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How to Write a Communications Plan

I recently met with a client — the CEO of a non-profit organization — who announced that he wanted a communications plan. Having been around the block a few times I knew enough to ask a tough, penetrating question: "What exactly do you mean?"

Just as the color "blue" can mean anything from pastel to cerulean to navy, so too the phrase "communications plan" means different things to different people. Turns out, my CEO didn't really have a clue what he wanted (this is fairly typical). Basically, he just wanted his group to improve its communications.

A communications plan is actually a good idea for just about any organization, no matter how big or small — although of course it's more complicated for bigger groups. If you're ever asked to prepare such a plan, here are the five steps you need to take:

1) Conduct a communications audit. This is a bit like taking a photograph. It means documenting your group's current communications efforts and then evaluating them. Larger companies will often hire market research firms to do this job, but smaller ones, non-profits or solo-preneurs usually have to do it themselves. The main task is to look at all the "stuff" you produce — print publications, online materials, packaging, bulletin board notices, annual reports, signage or speeches — and evaluate how well they're working.

2) Define your overall objectives. What are the key communications results you want to achieve? I once worked for a company that had the number 1 goal of improving safety. This was so important to them that they began every single meeting with a review of safe procedures in case of an emergency. (The company saw a dramatic decrease in injuries and also survived an earthquake without injury because all employees immediately threw themselves under tables when the quake hit!)

Your goals might include improving customer loyalty, improving product quality or reducing employee turnover. It doesn't matter what the goals are — the key is to articulate them. To collect this information, you'll need to talk to the CEO for sure. But you should also speak with other members of the senior management team, look at sources like market research, annual reports and talk to some floor-level employees.

3) List your audiences. This is often trickier than it sounds. In addition to employees and customers don't forget: the media, funders, shareholders, subcontractors and the government. Note that you may ultimately have different messages for different groups.

4) Develop your tactics list. Okay, now you take your objectives and then figure out ways to achieve them. This is a job that requires brainstorming so you might want to gather together some trusted colleagues to help. For example, imagine you work for a non-profit firm concerned about global warming and your objective is to encourage the reduction of greenhouse gasses. One of the tactics you might come up with could be to start a blog giving readers practical advice about reducing their energy footprint. But the tactic itself is not enough. You also need to spell out the tools, the costs and the timeline. I always like to put this stuff into a table. In the example above, here's how it might look:

  • Objective: Encourage reduction of greenhouse gasses.
  • Tactic: Launch a blog giving readers practical advice.
  • Tools: Blogging software.
  • Cost: Uses existing resources only.
  • Timeline: Persuade CEO to attach name to blog (May 25). Have xxx write it (June 1). Have xxx create blog (June 5). Publicize blog with a press release (June 10).

5) Evaluate your results. Your plan should also include a method for measuring results. This might be as simple as a monthly report on work in progress or it might be more complicated — perhaps formally briefing the Board or CEO.

Communications plans always take effort. But they're worth it because they help set priorities, they give your work focus and they protect you against last minute, change-of-mind, panic-driven craziness that often happens in organizations.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 4th 2009, 3:03 AM
Comment by: Madrigal (CROYDON Australia)
I thought your article covered the subject very well. I would also include customer satisfaction as a key component. The purpose of the communications is to create dialogue with the stakeholders on the service of product. If the service or product is not meeting the needs it doesn't matter how good your communications are.
Monday May 4th 2009, 10:28 AM
Comment by: Emily W. (Charles Town, WV)
This article is posted the day AFTER I had to turn in my final communications plan for a marketing class I'm taking. This article clearly and succinctly discusses the points of a good communications plan...I wish I had seen it a few days ago!!
Monday May 4th 2009, 6:50 PM
Comment by: Linda S. (Yuba City, CA)
I would like to be a good writer, from formal to informal and creative. Too often the magical quality of writing is lost in the quest for "communication."
I know that good writing is a combination of skill and spontaneity but I would like to remember that more often.
Tuesday May 5th 2009, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi Anonymous,

Oh, please don't denigrate communications! That's not what kills writing. What most often kills writing is when people fall in love with their own words and refuse to edit them. Or when they think writing is "too much work" and don't put their seat to the chair to get out that first draft (that then needs to be edited.) Those are both much bigger problems!
Saturday May 9th 2009, 1:17 PM
Comment by: Suzanne (Asheville, NC)
Daphne, thanks for this simple and very informative outline. I can see how your approach could be used in a variety of groups - I'm thinking of my jazz quartet as well as my ('day job') business.

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