might have to reach out to some specific people to understand what’s behind the numbers you’re trying to improve.
What really frees up the strategy discussion is the very thing so few of us have: permission to fail. When brainstorming strategies, someone is going to have an idea that is risky or outside the boundaries of what you consider normal. But risk has potential upside, too. If the person/people in charge aren’t willing to stand behind something because they’re afraid it might not work, then by definition they’re not willing to risk success either. You don’t get to change without changing. If the worst-case scenario of a “risky” strategy isn’t very bad and doesn’t have lasting repercussions, advocate for it — especially if you know you’re right.
Strategies flow into tactics, which are the actual mechanics involved with executing a strategy. Some are paid and some are “free” (time notwithstanding). Some have a broader, more scattershot approach and some are more laser-like and targeted.
The tactics you use are largely a function of resources and the time you’ve given yourself to execute a strategy. What can help from a communications standpoint is to list all the channels that YOU control (e.g. social media, your website, your YouTube channel, a newsletter, e-mail marketing), those that are controlled by others but don’t have a hard cost (e.g. connected university websites and channels, traditional media placements), and ones that do (e.g. advertising).