Communications Planning

Too many organizations pursue communications with little or no documentation of communications planning. Many interviewees chose not to share a written communications plan. Some said that their plans were out of date, in progress or suggested that they use separate plans for each communications effort. Others described a flexible, responsive—sometimes reactive—approach to communications. For those who produced communications planning documentation, most plans were fair to good, with some very tightly and beneficially linked to or integrated within the organization’s overall strategic plan. Some documentation was less developed, expressing areas of intent without action steps or measurable results, or providing a simple communications calendar without clear ties to strategy.

Communications planning, for many interviewees, was a group activity, with responsibilities distributed across the staff and board. For others, communications planning is the domain of one or a few executives.

A few interview subjects did not feel they were able to comment on communications planning within their organizations, either because they were unaware of or uninvolved in planning of this type.

Some, but not a clear majority, described training as useful to their communications planning. Within this subset, many suggested that training’s greatest value was its influence on communications planning.

When specifically asked about the value of training to strategy, many individuals immediately recalled favorite tactical topics, particularly making strong presentations and communicating via storytelling. Some interviewees named audience and messaging content—key to communications planning—as most valuable elements of training.

Reviews of the Smart Chart planning tool used in training were generally positive. Some individuals valued it highly and reported using it significantly; others described it as a good reference for their communications planning. Critiques of the Smart Chart include that it may have been over-emphasized in training, that it may not be suited to all types of organizations, and that it may be too complex and time-consuming to be used by organizations already pressed for time and resources. Though some interview subjects said they used the Smart Chart initially or continue to use it as an ongoing reference, no one submitted a Smart Chart in response to the request for communications planning documentation.


Presence of a plan

Yes, communications is articulated in a plan. Very much so.


Based on the strategic planning process we went through last year… we can tie each tactic to an overall program objective.


We document our plan at a high level in presentation form; we also have a yearly plan [regarding] donors.


Every year we do work planning. We use the Smart Chart as a framework for that. Then at the end of the year, we look back at it and we’re usually pretty successful. We suffer a little because we have a small communications department.


We have some structure in some places, and in other places, we’ve been more organic.


We have accomplished many aspects of the plan but have not formally updated it.


We do whatever we can do [relative to communications] in a project area, but there is no overall organizational communications plan.


We don’t have an overall communications plan. We usually do planning based on specific activities… We had a communications plan for our national conference and we do plans and schedules for each publication we release.


We have several plans.


We do individual communications plans for each program. They are rolling, flexible, dynamic. I am the fulcrum for the whole deal. Everything comes across my desk before it goes out the door. I make sure we’re on-message, we look good, we proof things.


Candidly, our strategy is a fairly task-oriented list. We’re still in a formation place. We’re hoping to have a communications director in the next year in order to bring a more strategic view to communications.


Our communications program focuses primarily on being reactive. When issues come up, or there is an action alert and we need to get letters out to Congress or releases out to the media—that’s where the communications department focuses its attention.


One thing we don’t have is a Smart Chart model like the one I learned in training. We have message hierarchy and framework. I think our challenge is time and capacity to sit down and write a plan.


We have a strategic plan, but it doesn’t necessarily have a communications section to speak of.

Integration of communications and other strategy


Communication is a central part of our overall strategy.


I’d say it’s pretty fairly integrated. Every three years we do a three-year plan and communications strategy accompanies that plan.


Communications are fully integrated into strategy. It’s difficult to tease out communications, in fact.


It’s pretty well integrated. We do have a communications section of our annual work plan.


Everything we do is mission-driven. Communications tactics fall right out of our mission.


Communications is detailed on page __ of our strategic plan. Our goal… is to get everybody at the [organization] thinking about communications through every step of the process.


Every year we have two retreats for the staff to review the strategic goals of the organization. Each program area, including the communications division, identifies specific activities to reach related to the five goals of the organization, and the specific activities are mapped to the goals.

Involvement in communications planning


We get input from across the organization [to shape communications strategy].


Our board reviews communications materials for how reflective they are of core organization and generally is involved in strategy.


I don’t have the clearest sense. I’m not part of the senior leadership team that sets strategy. Communications planning is not my primary responsibility. (manager, content development)

Value of communications planning


[Communications is] a huge part of what we do. I think this was the greatest learning for me… A lot of times our organizational strategy is our communications strategy.


I think we didn’t really recognize who we were and what our potential was until we did our communications work.


We have no strategic approach to communications. Missing is an understanding about the importance of communications. I mean, people think it’s important, but I don’t think they know how important. (Outlier)


Training influence


To a large degree, the notion of strategy—of creating a strategic plan around communications —was such a new idea for me. It was really an aha for me to think about communications in that way—in a much broader context rather than from a tactical point of view.


I learned the most in strategy. This was really the focus of the [training session] I attended.


Planning and strategy, as well as target audiences [were most useful to us].


[Training influenced strategy] heavily. Training helped us sharpen our strategic focus and approach, and to understand our objectives and measuring our objectives.


Planning and strategy, target audiences and messaging—these [training topics] were extremely helpful. [After I returned from training], we Smart Charted all of our goals—everybody did it. It was great.


We use [the Smart Chart] quite a bit. It’s a good tool, and we use it at the outset of most major campaigns.


We don’t always back it up to strategies that flow into tactics. Often we start with a tactic, e.g., someone suggests, oh, don’t we usually do an op-ed in this situation? But now our better instinct, I would say, has been to do a Smart Chart.


So many communications departments, including ours prior to training, are tactics-driven… have “shiny new objects syndrome.” By forcing us to do the Smart Chart at the outset of any campaign, we have to ask what are we trying to do, who is our audience, who are the decisionmakers… The Smart Chart was something we used immediately.


We’ve used [the Smart Chart] in meetings with our internal [staff] to help frame messages. I think that the Smart Chart was the most valuable thing I got out of the training.


The Smart Chart was close to what we were already doing and was helpful. It was a thoughtful structure for message development. I gave it to our newest employee, a newly minted Ph.D., as a resource.


I did not use the Smart Chart per se. It was a good, common sense approach and was naturally consistent with my approach. (communications professional)


[Was training an influence on your planning?]Not planning in particular. We more or less were able to reiterate that we’re doing a pretty good job of planning.


I wish we had more time. I knew when I learned about [the planning model], that it was a good idea that I probably wouldn’t implement. I’m certain it could make a big difference.


Very formulaic—the model [Smart Chart] was accessible, but for an organization of our size and scope, without a dedicated communications person, it was a bit cumbersome for the lay communications folks attending training. It’s a lot of work to do without a concrete message. (executive leader)


I think [the Smart Chart] is useful for developing an advocacy-type campaign. [My] organization doesn’t view itself as an advocacy organization per se. I think [the Smart Chart was] presented as a communications tool, but to me the clearer application of it was in advocacy—trying to achieve some specific action.


I valued the tactics most, particularly on presentations, which was useful immediately. The Smart Chart seemed valuable, but we haven’t implemented it.

If there was a strategy benefit to the training it was that we incorporated into the air we’re breathing and enforced that we should do this consistently, systematically. I don’t recall any aha moments.

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