Archive for the ‘communications planning’ Category

Two Ways To Quickly Improve Your Communications Plans

I’ve worked in communications for a while now, and one thing I’ve noticed — consistently — is that the same two elements of communications plan get overlooked time and time again:

  • Objectives
  • Strategy

These almost always get sacrificed in favour of the bright, shiny part of the plan: tactics.

What’s more, your objectives and strategy are the most important part of the plan. They’re the part that frames the ultimate goal that you’re trying to achieve, and provides a focus for the tactics that should aim to achieve that goal.

That means that, sadly, most communications programs fail to live up to their true purpose.

I think this failure stems from two primary misunderstandings:

1. People don’t understand the difference between objectives, strategies and tactics.

Simply put, your objective should state what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you trying to sell 30,000 units of something? Increase customer loyalty? Reduce employee turnover? Remember, too, that there are business objectives and communications objectives, and the latter should flow up to the former.

Your strategy defines how you will achieve the objective you just outlined. If you’re looking to sell product, for example, one strategy might look to raise awareness of the product among a key audience. Another option might be to improve its visibility among key purchase-driven search terms.

Your tactics provide the final level of detail in your plan – the granular activities that will drive towards your strategies, and which ultimately fuel the accomplishment of your objective.

Too few people understand the difference between these three areas. If they’re on the client side, they’re the ones who, despite the great program delivered, still ask “but how many media impressions did we get” even if the business results are there for all to see. On the agency side, well, they’re the ones who risk those same clients never having the business results to ignore in the first place.

It’s CRITICAL that people get their heads around this, as these parts of your plan ensure you’re driving at the right result.

2. People focus on shiny.

Lots of people, especially in the communications industry, are highly creative and really enjoy the creative side of things. Let’s face it, brainstorms are fun. Blue sky thinking, a “there’s no such thing as a bad idea” mindset and no consideration of limitations is a nice mindset to have. Unfortunately, I’ve found that that often comes at the expense of strategy – of putting boundaries around creativity to ensure it is pointed in the right direction.

I had a great discussion with a colleague last week after a brainstorm. I commented that we had some great ideas coming out of the session, but that at that point most of them totally diverged from our strategy for the program. Her response (paraphrasing) was: “Agreed. It’s our job to take those ideas, filter them and tweak them so they fit.”

The perfect team combines people with creative strength alongside those with a strategic mindset, so you get the best of both worlds.

Want to improve your planning? Educate your team and your client about the difference between objectives, strategies and tactics, and make sure they’re taken into account when developing your plan.

Objectives First

A while back I wrote a series of posts on communications planning. One of the most popular posts within that series, which still gets a few hundred views per week, was on one on setting communications objectives. As I said at the time:

“As the old saying goes, you need to know where you’re going before you can know how to get there.”

Fast forward to this week, when Skittles re-launched their website with a completely new structure drawn almost entirely from other social media sites:

Naturally the bloggerati took notice, and began passing judgement on the website. The topic quickly shot to the list of top “trending” words on Twitter. While I was bemused that Skittles didn’t seem to be engaging on Twitter despite using the service on its site ( is currently a locked personal account with very little activity), aside from that I tried to refrain from commenting on the effort itself.


Because we don’t know their objectives. All of the people ripping into this site are doing so with no clue what Skittles was trying to achieve.

  • Is it a short-term effort to kick-start buzz and discussion online?
  • Is it an attempt to position a 35 year-old brand as youthful?
  • Is it to simply raise awareness of the product?
  • Is it a genuine attempt to embrace social media?

We just don’t know.

While I’ve fallen into the trap of evaluating communications efforts in the past without knowing all of the information, this time I’m holding off.

To everyone else out there, who seem to know for sure that the site is a huge success/failure, I say:

“Do you have any idea what equals success in this project for the Skittles brand?”

Strategic Communications Planning – A Free eBook

Between May and August 2008 I published a series of posts on strategic communications planning based on my experience over the past few years. Due to popular demand (and prodding from the likes of Ed Lee, Ryan Anderson, Robert French and Karen Russell) I’ve compiled the thirteen posts into an eBook for your downloading pleasure.

The Strategic Communications Planning eBook is an introduction to effective strategic corporate communications planning. It features all of the posts from the original communications planning series of posts, edited to reflect feedback I’ve received and with some additional content added throughout.

The eBook is embedded below and you can download itas a PDF file via the embed, or from Scribd or docstoc SlideShare (the other sites began charging for downloads).

I hope you find this useful. If you do or if you have any suggestions for improvement, please let me know.

