15 Tips for Effective Communications Planning

I’ve helped dozens of foundations to develop and launch new grantmaking initiatives. One of the lessons I’ve learned is the importance of communications planning – early and often. As one colleague advised me, “Communications begins the moment you open your mouth and start talking about the idea of your initiative.”  Yet communications planning often gets overlooked.

To help one of our clients prepare for communications planning for a new initiative, I conducted brief research to identify recommended components of a communications plan, and approaches to communications planning. I wanted to share some of the key findings with you, in hopes that it helps you with communications planning for your philanthropic initiatives and programs.

A Strategic Communications Plan Should Have Internal And External Components

An internal communications plan is for everyone who has ever been involved in the planning of your initiative. This includes people such as all of your foundation staff and board members who have been involved conceptualizing and developing the initiative, planning team members, advisory council members, the community members who have ever participated in planning meetings, and other involved stakeholders.  Internal communications strategies for those most closely involved in current planning efforts, such as an e-newsletter to keep all the planning team members appraised of what each other is doing, will be very different from strategies to connect with broader stakeholders who don’t yet know about your efforts, such as policymakers, media, and community members.

The external communications plan is for anyone who hasn’t been involved, but who needs to be.  This might be the people who will benefit from your initiative, business, schools, policymakers, other funders who have not yet committed funds, community providers who have not yet been involved, the media, etc.  It also includes those who might be opposed to your efforts.

13 Components of a Communications Plan

A strategic communications plan should include the following:

1. Measurable goals and strategies – The communications plan should include clear and measurable goals and strategies. These goals should be as specific as possible. Avoid generic goals such as “raise awareness”, and make sure communications goals are realistic and can be accomplished with the human and financial resources available.

2. Target audiences

  • You will want to have agreement about who are the key internal and external audiences, what they key messages are for each audience, and what you want each audience to do as a result of hearing those messages.
  • Be as specific as possible about what you want to accomplish with each audience, and how communications can help. For example, communications with state policymakers will differ if you are trying to create policy change, or if you are trying to get a new line item in the state budget.
  • Think about audiences in two groups: those who will support your effort, and those who will be against it. Be sure to have strategies that address those who will be barriers to success (e.g., to see if you can turn some of them into supporters, or “frame the debate” to prevent their negative messages from taking hold)
  • Delineate the different sectors of audience (public, private, nonprofit, etc) as well as the different levels (local, regional, state)
  • News media is both an audience and a vehicle, so you should be clear on the role of media for each.
  • The “general public” is not a target audience.  You need to be more specific.

3. Identification of the message “frame” – The plan should describe how the initiative should be framed (e.g., “education will lead neighborhood residents to economic opportunity”). It should also identify what people’s current frame is (e.g., “schools in this neighborhood are horrible and students are getting a terrible education”), how you can communicate with them within their current frame, and how you will move them to the new frame.

4. Key messages and persuasive strategies – As mentioned above, while there might be one overarching message, different audiences will need different key messages. You will also want to identify the readiness of each audience to hear and act upon these messages, their core concerns so that you can ensure your messages are meaningful to them, and the messenger to share your message.  Additionally, there are different types of persuasion, and the plan should address how each persuasive strategy will be used to gain support. For example, rational persuasion uses technical data and logical arguments, while emotional persuasion uses values and emotion, such as photographs of happy children, to convey messages.

5. Opportunities and barriers for reaching key audiences – The plan should identify different strategies for and opportunities to reach key audiences with your messages. It should also identify barriers and how those barriers can be overcome.

6. Communications activitiesFor each goal and strategy, there will be a series of communications activities, or tactics, identified. Each activity/tactic should have a clear timeline, communications vehicles, people assigned to them, and a budget.

7. Communications vehiclesWithin each goal, strategy and tactic there will be different communications vehicles to use to carry your message to your audience.  This includes face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, e-newsletters, blogs, grassroots mobilization, policy reports, op-eds, community meetings, etc.

8. Crisis communicationsThe communications plan should include how to manage and communicate about any crises that might arise.

9. Implementation planThe communications plan should be accompanied by an implementation plan. This should be a very clear road map that lays out specific timelines, deadlines, activities, who is responsible, etc.

