What is a Communications Plan?

The Strategic Communication Plan: An overview

by Les Potter, ABC, IABC Fellow (guest post)

Much is said and written about strategic communication and communication planning. The essential question is what can a communicator do in order to be considered a strategic communicator? The short answer lies in the communication plan she develops. A good plan embodies all the necessary components of strategic communication.

Becoming a competent, results-oriented strategic communicator takes years of study and practical, hands-on work experience. Once the foundation is firmly in place, then the strategic communication plan manifests all that knowledge and experience to focus on the strategic communication an organization needs to accomplish its mission.

There are key sections that must be in a strategic communication plan. They are, in order: the executive summary (written last); a description of the communication process for non-communication-trained decision makers; the background that led to the need for the plan; the situation analysis (formative research); the strategic summary; the implementation schedule; the budget; and the evaluation and monitoring of the plan (summative research).

While each section is important, there are four that demand serious consideration. Let’s review these main sections of a successful strategic communication plan.communications plan

The situation analysis (formative research)

The first step in developing a strategic communication plan is conducting formative research. To be strategic, communication programs must be built on fact, not fiction or guesswork. The strategic communication plan is the outline—the road map—for successful program implementation and management.

The first and most important step is conducting formative research to find out as much as you can about the issues facing an organization. Formative research can be primary, that is, original research that is designed and conducted by the communicator to address the specifics of her organization’s situation. Or it can be secondary, adapting already-conducted research that relates most closely to her organization’s situation.

Primary research is the most demanding and expensive, but yields the best results. It is made up of qualitative components, like interviews and focus groups, and quantitative components, like surveys and questionnaires. The completed research then becomes the basis of writing a credible situation analysis. This analysis tells the communicator what must be treated for the organization to be successful.

Strategic summary (goals, objectives, strategy and tactics)
Once a situation analysis is written, the strategic communicator has a basis on which to make her recommendations for actual strategic communication activity. The recommendations should be captured in a strategic summary. The strategic summary involves setting goals and objectives. Goals are broad strokes, higher-level concepts about what needs to be accomplished, such as improving an organization’s relationship with key publics or enhancing its reputation/image among key publics. A number of objectives are set under each goal to help make it a reality. Objectives are the workhorses here. Each objective should be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-sensitive) to accomplish the goal it serves. In formulating objectives, the communicator must consider an overall strategy that will effectively reach the target audience, such as using a mix of tactics, including interpersonal communication (face-to-face) and/or the various media that an organization uses to communicate with internal audiences.

Here’s the problem: All too often communicators set squishy objectives, like “communicate that we care about employees” or “inform the community about our….” For an objective to have any relevance, it must be measurable. Setting measurable objectives is the cornerstone of the strategic communication foundation, following research and situation analysis. You simply must set measurable objectives in order to be able to conduct meaningful, summative evaluation in the end. All too often, squishy objectives are followed by evaluation that amounts to silliness like, “We got a lot of compliments on [the tactic],” or “The CEO really liked it,” or “All of the copies were taken by employees.” These statements prove nothing.

Once goals are set with relevant objectives and an appropriate strategy, the strategic communicator must decide on a mix of tactics that will reach target audiences. This involves dipping into the strategic communicator’s toolkit and selecting a mix of tactics that will reach the audience in a timely and cost-effective manner. A mix of tactics that have the highest credibility with target audiences is always better than only one or two tactics. Devising effective strategy also must take into account the time schedule for tactical implementation. Gantt charts work exceptionally well for plotting tactical implementation.

Budgeting

After recommendations have been formulated in the strategic summary and backed up by strategy and tactical implementation, the strategic communicator must budget the activity as competently as would be expected of any business manager. The greatest tool since the handheld calculator for this purpose is the Excel spreadsheet. It allows you to play “what if” games until the budget is within guidelines and meets needs. Concentrate on budgeting to achieve each objective. The real cost of achieving each objective will be in its related tactics.

Summative (or evaluative) research
Now the strategic communication plan comes full circle. You begin with research to know what needs doing. Then, you set goals and objectives to achieve the expected outcomes. Now you end with research to see if your strategic communication efforts have accomplished the goals and objectives. The key here is to concentrate on measuring and evaluating the success or failure of your objectives, the workhorses of strategic communication. Strategic communicators don’t wait until a communication plan is finished to evaluate it. It’s too late then to do anything about it, except learn from mistakes. Strategic communicators monitor and evaluate all along in order to make any needed course corrections to stay on target. Final evaluation then helps set you up for success in the next cycle of activity.

 

Les Potter, ABC, IABC Fellow, is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication and Communication Studies at Towson University in Maryland. He has previously served on IABC’s executive board and accreditation committee, and as a trustee of the IABC Research Foundation. Les is author of The Communication Plan and he blogs about strategic communication and public relations at More with Les.

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