Is Your Communication Strategy Stuck at a Red Light?
Get moving again with this step-by-step planning process.
Everyone’s heard the old adage: Failing to plan is planning to fail. But I don’t think that’s true.
As important as having a communications plan is, your business is not going to fall off into the abyss and your doors won’t suddenly close if you don’t have one. But without a plan, you’ll probably stay stuck in the land of stuckness. You’ll end up expending unnecessary effort and money doing things that aren’t going to get you the results you’re looking for. You’ll never quite reach a place of ease and flow in your communications that would move things to the next level.
When you can talk about your work with ease, with clarity and consistency, people can feel inspired to get involved or give money, buy a product, or change their behavior. Planning your communications, or devising a communications strategy, is how you can ensure that your marketing and outreach efforts are coordinated and intentional. A communications plan defines where you are starting from, where you want to go, and how you’re going to get there. It provides the structure around which you can gain alignment and eliminate confusion — internally and externally.
More important than the plan itself is going through the process of creating one. Once you've addressed all the different aspects of putting together a successful strategy, you will discover you are now quite clear about who you are and how to talk about your work. This clarity breeds confidence and confidence is incredibly attractive. It’s this clarity and confidence that pull in the kind of people that you want to have involved in your business. And not just more customers or clients or members or donors, but talent, too. Time and again, I’ve seen how going through the process of communications planning develops camaraderie and solidifies teams, generates higher morale, infuses an organization with a renewed sense of energy and focus, and builds the momentum needed to get that marketing flywheel turning.
Organizations of all sizes will benefit from communications planning and it’s possible for every organization to do this work on their own. But you must approach communications planning with a degree of preparation and forethought, a bit like “a plan for the plan.” Without a framework to guide the process, planning can quickly devolve into a smattering of aimless meetings with people unsure about what role they should play and feeling uninspired, indecisive, or resentful about having their time wasted.
Our process for communications planning is an effective and proven method for getting teams the understanding and empowerment they need to undertake successful campaigns and outreach activities. I want to share what's worked for us and our clients so that you'll have a framework and tools that you can use with your own planning. With a defined process, you’ll know where to start, what steps to take, and what things to discuss and decide.
The following is a diagram of what communications planning looks like:
Process for Communications Planning
The principles of planning (A) are the foundation that guides our objectives for a series of steps (B) that we take throughout which we are certain to discuss a number of different topics (C).
The primary objectives of communications planning are to:
gain clarity of purpose
get consensus from the team
detail a coordination of effort
A. Principles of Effective Planning
The principles for planning are summarized as:
Write it down.
On the surface these seem elementary. Yet it’s surprising how often these basics do not happen. Perhaps that’s because for many teams it can be challenging to put these principles into practice.
1. GATHER EVERYONE
As much as possible, you need to get decision-makers to take part in the planning process. Depending on your company culture, this could be challenging, especially if leadership has a hands-off management style, is physically remote, or doesn’t perceive this work to be a priority. If this is the situation, consider exactly how you want them to participate, be explicit in your requests for their attention, and show how this work connects to the issues they care most about which more than likely are generating revenue, managing employees, and optimizing program, service, or product delivery.
Beyond decision-makers, decide who else should be involved, what roles they should play, and at what points to bring them into the process. For organizations with an in-house marketing department, this will be rather obvious. For organizations without an official director of communications, marketing manager or similar, you’ll want to determine a committee of 2-4 people (depending on the size of your company). Ideally these people will represent different functions of the business such as operations, business development, program/delivery and customer relations so that you’ll have a diverse and wide perspective. Consider including board members, volunteers, and technical professionals who regularly help you with implementation.
Gathering everyone is as much about physically rounding up people as it is about gathering their thoughts and ideas. The more you understand how each individual’s perspective shapes the organization’s psyche, the easier it will be to gain clarity and alignment. For distributed teams, bringing everyone together in the same time and space may not be possible, but you can provide opportunities for everyone to share their opinions and to feel heard. Be proactive about this. It’s not enough to announce you’re having a planning meeting and vaguely ask people to send in their ideas. It’s more productive to reach out to individuals and ask them for specific information. For example, interview your customer service representative about frequent questions they get from customers, positive and negative feedback they receive, and what kinds of things would make their work with customers easier.
