Begin with the End in Mind: Writing a Powerful Communications Plan
The last time you took a road trip, you probably used an online map or punched your destination into your GPS. That’s not unlike the communications planning process.
A strong communications plan is like a great GPS route. You know where you want to go, and you map out how to get there. However, in the hectic pace of our businesses, it’s easy to get into a habit of “getting in the car and driving” – clicking through task lists and not pausing to make sure you’re going in the right direction. With 2011 upon us, it’s a good time to revisit your organization’s communications plan. If you already have one, look to see if you are meeting your objectives or if you need to recalibrate slightly in the new year. If you don’t, now is an ideal time to develop one.
Begin with the end in mind, and map out what success looks like to you. Think about your company’s business objectives and what you’re trying to accomplish as an organization. Do you want to sell more products? Influence new legislation? Increase market share? Let your business objectives drive your communications plan, and align your metrics to those goals. Not only will that make your communications activity spot-on, but also you will ensure a greater chance of buy-in from your management team.
Now it’s time to delve into the core elements – the milestones of your trip, if you will. Whether it’s a one-page event strategy or a 20-page annual plan, the basic elements of a communications plan* are scalable and can guide you every time.
Step 1 – Define the Problem
This step sets the stage by addressing where your organization is now. It starts with a situation analysis, which should be determined through research, whether first-hand observation, secondary research, a formal method such as a survey or an informal method like a media audit. The research ultimately should point to a problem statement – a single, concise, objective sentence that describes the situation in specific and measurable terms. An example might be something like this:
Problem Statement: Despite a comprehensive mass transit system in Anytown, only 10 percent of the residents are using the system.
Step 2 – Plan and Program
Once you have assessed the situation and identified the root problem, it’s time to devise a clear and purposeful course of action. Key elements include identifying goals, audiences and objectives.
Goals should be brief as well as few in number, summarizing the desired high-level outcome for the project. Think of the end result versus the process. A goal for the above problem statement might be something like this: to increase public use of mass transit.
Audiences should be subgroups to target in your program, and the more specific the better (there’s no such thing as the “general public”). It’s also helpful to identify your audiences before your objectives, as each audience’s objectives may differ.
Objectives tend to be one of the hardest parts of a plan to write and are often confused with strategies, which come later. Objectives should be specific and measurable, containing action verbs (e.g., increase, decrease, prevent, enact). A textbook objective includes four integral parts: 1) behavioral outcome, 2) audience, 3) level of change and 4) timeframe. Keep in mind, the shorter the plan duration, the fewer number of objectives needed.
Objective: To increase by 10 percent (level) the use of public transportation in Anytown (behavioral outcome) by residents (audience) within a year (timeframe) of the program’s introduction.
Step 3 – Take Action/Communicate
This step delves into how you’re going to do what you need to do. It’s essentially your instruction manual for reaching your audiences and achieving your objectives. This is done through the use of strategies and tactics.
These describe the philosophy, themes, psychology and other methods used to convey your messages. You may have several strategies for an objective.
Strategy: Demonstrate that riding public transit to work is an attractive alternative to driving.
This is usually the portion of a plan we are most familiar with – and often where we first dive into a project. Tactics detail the physical resources you will use to carry out the strategy, detailing the communications vehicles and channels used to reach your audiences. You usually will have several tactics per strategy. This is also the place to list your plan’s timeline, staffing scenario and budget.
Tactic: Develop a social media campaign encouraging prominent community leaders who take the bus to communicate about their positive experience.
Step 4 – Evaluate
This final phase is another portion of your plan that can receive short shrift. Yet, this step is what tells your management team how you will measure whether your communications plan succeeded. Evaluation elements should be considered throughout the program’s duration to ensure periodic assessments, in addition to a final analysis. With evaluation, it’s important to measure impact versus implementation. In the communications industry, we can fall victim to counting only media impressions instead of truly demonstrating the impact of a program like a survey measuring a change in perception or behavior.
In the end, planning is all about mapping your itinerary before going on a road trip. You may not always need a lengthy guidebook, but it’s essential to get in the habit of following an outline with clear goals, objectives and strategies. You’ll arrive at your destination faster and more efficiently if you know where you’re going ahead of time. Everyone going with you (especially your management team) can sit back and enjoy the ride rather than nagging you with, “Are we there yet?”
Let Stratacomm be your cartographers as you chart a course to success on projects or campaigns in the coming year. Our seasoned professionals can help you navigate any unfamiliar territory with ease and bring your targets into focus. There’s never been a better time to plan for the future. Give us a call or click here to get started.