The Communication Plan

A communication plan is a road map of the communication that will take place over a period of time for an organization.  The communication plan can be organized for the long-term or short-term.  Many organizations have an overarching communication plan that encompasses a three-five year period, and some shorter term plans that address particular campaigns or issues. 
A communication plan helps an organization establish a day-to-day focus for its communication, set priorities, be proactive and build support from boards and other staff.  Any plan, particularly a communication plan, helps get everyone on the same page and working together to move an organization forward.  More specifically, Diane Rose of DKR Communications, points out, a communication plan will:
1.     Establish the need for people, money and time;
2.     Support strategic messaging for the organization;
3.     Mitigate reputation and risk;
4.     Provide direction for content development efforts; and
5.     Set the basis for measurement for a program or organization.
As well as,
6.     Create or strengthen an organizations reputation or brand; and
7.     Identify success measures that demonstrate the importance of communication to your organization.
The basic elements of a communication plan are:
1.     Executive Summary: This summary provides an easy to understand introduction to the plan, aimed at board members or others that might not be familiar with communication planning.  It identifies a brief background – what brought us to this point? – any key challenges, and a simple explanation of the overall strategy going forward.  This area is usually written last.
2.     Background: This section provides an overview of what the current environment is for the organization.  It does not have to start with complete history of the organization, only the factors that will impact its current communications.  Areas of interest include a brief organizational history, a description of the organization’s key function or impact, along with key programs and services, an overview of key constituents or beneficiaries and how they are being served, as well as any issues, assets or challenges that are important to the decision-making made in the communication plan at this time.
3.     Goals and Objectives: It is important to set success benchmarks for your organization’s communication.  This involves setting goals, which are the higher-level concepts or aims about what needs to be accomplished, and identifying objectives, which are the Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time sensitive (SMART) areas of work that will be taken to meet each goal identified.
4.     Situational Analysis:  Strategic communication must be based on fact, not fiction.  Include a description of the key internal and external issues and challenges impacting your organization. 
a.      Internally: The internal analysis will focus on the resources, system and skills available to your organization at the moment.  This information might come from a communication audit done at some point for your organization.  Internally, you can analyze the use of the organization’s communication vehicles (such as newsletters, social media, web site, etc.), its human resource capacity and skills in communications, its systems and procedures for handling communications, its outreach systems, as well as its communication infrastructure (such as its database and visual identity).
b.     Externally: These are the external threats and opportunities that impact your organization.  This will include looking at the organizations public landscape (public opinion), media environment (earned media rather than paid), policy environment, as well as allies and opponents. This usually requires some form of primary or secondary research.
Primary Research: This research is designed and conducted by the organization.  It includes the data collected from surveys, questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, etc.
Secondary Research: This includes any research adapted from existing studies that closely related to the organization’s situation.
Once some of the key research has been identified, this section usually includes a discussion of the findings and recommendations for moving forward.
One of the most effective ways of gathering this information for both internal and external communication is by conducting a SWOT analysis.  A SWOT analysis measures:
S – Strengths – a resource, skill or distinctive competence that gives the organization/communication function a competitive advantage.
W – Weaknesses – a limitation or deficiency in resource, skills or capacities that seriously impedes effective performance of your organization or its communication functions.
O – Opportunities – an idea, area of work, or change, that is external to your organization, not currently addressed, that could be a benefit your organization, and/or communications if pursued.
T – Threats – an external problem, barriers or challenge that is impacting your organization, and/or its current communication.
5.     Strategic Summary: This summary is the most creative part of the communication plan as it includes the broad, creative ways you are going to achieve an objective and help resolve the key communication challenges.    It not only includes strategies for objectives, it includes the tactics, or specific activities, that help you executive the strategy.  Some strategies address more than one objective.
This process may include creative brainstorming or just reviewing research.  The previous sections of the communication plan help lay out the situation to make it clearer for decision-making. Examples used by non-profits organizations include: celebrity endorsements, employee incentive programs, marketing campaigns, and/or research releases, etc.
The two basic criteria for selecting the most effective tactics are cost and impact.  Some organizations map out their options in a four corner grid divided by: low cost, high cost, low impact, and high impact.  Low cost and high impact is usually the aim.
Evaluations of past communication plans is also an important way to help in decision-making on tactics that will work effectively for your organization.
6.     Target Audiences: Identifying your audiences is a critical step in communication planning.  Consider who – exactly – has the power to deliver the change you seek.  Be as specific as possible in defining your target audiences.  There is no such thing as “general” public in communication initiatives.
A good practice is to complete an audience profile to determine where your organization and its issues rate among the general population.  You could do a public opinion survey and ask a sample of the population, or you could complete an informal audience profile where you take an educated guess at who your target groups might be and develop a better understanding as to their motivations.  From this information determine which target groups/decision-makers are opposed, apathetic, supportive or persuadable.  Those that are persuadable and/or supportive are key.   This will give you a guide on developing key messages.
7.     Messaging: Developing strong messages that resonate with your intended target audiences is an art form.  Effective messages convey information through a variety of mediums and are simple, clear, brief, compelling and believable.
8.     Implementation Schedule:  An implementation schedule plots out a timeline for completing all the work.  According to IMPACS the general maxim, is that it takes two years of consistent message for a new issue or idea to really penetrate the minds of public audiences.  In this day and age of information overload, it may take longer.  A timetable for a communication plan needs to be realistic – you need sufficient time, but it cannot last forever. 
Once a time frame is established, then comes the practical work of aligning all the tactics into the time frame and assigning responsibility.  Include all the potentially relevant regional, provincial and national dates that need to be considered.  This type of planning helps identify your potential competition at this time, and determine realistic media relations programs.
9.     Budget: A budget outlines the cost of the tactics required. Budgets are usually established as estimates first, and then used to help keep costs in line. Once actuals are identified, the reconciliation of a budget can provide important information in your evaluation – showcasing the cost-effectiveness of key communication tools used.  Some budgets include staff time, which helps when linked to grant applications and/or other contract services.
10. Evaluation and Monitoring: It is important to determine if the strategic communication efforts put in place have accomplished the plans’ objectives.  Not only will you determine whether you are closer to, or have achieved, your goals, you will have a better understanding of the effectiveness of your communication tools.  There are three main steps to evaluation:
·                 Identification of evaluation process: this step identifies how you will measure the effectiveness of your communication going forward – what you will monitor and what data you will collect.  You may plan to do a survey of participants, count memberships, attendance or sales, or measure behaviours or media stories.
·                 Monitoring: Do not wait until the end to start evaluation.  Monitor the progress in your key evaluation areas and be able to make corrections to stay on target.
·                 Final Evaluation:  When all the tactics have been completed, this is the time to evaluate the effectiveness of your plan against meeting its objectives.  How close were you in meeting your targets?  If there was limited movement, identify what circumstances caused this variance, and identify key information learned from the experience.  If there was strong movement on objectives, even attainment of a goal, this is the time to celebrate!  These successes make great content for your next newsletter.
Developing a communication plan and working with it through to completion takes time and commitment.  However, it is well worth the effort.  Shot-gun communication is hit and miss, wastes time and money, and often leaves your stakeholders confused and wary of your motives even if your programs and services are a success.
Article by Diane Ell, Communications Manager, SaskCulture

Other links:

What is Strategic Communications? Idea: Fresh ideas to advance scientific and cultural literacy. March 16, 2011.
Plan the Work: Strategic Communication Planning for Not-for-Profit Organizations, by the institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society, Centre for Communication Organization, IMPACS, Winter 2005.
How to plan communication strategically, by Communication, Education, Promotion and Awareness, Convention on Biological Diversity, 2008.