2. ASK QUESTIONS
So much of the work for communications planning is asking a lot of questions and seeking answers. When we talk about asking questions, we mean this in two senses of the phrase.
First, there is a set of key questions that you simply must get the answers to:
What core beliefs truly guide us?
Who are we trying to reach?
Why should these individuals or this group care about what we’re doing?
How should these individuals or this group get involved?
Where are these individuals or this group located?
If you do nothing else for communications planning, focus on getting agreement on the answers to these questions.
Second, question assumptions. Challenging the status quo or commonly held beliefs can open up the discussion and allow you to go deeper. Ask things like:
Why do we do this?
Why has this worked in the past?
Why has it not worked?
Why was that meaningful?
Asking big questions and pushing past face-value assumptions is hard. Doing so forces an examination of some “truths” that the team holds and could reveal things that aren’t pleasant to look at. Although it can be quite uncomfortable at times, it’s always illuminating. You will gain a far better understanding of your culture, motivations, aspirations, and priorities if you take time to dig under the surface.
3. WRITE IT DOWN
As a principle of planning, writing things down goes well beyond taking minutes at a meeting or following up with an email summarizing the discussion, though those activities are useful and important. It’s more about the practice of getting ideas out of people’s heads and down on paper, or what we call “visual documentation.” Whether the method is drawing, sketching, whiteboarding, or back-of-the-napkin, corner-of-the-envelope scribbling, getting your ideas down on paper is the only way to make those ideas feel real. It’s the only way to organize your thoughts and have something tangible that people can respond to and interact with.
We think in pictures. If you hear or read the word “snow,” you’re not thinking of the letters S-N-O-W. You’re thinking about the white stuff that falls from the sky (and maybe hoping there will be more — or less — of it this year). Using words, symbols, pictures, drawings and graphics to capture ideas and organize thoughts is what human change and innovation leader Dave Gray calls “visual thinking.” Visual thinking helps us sort through overwhelming amounts of information. It allows everyone to see the same picture, which shortens the time for comprehension and agreement. Visual thinking is clear thinking. Visual documentation gives you a shared memory to go back to, something physical you can reference as time goes on. When you hit a stumbling block or have a disagreement you can say, “let’s look at what we decided and why.”
For visual documentation to work well, it must feel true and memorable to the people involved. For this reason everyone can and should be involved in creating visual documentation throughout the planning process. You don’t have to be an artist! Visual documentation is a practice of moving ideas from head to paper to make things tangible and clear. It's not a demonstration of fine arts ability. Feel free to be messy in this process at first. Later, you can invest in synthesis and refinement.
Communications Planning Process: Steps (B) The principles of planning undergird the steps of planning. In Steps 1 and 2 focus on gathering people and their ideas. In steps 1–3 the emphasis is on asking lots of questions and seeking answers. Throughout all steps, it’s important to be visually documenting the discussions and decisions made.
B. Five Steps of the Planning Process
With an understanding of the principles of planning, you can practice putting them into action through the five steps of planning.
STEP 1. PREPARATION & SYNTHESIS
The first thing to do is get a lay of the land. A good understanding about where you’re at now will enable you to consider what it’s going to take to get where you want to go. This is a critical step in the process and is often overlooked. When teams schedule a big planning meeting without having completed any work in advance to give the group context and direction, it’s no wonder discussion freezes up when everyone is staring at a blank whiteboard and people begin to feel resentful about how their time is being wasted.
To employ the first planning principle — gather everyone — start by going to them, using surveys, questionnaires, and conduct interviews. Be specific about the kind of information you seek. Ask for it directly and make the response time-bound, otherwise such requests can languish in people’s inboxes. During this time, you might also give those who will be involved in writing the plan recommending reading to get their heads in the right space. Or task them with research on a particular topic that will be a major point of discussion.
As information comes in, you don’t want to simply aggregate it. Instead look for themes, points of contention and confusion, as well as areas where people seem to be in agreement. This synthesis will help you draft an agenda for when everyone comes together. Even at this early stage you can create visual documentation to use as a catalyst for group discussion.