How To Write A Good Communications Plan – Part 13 – Evaluation

Measuring This is it – the last stage of preparing your communications plan – evaluation.

As with several parts of this communications planning series, the stage at which you write this part of your plan is fairly arbitrary. I recommend you turn your mind to it after, not before, you finish considering your analysis, objectives, strategy and tactics (you do need to know what you’re measuring, after all), but beyond that point it’s largely up to you.

Evaluation is a tough area to tackle, and one that’s often neglected in public relations. There are plenty reasons for this:

  • The challenge of trying to find a measurement system that accounts for the wide variety of tactics possible in a public relations campaign
  • The reluctance of clients, be they internal or external, to dedicate budget to evaluation
  • The lack of well-established criteria for measuring social media success
  • The fast-moving pace of communications that moves us on to the next announcement as soon as the last one is finished.

Your goal for this section

Your goal in your evaluation section is to lay out how you will measure your communications success. In a high-profile initiative this may be through the various stages of your announcement (we identified three – pre-announcement, announcement and post-announcement, when we looked at tactics earlier); in others, it may have a smaller scope.

Staged Measurement

If you’re planning a staged rollout of your communications program, try to measure your results over time. Alongside providing more credible results, this has the added benefit of allowing you to take corrective action if you sense your activities aren’t getting the desired results. Take a look at the different milestones you’ve identified for the project and consider which are suitable points to measure at.

Of course, you should also measure at the end of the initiative to see whether you’ve accomplished your objectives. Ideally, you’ll be able to compare that to the results showing whether the business objectives were accomplished too.

Potential Metrics

I’m certainly not an expert in measurement tactics, but here are a few measurements you may want to consider, depending on your objectives:

  • Media coverage
    • How much coverage did you receive?
    • What was the tone of that coverage (positive/negative)?
    • Which media outlets was the coverage in? Where in those outlets? What’s the audience of those placements?
    • Did you achieve the desired visuals?
    • Did they pick up your key messages?
    • Were your spokespeople quoted?
    • Were the mentions of your initiative the focus of the coverage, or a side note?
    • Methods for achieving these metrics vary. While I haven’t used it personally, the Media Relations Rating Points system has achieved some traction (see Ben Boudreau’s One Degree post for a case study).
  • Interactive
    • How many visitors saw your content?
    • How long did they spend on the site?
    • What pages did they visit?
    • Did they hit specific landing pages?
    • What was their bounce rate?
    • What was their conversion rate (identify a goal for visitors – purchase/registration/download, etc.)?
    • Social media measurement is even more debatable than regular PR. Comments, inbound links, etc are lovely, but at best they’re just proxies for more meaningful measurements.
  • Stakeholders
    • How did your stakeholders react?
  • Public inquiries
    • How many letters/emails/calls did you receive on this topic? Is that higher or lower than usual?
    • What was the tone of the incoming correspondence?
    • What did the correspondents say/ask?
  • Benchmarking
    • Conduct market research/polling before and after (perhaps also during) your communications to show improvement in metrics over time, for example in public attitudes
    • Focus groups

These are just a few metrics. What others can you suggest?

The “Communications Plan” Series

This is the final post in my series of 13 posts on exploring how to create a good strategic communications plan. To read the rest of the series, check out the other posts here.

(Photo credit: verzerk)

How To Write A Good Communications Plan – Part 12 – Budget

A caveat: This post is written from a corporate standpoint, and likely differs greatly from an agency perspective. If you have a different take, let me know in the comments.

BudgetUnfortunately, even the most basic communications approach comes with costs attached. In a corporate communications plan, the budget section details these.

Catharine Montgomery rightly points out that you should keep the your available budget in mind throughout your planning process and propose activities accordingly. However, for the purpose of a corporate communications plan, this section focuses on detailing and justifying your proposed expenditure.

Lots to consider

If you’re proposing a reactive, low-profile approach to your communications, the budget for your initiative may be very low – limited to the costs of drafting a few written products. However, if you’re adopting a high-profile strategy, your costs may be significantly higher.

Consider, for example, a relatively simple announcement I planned earlier this year. Costs included:

  • Media event staging
    • Lighting, audio, location setup
    • On-site video & audio production and editing
    • Car rentals to advance the location and attend the event
  • Media materials production and wire costs:
    • News release
    • Two backgrounders
    • Fact sheet
    • Media advisory
  • Other communications materials:
    • Matte article
    • Speech for spokesperson
    • Media Q&As
    • B-roll video
  • Public education campaign.

All of this for an announcement that, albeit high profile, had zero venue rental costs, no significant interactive or new media, no real marketing, no market research and no advertising.

