National Capital Chapter

You’re Only As Good As Your Plan

By Joseph Davis

Recently, I was having a spirited conversation (mostly my spirit) with a fellow communications colleague about what constitutes successful communications strategy. My main question was “How are you approaching the strategy of communicating effectively?”

This broad question begged for specifics. So, my next question was, “Does your organization currently have a communications plan in place?” And my colleague replied, “Of course!” And, I followed up, “What does it look like, what’s in it?”

In what I can only describe as a full-throated description (see defense) of their organizational communications plan, the colleague said, “Well, we created a full year’s project calendar, including all the social media tools we planned to use—and even developed evergreen posts for them!” They were obviously proud.

“Wait,” I said. “That’s it?” “Yep, pretty much,” they said. This led me to think: exactly how many other communicators essentially have no tangible communications plan for their company, client(s) or organization? And, furthermore, how many know what should be included? I imagine we would have subsequently discussed what was essential in a plan—had I not awkwardly ended the conversation staring blankly at them.

Before building a communications plan, you have to understand what it is NOT:

  • An activity or event calendar filled with projects
  • A list of tactics disguised as a strategy (social media usage, digital media deployment, marketing promotions, etc.)
  • A list of social media tools that simply include schedules and/or sample copy
  • A list of communications functions devoid of objectives that can be measured

As we know, every organization is different, and needs vary, so there’s rarely a one-size-fits-all approach to communications planning. With that in mind, there are general guidelines for forming a proper plan.

What a communications plan INCLUDES:

A communications plan acts as a guide for all of your communications initiatives. It establishes what is considered success for you (the communicator), your organization or your client. And it outlines a process of planning and implementation.

Your communications plan should highlight three clear aspects:

I define this as the actionable output directly related to your organizational mission.

What is it you’re aiming to achieve, ultimately? This should be measurable.

How will you achieve your goals and, therefore, successfully reach your objective? This is your broad outlook for everything you plan to accomplish—your vision, if you will.

Here is what is generally in a communications plan:

  • Summary/Mission/Vision
    This should be easy. A simple summary of the current state of the organization and why the plan is necessary. I assume most organizations have an established mission and vision. State it here, and lay the groundwork for the plan.
  • Challenges
    There should be a discussion of what obstacles may present a problem, albeit internal, external, tools, logistics or competitors. Know what problems you may face.
  • Audience/stakeholders/competition
    The phrase “know your audience” is vital in communications. Include that audience in your plan, along with any stakeholders (include possibilities) and what the competition looks like (the competition element is only relevant depending on your industry).
  • Messages
    This is where the language you plan to use in your marketing/communication materials goes. This should highlight the value your organization brings or how you’re different.
  • Tools/Tactics
    Now you can incorporate your ideas for social media channels, along with other tools and tactics (video, content marketing, collateral, etc.)
  • Cost
    Often, this component is left out of a plan; however, it’s important to have an idea of how the overall organization will be impacted monetarily. How will cost affect reaching objectives or accomplishing goals? This is also important if you charge for services implemented through the plan.
  • Timeline
    How long will it take to reach your goals once the plan is implemented? A broad timeline is a given, and, in many cases, multiple shorter timelines centered on your stated goals can be directly tied to specific tactics.
  • Market Changes
    Any changes in the industry you need to consider that will affect you? Try to prepare for those changes.
  • Measurement/Evaluation
    Measure, measure, measure. Did those tweets and Facebook posts really engage? Did you drive more web traffic? Did sales increase? Did donations increase? Evaluating if all (or any) of your efforts have been successful in meeting your goals is essential for any level of communications planning. You may even have to set periodic measurement benchmarks. Many communicators may want to check in weekly, monthly or quarterly. Whatever the case, measure what you’re doing!

Strategizing on the most effective way to communicate ideas and value should be at the forefront of everything we do. Most communicators know this. If you need some tips on building your communications strategy, visit the PRSA Learning webpage. Since I enjoy asking questions, I have one more—do you have a communications plan?

About the Author
Joseph Davis works in Communications for the City of Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services.