STEP 2. PLANNING SESSION(S)
After you’ve set the stage for group collaboration, it’s time to bring everyone together for a planning session. You will be discussing topics of great importance to the health and future of your organization. As such everyone should be prepared to give discussions the time and attention they deserve. Step 2 is also your time to think big and dream big as you establish the vision that will guide your actions.
Set aside one to two full days for this work, at minimum half a day. The time you allocate is proportional to the productivity and success of your time together. Consider appending an upcoming staff retreat, annual strategic review or similar event with a big planning session, using time that’s already been set aside. However, make sure if you’re planning a long meeting to include breaks for personal recharge.
If you’re unable to schedule a single large chunk of time, then plan for several two-hour sessions. These should be held within the span of a week, otherwise you lose out on the initial focus and momentum. If you’re unable to gather attendees together in the same physical location, use video conferencing to conduct the meeting. Discussions will be far more illuminating and interactive when you can see each other’s faces and read body language. Plus, being on camera will eliminate the temptation to check email or do other work during the session.
How many people should attend the planning session will depend on the size of your organization and how you’ve structured your planning committee. It’s possible to have too many people involved; particularly problematic if the culture of your company is indecisive. It’s hard to have too few. However, if you’re a single-person business, it can be helpful to partner with a fellow business owner who can act as an outside advisor.
Be clear with everyone involved how you want them to participate and what roles you want them to play. Who is leading the meeting? Who will be the scribe? Who will handle any AV equipment or ensure materials for visual documentation are available? Who will bring food and drinks (because, yes, those are important, too)? People resent having to attend meetings when they aren’t sure why they’re there or what or how they can contribute.
Find a good location with comfortable seating, room to move around, and good lighting. Having adequate table and wall space is necessary so people have the space to brainstorm and literally spread ideas out on the table. People underestimate how much the physical location of a meeting space and its ambience impacts productivity and the ease and flow of conversation.
As the planning session/s draws to a close, assign tasks. These do not need to be the tasks that will be part of the plan execution, but everyone should leave feeling clear about their next steps and have a sense of resolution and progress. People should also feel clear about who has the final say. How decisions are made greatly affects how well an organization performs. For some companies, the power and decision-making process is ambiguous. If necessary, take the time to map what this process looks like for your organization.
STEP 3. FOLLOW-UP MEETING(S)
Typically when I’m facilitating communications planning for clients, I find it necessary to have a couple of follow-up meetings after the big planning session for clarification on certain points or to dig more deeply into an issue that we didn’t have time for previously. Follow-up meetings are great for having one-on-one conversations with key personnel where you can explain progress and gain initial approval on ideas. Step 3 is also an appropriate time to bring in outside consultants and development partners who’ll be helping you implement your plan so you can get their input and further flesh out details.
STEP 4. WRITE PLAN
Hopefully you’ve been generating visual documentation throughout the process. Now is the time when you bring it all together and write the actual communications plan. Like in Step 1, you’re not simply aggregating the outcomes of the big planning session and follow-up meetings. You’re synthesizing the information into something that will be easily knowable and accessible by the rest of the team.
Who specifically on your team writes the plan will be up to you. Your team dynamic may be such that it works well to have several people writing collaboratively. Or you may assign certain sections to specific people. Ultimately someone needs to take ownership of the final review and edit.
The plan does not have to be a multi-page, text-heavy document. A one-page write-up or a single-page spreadsheet can work fine. It can also work quite well to present the communication strategy in a slidedeck so people get a high-level overview, then offer a 2–3 page summary document as a take-away.
STEP 5. REVIEW & AGREEMENT
The final step in the process is to walk through the communications plan with the decision-makers and the team at large. Conduct the review in real-time so there will be an opportunity to answer questions and provide further explanation. The goal at this stage is to make sure everyone is in agreement with how you have described and organized the various aspects of the plan. It might take a couple rounds of revisions to get the plan to a place where everyone is excited and ready to move forward.
Agreement without empowerment will only take you so far. The person or team responsible for managing the plan must also have the authority to execute it. Occasionally we've seen a marketing manager tasked with creating a communications plan but not given the resources or decision-making power for its implementation. This is an incredibly defeating situation that can kill the energy, focus, and momentum generated during the planning process.
Communications Planning: Topics (C) Throughout the steps of planning, there are a number of topics that should be discussed and decided on.