Err on the side of detail

If you’re proposing a rollout with a significant cost (especially if you’re proposing to include advertising as part of the mix), try to make a solid case for that expenditure. You’ll find it much easier to get your proposal approved if you provide a detailed breakdown of the costs and make a case for them.

Sometimes you may want to offer multiple options for approaches in your plan. For example, you may want to put forward low, medium and high-profile rollout options along with a recommendation. If so, make sure you offer cost estimates for each option.

Where will these funds come from? Will it fit within your pre-determined communications budget or will extra funding be necessary? If so, what approvals are needed?

Other approaches

As I mentioned earlier, this is based on a corporate communications approach. Do you have a different perspective? Let me know in the comments.

The “Communications Plan” Series

This is the penultimate post in a series of 13 posts on exploring how to create a good communications plan. To read more of the series, check out the other posts here.

(Photo credit: linusb4)

How To Write A Good Communications Plan – Part 11 – Issues

You’ve planned-out your announcement to perfection – your objectives, your strategy, your tactics. Your communications plan is almost complete! But what if something goes wrong?

Be prepared

Issues management is all about catching problems before they become crises. Your communications plan should help you to prepare for that. It’s rarely possible to anticipate everything that may come up, but with some careful thought you can usually catch most things.

In the communications plan format I’ve recently worked with, the issues section is often used as the basis of your media Q&As when you draft your products later. As such, we usually wrote them in a Q&A format. This has the added benefit of making the issues easier for those further up the chain to understand:

Q: What about X?
A: Here’s our response.

Identifying issues

Think through your initiative and ask yourself a few questions:

  • What is changing?
  • Which parts are controversial?
  • Are any advocacy groups paying attention to this?
  • Who might not like it, and what might they not like?
  • Are any stakeholders expecting something different?
  • Have any aspects of this attracted media attention in the past?
  • Which blogs write on this topic? What have they said in the past?
  • Will this have an emotional impact on people?
  • Will anything you’re doing affect others directly? Have you (as an organization) talked to them about this?
  • Are any parts of this hard to understand? What might need explaining further?

That’s a lot of questions, but fortunately you’ve already done much of the work to answer them. Read back through the other sections of your plan – through the context, the environmental scan and the stakeholder analysis in particular – with those questions in mind. You’ll find many of the answers in there. Also talk to your subject matter experts – the people that are closest to the initiative – and ask them for their thoughts.

As with some other parts of the communications plan, you should think about your issues management section throughout your planning process and not just at the end. Whenever you think of something that might crop up, note it down for inclusion later.

Mitigating the issues

Once you’ve identified the potential issues, think about how you might be able to mitigate them.

Sometimes a simple Q&A will suffice for an issue. Other times you may want to revisit parts of your announcement (strategy, messages, audience, tactics etc) and tweak them. In some cases it may require more than just communications to resolve – you may want to go back to the subject matter experts and flag something for them to resolve before the announcement is made. Working issues management into your entire plan will provide you with a solid foundation to build on.

Your thoughts?

I’m a strategic communications guy, not an issues management expert. Fortunately I’ve been able to attend multiple courses on this and I’ve had some great colleagues to learn from, but I’m sure there are gaps in what I know.

What do you think? How would you approach the issues management section of your communications plan?

The “Communications Plan” Series

This is post number 11 in a series of 13 posts exploring how to create a good communications plan. To read more of the series, check out the other posts here.

(Image credit: nickobec)

How To Write A Good Communications Plan – Part 10 – Tactics

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”
- Peter Drucker

You know your goals; you know what you’re saying; you know who you’re talking to. You need to decide how to say it.

How are you going to reach the audiences you’ve selected?


It may help if you think of your announcement in three stages – pre-announcement, announcement and post-announcement:

  • Pre-announcement – how will you pre-condition stakeholders/shareholders/consumers/the media ahead of your announcement?
  • Announcement – how will you roll-out the initiative?
  • Post-announcement – how will you sustain coverage after the announcement?


Chess pieces Just as all of the other sections of your plan fit together (your analysis flows into your goals and objectives, your stakeholders flow into your audiences, your strategy feeds off your objectives and so on) your tactics need to fit with your strategy.

If you’ve opted for a high-profile, proactive strategy, your tactics should clearly be very different to if you’ve selected a low-profile, reactive approach. Did you decide to communicate through the media, to/through stakeholders or directly to consumers?

Also consider your context and environmental scan – do you need to raise awareness of the topic in the media before you make your announcement?

