No two strategic communications plans are the same. However, having written hundreds of them over the past 20 years, I have found that key elements of the process of communications planning consistently deliver a high-quality product of a solid communications plan. We have codified these core steps as part of our Results Map® process for strategic communications planning – here are a few highlights:
1. Timebox Your Process
Have you heard the axiom “work expands to fill the time you give it”? This is never truer than during strategic planning. To stay efficient — and thereby effective — set a tight timeframe for your communications planning process and stick to it. Six to eight weeks should be plenty, even for a large-scale corporate strategic communications plan.
2. Use Tools to Start Conversations
Whether you’re using the Results Map® suite of online tools and templates or something else, start by using those tools a jumping-off point for broader conversations. Early in the planning process, you want to find ways to see the forest for the trees, and deeply understand the business and strategic context for your plan. Having thoughtful, structured discovery conversations (through key informant interviews or workshops) will help. You can also check out our Top 10 Questions in Strategic Communications to spark your thinking about lines of inquiry.
3. Establish a Sound Structure
When you’re putting together your plan, make sure you are using a thoughtful, logical structure. This is where most communications plans fall apart – they contain great ideas, but there are gaps in coherence and sequencing which dilute impact and credibility. I like to use PowerPoint for our communications plans, as I find that the format lends itself best to visual elements and to having a strong information architecture and structure for the plan. I recommend thinking about objectives and evaluation as the key bookends of your plan – once those are in place, the rest of the content will flow naturally. A word to the wise: keep the plan tight. The more text you hand over to an executive, the more opportunity you give them to poke holes in your work.
4. Maintain Laser-Like Focus
Strategic planning is all about deciding where to direct your limited resources. You need to be realistic so that you can deliver on what you’ve promised, and you need what you’re promising to align with corporate objectives. So, be vigilant about scope creep! Also, make sure you’re not picking up other people’s parcels in your plan – that is, your objectives, approach, messaging, tactics, and evaluation indicators should fall within the scope of your function. Your goal is to maintain directional alignment to corporate objectives, while being careful about not taking on items of execution over which you have no functional authority or control.
5. Favour a Lightweight Approach to Planning
Time is a finite resource; the more you spend on planning, the more you take away from other important activities. As such, try to keep a lightweight approach to planning. Use fast, immersive processes like workshops, and favour concise deliverables over lengthier (i.e., more time-consuming) documentation. Keep in mind, the value of strategic planning is very much in the process and in many ways the plan is merely an artefact of that high-value contribution.
6. Keep Your Eye on Execution
Always remember: We don’t write plans for the sake of planning, but rather to get the best results from our communications messages and tactics. We often include key enablers in our plan structures so that we have a dedicated section of the deliverable that presents the conditions required for successful execution. This might include technology, processes, tools and training. Prioritize opportunities for consultation and co-creation with key internal clients and stakeholders. The more they view your strategic communications plan as their strategic communications plan, the better your chances of success. Finally, pay attention to the legitimacy and the perceived legitimacy of your communications plan – consider how you can demonstrate making evidence-based recommendations, and think about who you can involve in your consultative process to build internal support and sponsorship.