10. Monitoring and evaluationYou will want to track and measure success, so each communication goal and strategy should be measurable and evaluated. That way you can also make adjustments if certain strategies and tactics aren’t working.

11. Timing considerationsA realistic time horizon for a strategic communications plan is three years.  However, the communications plan should include immediate-, short-, and long-term goals and strategies. The implementation plan should help in determining how to prioritize and roll out the different communication components, strategies and tactics. Since your initiative will have immediate communications needs, you should identify what needs to happen immediately and what are some “low-hanging fruit” tactics that could be implemented to meet those needs, even before a full communications plan is developed. Some ideas include:

  • Initial materials
    • Fact sheet – This would be a simple document outlining the aim of your initiative, the timeframe, and who is involved.
    • PowerPoint deck that describes your initiative and conveys key messages. This can be used for both larger presentations, and also to “talk through” the initiative during one-on-one meetings. There might be slightly different versions of this for different audiences.
    • Talking points to ensure internal stakeholder leaders are conveying the same, clear messages.
  • E-newsletters or email updates to key stakeholders (brief)
  • Conducting a series of individual meetings with key stakeholders who have not yet been engaged to inform them about and begin to involve them in your initiative.
  • Identifying “ambassadors” who can help tell the story about your imitative. This can be helpful when many one-on-one meetings or group presentations are needed (so one person is not burdened with conducting them all).

12. Staffing – If a foundation has internal communications staff, it is very helpful for them to begin participating early in planning conversations. This enables them to understand the initiative so that they know how to communicate about it, and also ensures that planning happens with a communications lens. You might need to retain a communications consultant.  It will be helpful to have one person/firm responsible for creating a communications plan, and that this could be in-house staff or a consultant.  Whoever creates the plan should be someone with experience conducting strategic communications planning, preferably with complex, community-based initiatives.

One communications consultant is unlikely be have the skills, experience and capacity to meet all of your communications needs. The foundation could hire a consultant to develop the plan, and that consultant will likely be able to implement some parts of the plan but not all of them. That consultant should be able to help the foundation identify other vendors to help with specific pieces, such as media relations, advertising, community outreach, etc. That consultant could even serve as a coordinator/implementation manager of all the communications-related work.  Someone needs to be identified to manage the implementation of  the communications plan. You can find communications consultants who specialize in philanthropy and nonprofits through the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers and the Communications Network.

13. BudgetThere should be a detailed communications budget developed as part of the plan. This way, choices can be made regarding where to focus limited resources.  Like anything, communications can get very expensive, and the plan needs to match the resources available.

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

14 thoughts on “15 Tips for Effective Communications Planning”

  1. Kris, great guidance! Is there any chance that you have examples of strategic communications plans that you could share that put this guidance into action?

    1. Thanks Susan! Good question – I will look through my materials and get back to you. The challenge is that often their are very different communications plans for different communications needs (not unlike evaluation plans!)

  2. Thanks Kris for this useful post. I especially like the distinction on audience – getting clear on those who will be in support of your efforts and those who may be against it. So often it’s easy for organizations to assume things about audience, and I’ve found in working with clients that those assumptions can be telling. As you know, digging into these assumptions can actually inform the work and help craft a stronger message. Great work for passing this along!

  3. Just applauding your excellent article on specificity in a communications plan; defining messages for each market, not over-generalizing, specific vehicles – all good points that I rarely see done correctly.

    This article should be required reading for all foundations, non profits and really there is vast overlap of excellent advice for business owners, too!

    Thanks for keeping me educated, keeping me on your list, good to know about your talents!

    1. Hi – It is not hard to start a blog but hard to keep it up! I suggest that before you start posting your blogs that you write about 5 to 10 of them, so that you have them ready to go. Also set realistic expectations for yourself. One a month can be a great accomplishment. Good luck!

  4. Great explanation of everything. I think a lot of times the internal communication is overlooked because of the necessity to execute the external communication. You bring up great points about how important it is…it’s good that it’s not forgotten!

  5. Each activity/tactic should have a clear timeline, communications vehicles, people assigned to them, and a budget.ya it’s really your blog post is so nice…

  6. I am new to this type of work and this was extremely helpful…I agree that often folks assume that “causes” will always be supported…a bad move..someone will usually have an ax to grind for reasons you often can’t predict.

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