Writing a Communications Plan — Foundation Series — Part Three

How we all feel writing plans

The Fundamental Series has largely been geared for marketers to date. As a mixed team of marketers and public relations professionals, we felt it time to show some love to the sibling department to Marketing: Corporate Communications.

A core part of a Communications / Public Relations role is planning and plan roll out. As you grow in your role, you’ll inevitably find your personal style of communication planning and before you know it, you’ll be able to whip up a great plan in little time. Until then, we’re here to help you get started. If you’re in your first communications position or you’ve been tasked with crafting a plan on a tight timeline and you need a quick template/refresher, this is for you.

Before you start

The best advice I’ve ever gotten when it comes to Communication Planning is “write a plan you’d be willing to read. Otherwise it’ll be a dust collector on your shelf.” Granted this was a time when plans were in binders on shelves, but the meaning transcends modern cloud storage.

A communications plan is valuable so long as it’s an actual plan. Make it about what the situation is, what is going to happen and who is involved.

If your friends asked “what are your plans for Friday?” you wouldn’t launch into a lecture on historical Friday night plans, how those trends are impacting your decision making process today, and what variables in the city are at the moment that are affecting you. You’d say what your plan is and the rationale/pitch for it: “We’re going to Sarah’s for a Marvel Movies marathon and I need to swing by the grocery store for snacks on the way. Tyler’s place has the bigger TV, but his couch is garbage and we want to be comfy. I’ll pick you up at 7:30?”. That’s the plan, the rationale, and the tactics in three sentences. Simple stuff.

Take this approach with your communication planning and you’ll be on a good path for a plan that is actually, a plan.

Good planning, in a nutshell

So how do you write a “good” communications plan? You have a clear, succinct overview, a detailed list of who you need to be communicating with and what you need to be communicating to them, and then a running list of action items that, together, will help you deliver on your goal.

Keep in mind: communications plans are shared plans. They aren’t meant for one person to run with from start to finish. Seek input from your colleagues on messages, audiences, and tactics. Seek support from them on roll out as well.

The litmus test for your plan: Anyone on the communications team should be able to pick it up and quickly get up to speed on the issue and action their assigned tactics.

The Framework of a Communications Plan:

Overview

This should bring all readers up to speed with what the heck is going on. You have 2-3 paragraphs, max, to get through this and set the stage for what’s happening, why that is important to your organization, and what you are going to do about it.

Optional, SWOT: If you’ve got a major plan on your hands you may want to add a SWOT chart in here. This is an evaluation of your organization’s, or the product in question’s, Strengths and Weaknesses, and your communication Opportunities and potential Threats.

At its core, this is an exercise in critical thinking — what are you up against, what could be positioned against you in the press or your audience's mind, and what are the elements that you have on your side that you can capitalise on? You might not need a fully fleshed out SWOT chart in your final plan, but take some time to think it through for yourself. It will help you position your messages later on.

Goals

Keep these short and to the point—bullet point if you like. You don’t need 10 goals; 1-3 works and allows you to focus. Make sure they are measurable. As a communications professional you (like your marketing counterparts) need to be able to demonstrate efficacy and impact. Set yourself up for success and make your goals measurable from the start. Ask yourself: how are you going to verify the plan’s success at the end of the day? What are the benchmarks now that you will compare against?

Strategies

These are related to your goal(s). Not related to a goal? Not a strategy for this plan. Now, you can have different strategies for different audiences. That’s ok, just make sure to organize it clearly in the plan. A proper strategy states what you hope to accomplish, and the direction you will take to accomplish it. Think of it like planning a road trip. Your strategy is to get to California from New York in two weeks, without spending more than $3,000 along the way, and you want to see as many historic roadside attractions as possible—and at least five or six.

You know where you want to end up, how you'll measure whether it was successful, and the budget and time constraints you are under. You will notice no mention of specific routes or roads, and plenty of flexibility in case you need to change course to get to your final destination. A bad strategy would either lock you into specific tactics ("we're taking this highway for this long"), or give you no ways to measure success ("we'll spend whatever we need to, and take as long as we want").

