Communications planning — a beginner’s guide to making a start

Diana Burns | July 22, 2019

Image, Apple computer on a desk with two chairs and a plant with a calendar in the background

Starting a comms plan is easier than you think. Image by Roman Bozhko. Unsplash licence.

You’ve always been good with words. Writing’s your thing. At last, you’ve landed a job in communications — or comms, as those in the field tend to call it.

Perhaps your training was in journalism or media studies, or perhaps your background is in marketing, sales, project management, or administration. Communications is one of those work areas where there’s no one defined entry point.

Often, your personality and innate communication skills will be your greatest qualification for the role. You may never have had any specific training in communications, but have to learn on the job, using your wits, flexibility, and ability to fake it till you make it.

Communications can cover a huge range of work

Your comms role may include a wide range of different expectations. Amongst other things, you may be expected to:

Of course I can write a comms plan!

No matter what else you have to do, there’s one inescapable part of the job. Not long into the job, someone will ask you to produce a communications plan. ‘Of course’, you say breezily, but your blood freezes.

That request for a comms plan strikes fear into the heart of many a communications professional — especially if you’re working in a small team, or as the sole communications advisor. Where do you start? What should be included in a communications plan? How detailed does it need to be?

Questions are powerful — 10 to answer before you write

The best place to start your plan is with a series of questions.

Who is the plan for, and how will they use it?

In other words, what’s the purpose of the plan? Your answer should be the first sentence of the comms plan. Is this a high-level plan, or is it something people will use to guide their actions? Try to reflect that purpose in the title of your plan, too. Instead of just calling it Communications Plan, try to reflect the main thing you need to do. For example: Building support for a new night shelter in central Auckland.

What do you want to achieve from writing this plan?

Sure, part of the aim may be to keep your manager or boss happy. But you also want to produce a plan that helps your organisation meet its goals. Make sure you set this out clearly, using strong, simple language. For example: ‘We want to build support among people in central Auckland for a night shelter for people in need.’ Stating your desired outcome is also important so that you can measure how well you’ve succeeded in what you want to do.

How well have you set out the scope of the communications you’re planning?

The more tightly you can focus it, the more likely you are to be successful. Broad-brush campaigns rarely work. Communications needs to be broken down into small, achievable bites.

What’s the overriding message for these communications?

This should be something your chief executive or spokesperson could say aloud. For example: ‘We know we have people sleeping rough in central Auckland. We want to make sure that no-one needs to sleep on the street or under a bridge, because they all have a warm bed to go to in the centre.’

Who are your audiences for each communication?

In comms, these are often called stakeholders. That simply means all those who have a stake, or interest, in the subject. Break down your list of different stakeholders as much as you can. Having ’all ratepayers’, or ‘everyone who lives and works in the central city’ is too broad. The more defined you can make your audience, the better you can reach them.

What do you know about your audiences?

You need to know what kind of people they are, where they live, and where they get their information. If they don’t tend to read much, because they’re too busy or find reading hard, there’s no point sending them written information or advertising in the newspaper. And if they relate to a particular place, such as a sports club or church, that will give you good clues about how best to reach them.

What messages will work for your audiences?

Once you’ve worked out who your different audiences — or stakeholders — are, you can design specific messages that will work for them and their interests. Everyone is most interested in things that affect them directly. So work out what will touch each group. Shopkeepers, for example, will be interested in the effect on their business, while workers may be affected by crowds of people queuing to get into the shelter as the workers try to move past.

How can you best reach your different audiences?

You have a wide range of communication vehicles available to you, from face-to-face meetings to a media campaign. Of course, which vehicle you use to convey your messages will depend on your resources, so be realistic about how much time, effort, and money you can spend.

What are the risks of acting, or not acting?

You’ll need to weigh up the risks to your organisation of each of the options you present.

Who will do the work, and when?

Attach names and deadlines, so everyone is clear about what they need to do, and the timeframe for doing it.

Write simply and strongly

Once you’ve answered these 10 questions, you’re ready to start your plan. Make sure you write it in simple, active language. Don’t hide behind jargon, or bureaucratic language. Using strong, active verbs will help your readers know what you want to do, why, how, and when.

Write a communications plan? Of course you can!

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