If you follow the planning process properly, the process itself will help you to do this. By putting your tactics near the end of the process, you force yourself to consider the initiative from every possible angle. That means you’re less likely to default to a (possibly) inappropriate news release and/or media event without thinking it through.


Make sure you address all of your plan’s audiences. Check and double-check that you aren’t missing an important group.

A particularly useful tip: create a table with your audiences down the left side and your proposed tactics along the top. Check-off which tactics hit which audiences. Make sure you address each audience with two or three tactics.

Tactics vs audiences

If you see that you aren’t addressing all of your key audiences, go back and consider how you can.

Tactical options

Here are a few options to consider for the various stages. Remember that many of these may require their own plans:

  • Story placements – proactive pitching; matte articles
  • Mentions in other announcements/events
  • Media event
  • Regional announcements
  • Speeches
  • Paper products – news release, backgrounder, fact sheet
  • Brochure, flier
  • White paper
  • Follow-up announcements – milestones, results, openings
  • Stakeholder consultations or events
  • Letters to stakeholders
  • Advertising – TV/radio/print/out-of-home/online
  • Social media outreach

How do you go about planning your tactics?

The “Communications Plan” Series

This is post number ten in a series of 13 posts exploring how to create a good communications plan. To read more of the series, check out the other posts here.

How To Write A Good Communications Plan – Part 9 – Messages

Your analysis is done, you’ve figured out your communications strategy and you know who you’re targeting. It’s time to craft your messages. But where do you start?

Message in a bottleYour key messages help you draft all your products down the road when you’re executing your communications plan. They’ll help you stay on track and make sure you’re communicating the right things to the right people.

The messages will permeate all of your communications, so they’ll also attract a lot of attention from decision makers. It’s important you spend the time to get this section right.

This is all about what you’re trying to tell people. If people take something away from your communications, you want it to be these messages.

Your key messages should:

  • Communicate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it
  • Communicate what will be different
  • Fit with your objectives
  • Speak to all of your audiences

What you’re doing and why

The first message you’ll usually draft is the main one that says what you’re doing and why. You’ve spent time researching the initiative (ideally you’ve been involved in the planning for a while) so you know what the organization is doing and why it’s doing it. Now you just have to get it down onto paper. Sounds easy but it can be surprisingly tough.

A few simple pointers:

  • Focus on the main points – you don’t need to get into detail here
  • Be brief
  • You’re human; write like one
  • Highlight the positive side of what you’re doing. Don’t mislead, though
  • Decide what you want the stories to be about. Focus on that.

What will be different

It’s much easier for people to understand what you’re doing if you can give some context. Are you doubling money for a government program? Producing a product that’s 50% better than its predecessor?

  • Use before/after examples if appropriate
  • Explain why people should care, in terms they care about
  • Support your messages with facts if they’re available

Consider your objectives

Think about the objectives you’ve set. Whatever they are, write your messages to reflect that.

Are you trying to raise awareness for a product? Are you trying to get people to change their behaviours? Maybe you’re trying to address a contentious issue. Make sure you don’t go off in a direction that ignores the reason for you doing all of this. It’s easy to do if you’re not careful.

Include all of your audiences

Some people like to write one set of messages for each initiative and tweak them for each purpose. Some like to create one long list that addresses everyone.

Personally, I prefer to look at each audience in turn and craft messages that meet their needs.

If you know one audience is going to have concerns about a certain aspect of what you’re doing, make sure the messages for them specifically address that issue. Likewise, if they’re looking for a certain feature in your new product then make sure that’s highlighted. If you do this, you’ll find you have much less resistance to your initiative from those parties.

Your approach to this part of a communications plan is one that your personal preference can heavily influence. My take on this may not match yours. What factors do you take into account when writing your messages? What tips would you offer?

The “Communications Plan” Series

This is post number nine in a series of 13 posts exploring how to create a good communications plan. To read more of the series, check out the other posts here.

How To Write A Good Communications Plan – Part 8 – Announcement

This is the eighth post in a series exploring how to write a good communications plan.

By now we’ve set the stage, established our objectives and strategy and chosen our audiences. Now, at last, it’s time to think about our announcements.


492409_microphone_grab In your written plan, the announcement itself is a pretty brief section. It’s effectively an executive summary of the plan – what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

The ‘announcement’ title can be a bit misleading if your objectives and strategy don’t indicate the need for a proactive announcement. If you’ve chosen a low-profile, reactive strategy, you’ll focus more on your issues management section. As such, while this is the earliest you can start to work on this part of your plan, you may need (or want) to get to it later. I personally find it useful to have this as a one-pager to refer back to occasionally when I’m thinking about messaging and tactics later on, but this really is a section you can just as easily work on last.