Audiences

This is a big one for communication plans. You’re going to list out and categorise your audiences. Start broad: Who needs to know? What do they need to know? When do they need to know it?  Then refine by group: are they internal people, partners, customers, etc.

It’s easy to say “everyone needs to know” but that’s just not true, and that won’t help you create a good plan. You may want everyone to know, but that doesn’t mean they need to know in a certain timeframe.

For example: Leadership across your organization will need to know fast and first. They are often your spokespeople and they will get questions. Equip them with answers. Depending on the issue, Customer Service may be a top priority, as they are the front line with customers. Get them up to speed and empowered with messages. Shareholders may need different information than the media does, and employees may need different information than customers, etc. Think through your lists of audiences and then start mapping out who is in each group.

A note on media: The Media should be its own audience category. What outlets are your primary targets and what is secondary. If you have any established relationships, note these.

Key Messages

These are tied to your audience groups. Keep them short and clear. No one is going to remember paragraphs of messages, and you run the risk of your spokespeople sounding like they’re reading a script.

Instead, write it as you’d say it, then refine for the corporate tone/voice. It’s possible many of the messages will be applicable for multiple audience groups, but it's okay if they aren't. You may need to adapt.

When it comes to key messages, remember: others on your team and in the organization will be referencing this document for messaging. Having everything laid out crystal clear will make it easier for others to know exactly what should be said and to whom.

Why are different messages for different audiences important? Let's think about our road trip to California again. One of your friends coming on the trip has plenty of cash, but only a few weeks of vacation to spare. Another friend has lots of time, but is a little more cash-strapped. To convince your friend with disposable income to come along, you're not going to focus on your budget goals or your plans to make the trip as affordable as possible—you're going to pitch them on the jam-packed adventure you're about to have in a condensed period of time.

Your friend with plenty of time, but less money, is going to want to hear about how you're going to keep costs low, while still making the trip fun for everyone. You won't focus on the timing or the number of things to do, you'll focus on the value for the money.

Each stakeholder group in your organization—heck, each individual—will have different motivations, different measures of success, and different attitudes toward the project. One message will not work effectively across the entire organization. Knowing your audiences is the only way to craft the correct messages.

Spokespeople/Messengers

Who says the message is almost as important as the message itself. We’ll be getting into this in another post shortly. In short: pick your people wisely.

Tactics

This is where all the above elements come together into action. You’ll have a lot of things here, so table formatting can help with organization.

For your tactics, you’re laying out how and when your audiences are getting the designated message. You’re also adding in who is responsible to make this happen and what the desired result is/ status (for quick evaluation).

Example: 

Tactics Table Example

 

Measurement

Before you wrap up your plan, you need to outline how you’re measuring success. What will have happened that makes you say “we achieved our goal”? How you are going to determine that is how you are going to measure it. Write that down. 

Communication Strategy Fundamentals

A communications plan is one third of the work. Writing the best one ever written will still only bring you one third of the way to positive end results. The message and the messenger matter. They will make or break your plan.

When Apple does their Keynotes, they typically have the heads of each department present. You can see the excitement in their eyes, you can hear it in their voices and see it in their body language — these apps, innovations and designs are incredible to them. They are the result of a career’s effort in design and technology. You or I could deliver the speech and present the specs, but it would not resonate with the audience in the same way. They are holding their next one September 12th — tune in and watch not just the presentation itself, but the approach of each presenter.

Jon Favreau, former Speechwriter for President Obama, distills message writing into three elements: Authenticity, Humour, and Idealism. Each message and the messenger should have at least one. In his address to Oxford students in 2016, he shares three stories that illustrate these concepts. More than the anecdotes, his presentation itself demonstrates the impact of authenticity, humour, and idealism in remarks.

Watch Mr. Favreau’s presentation here.

As Communications professionals, we can learn a great deal from the masters, as much in their lessons as in their deliveries.

 

Want to learn more about how you can refine and sharpen your organization’s marketing and communication strategy? Get in touch!