C. Topics for Discussion
All aspects of the business affect how successful a company is in its efforts to engage constituents, build awareness and influence, secure funding and ultimately grow its impact. As such, there are a number of issues that must be discussed as part of communications planning. The amount of time you spend on each of these areas will depend on your team, your situation and your needs. But without a doubt it will be time well spent. It’s probably the most important work you can do because when you achieve clarity and consensus on these topics, your organization can move from a reactive state to a creative one.
This is the “C” change, and it is a sea change — a transformation in your organization’s efficacy and culture. It’s the shift from a general state of confusion, chaos, and constriction to one of confidence, calm, and coordination.
What follows are the various topics that you should cover in the planning process. You’ll note how they follow the theme of “C.” Included with each topic is list of tools you can use that will help facilitate the kind of group thinking and discussion that will result in enlightened and productive sessions. Many of these tools are everyday objects or are commonly used exercises easily found within the business arena. A number of these tools are proprietary ones that we've developed in our practice. Those are noted with an asterisk (*).
(Where are we so we know where to go?)
cause – What is our purpose? What are we fighting for? What compels us to get up every day and do the work that we do?
current state – Where we are now?
creative state – Where do we we want to be? Who do we want to be? How do we want to be?
challenges, concerns & considerations – What are obstacles? What should we be aware of? What professional guidance is available to us?
TOOLS: Backstory*, situational analysis, vision/mission statement, gap analysis, SWOT analysis, 3-5 whys, Positioning Exercise*, customer stories
(What are the goals we’re working toward?)
criteria for success – What do we measure? What are the metrics of success?
clues and cues – How do we know we’re making progress? What are the indicators? What are the triggers that would necessitate immediate changes?
check-ins – How often will we look at the data?
TOOLS: SMART technique, Goals/Strategies/Tactics*, analytics, CRMs, financial reports, staff/customer research
(Who are we and what does our landscape look like?)
constituents & communities – Who are our audiences? What do they care about? Fear? Desire? What do we want them to do? Where do we find them?
competition – Who or what are we competing with for attention?
collaborators – Who are our current partners? Who do we want to partner with? For what initiatives?
composition & culture – How is our company structured? What are the relationships between departments, people, brands and sub-brands, programs and service offerings? What is the general attitude of our company, its behavior?
characteristics – What makes us unique?
care about / convictions – What do we value? What are our priorities?
TOOLS: Landscape Worksheet*, Jargon Jeopardy!, empathy map, ethnography scavenger hunt, personas, customer journey mapping, and other research methods
CONTENT & COLLATERAL
(What we are going to say and how we are going to say it — verbally, textually and visually?)
core concepts – What messages do we want to convey both internally and externally? Themes?
collection – What assets exist that we can capitalize on?
creation – What do we need to build? Who will build it?
channels – Where will we deliver these messages?
TOOLS: communications audit, moodboard, Pinterest, Media/Tactic Idea List*, creative brief, One-sheet Exercise*
(Going from conceptual to concrete and identifying to-dos)
course of action – What has to be done and by whom?
calendar – What’s the timeframe? Are there special events to work around or work towards?
costs – What kind of resources do we need to do these activities? What will it cost if we don’t do them?
champions – Who is doing what? Who is in charge of what?
capacity – What skills do we need? Do we have these in-house? Do we need to hire out?
carry out – How will the plan be shared? How will it be executed?
TOOLS: Workplan Spreadsheet*, Google Docs, Smartsheet, Trello, Asana
With this planning framework you now have a structure and process to develop your a communication strategy that will move you forward, out of that state of overwhelm and indecision, out of that place of stuckness. It’s hard work, but it’s critical work. It takes commitment, but it should be of utmost priority until you are able to articulate succinctly and cogently what you do, why it’s important, and why others should support you.
No matter how much effort you put into it, you must also expect and accept that your plan will change. Things don’t always unfold as expected. Unforeseen forces divert focus. People make mistakes and adapt. But when you have gone through the process of planning, you know where you are and where you’re going so even when you have to deviate or recalibrate, you will still be on the right path. Then your plan becomes a point on which you can pivot.
Ideas are powerful. And your work is a culmination of ideas. Your work can be life-changing, maybe even world-changing, but only if you’re able to communicate those ideas effectively, with clear intention and direction.