This is an important point to note – the structure of your communications plan is better if it’s not dictated by a rigid template. A good communications plan format will let the planner use the content they need to and not make them force unnecessary sections into the plan.


Outline the nature of the announcement(s) you plan to make. You’ll flesh out the messages you want to communicate and the tactics you’ll use to carry those messages later. What’s more, you’ve done most of the work for this section already. You can pull much of the content for this from your earlier analysis.

Keep it simple

While you’ve waited until late in the planning process to identify the announcement you’re making, in all likelihood this will be the first thing that executives reading and approving your plan will read. As such, you need to capture exactly what’s going on succinctly. Try to identify the announcement you’re making and why you’re making it in one or two sentences and in plain language. Remember – the executives haven’t had the benefit of doing the background research you’ve done.

Make the links

You’ve already identified the context for this initiative; make sure you briefly summarize how it fits within your organization’s broader activities.

Be honest

Don’t “spin” yourself. There can sometimes be a temptation to sugar-coat what you’re doing in the plan, to try and give ‘good news’ , but you won’t do yourself any favours by doing that. Call a spade a spade and you’ll do better in the long-run.

Over to you

We’re over half way through this series on communications planning. What do you think of the series so far? What would you add to the pointers I’ve given? What have I missed?

The “Communications Plan” Series

This is post number eight in a series of 13 posts exploring how to create a good communications plan. To read more of the series, check out a summary of the posts so far or pick from the list below:

How To Write A Good Communications Plan – Part 7 – Audiences

This is the seventh post in a series exploring how to write a good communications plan.

At this stage we’ve finished our analysis of the situation, set our objectives and decided on a strategy. Now it’s time to decide our audience – in other words, who we’re speaking to.


Think back

Audience at a theatreIt’s time to decide who you want to reach with your communications.

Analyze the key groups or people you want to reach and what their needs are. Which stakeholders are key to this initiative? Who else do you need to consider?

Remember to refer back to your objectives and your strategy. Are you looking to reach a few narrow groups or a broader selection?

Be thorough

Make sure there aren’t any gaps in your chosen audiences. What angles haven’t you thought of?

Think about why you’re considering each potential audience. Where do they stand on this issue? Are they so opposed that they’ll never be happy regardless of what you do (if so, maybe you should re-focus on the people who may be receptive to your actions)? How much do they know about this (that may affect your tactics later)?

You can draw your audience from a wide range of groups. Your stakeholder analysis is an easy place to start. Look back at what you came up with. Who are your targets within this?

Some other potential sources of audiences:

  • Opinion leaders
  • Professional/business groups
  • Governments (other jurisdictions if you’re working in the public sector)
  • Industry analysts
  • Your employees
  • Online audiences (bloggers, for example)
  • Media

Be precise

If you’re looking to speak to consumers (or, if you’re in the public sector, “the public”), do your utmost to break that down and identify specific niches. Whether that’s by demographics, by interest, by previous purchase habits or whatever means appropriate, never leave yourself with “the public” or “consumers” as an audience. It may not be easy but, hey, if it were easy they wouldn’t need us communicators, right?

Just as with “the public” or “consumers,” never use a general definition of “the media.” Break it down. Look back at your environmental scan (funny how this all fits together, eh? Almost as if people have thought it through) and see who has written about this in the past. Who is interested in this subject area? Not just publications, but individual journalists where possible (some publications, like the Economist, don’t identify their authors).

If you’re targeting bloggers, think carefully. Of course, you’ve already identified and engaged with the key bloggers in your industry, right? That means you also know who is interested in this particular topic and who is likely to be receptive to your approach. Don’t just blast your material out to every blogger you identify – just as you would with media, think about what they want, what their perspective is and whether you should even approach each of them. While positive reviews in the blogosphere can be a great thing, bloggers are far more likely to turn around and complain publicly if they don’t like your pitch than journalists are.

Think ahead

Throughout, consider whether you may be able to leverage the support of any of your audiences ahead of any potential announcement, in preparation for planning your tactics later.


Your audience selection is critical to the success of your communications plan. Gap-filled or imprecise audience selection leads to an unfocused, ineffective roll-out of your communications. Conversely, well-defined audiences let you craft your messages and tactics appropriately to achieve your objectives.

What have I missed here? How do you approach defining your audiences?

The “Communications Plan” Series

This is post number seven in a series of 13 posts exploring how to create a good communications plan. To read more of the series, check out a summary of the posts so far or pick from the list below: