How to Develop
a Communications Plan


How to Develop
a Communications Plan

Sample Plan 1
from PRSA

Sample Plan 2
from ARA

Sample Plan 3
from King County Library System

New: Sample Plan 4
from "Any County" School System

Crisis Communication Quick Reference

What is a communication plan? When should it be developed? Where does the information in the plan come from? How do you write one, and why should you bother?

Overworked and underfunded communicators (Are there any other kind?) have a right to ask whether the work involved in developing a plan is worth it. The answer is yes because a written communication plan will

  • give your day-to-day work a focus,
  • help you set priorities,
  • provide you with a sense of order and control,
  • help get the chief staff executive and staff to support your program,
  • protect you against last-minute, seat-of-the-pants demands from staff and members, and
  • prevent you from feeling overwhelmed, offering instead peace of mind.

What Is a Communication Plan?

A communication plan is a written document that describes
  • what you want to accomplish with your association communications (your objectives),
  • ways in which those objectives can be accomplished (your goals or program of work),
  • to whom your association communications will be addressed (your audiences),
  • how you will accomplish your objectives (the tools and timetable), and
  • how you will measure the results of your program (evaluation).

Communications include all written, spoken, and electronic interaction with association audiences. A communication plan encompasses objectives, goals, and tools for all communications, including but not limited to:

  • periodic print publications;
  • online communications;
  • meeting and conference materials;
  • media relations and public relations materials;
  • marketing and sales tools;
  • legal and legislative documents;
  • incoming communications, including reception procedures and voice mail content;
  • committee and board communiques;
  • corporate identity materials, including letterhead, logo, and envelopes;
  • surveys;
  • certificates and awards;
  • annual reports;
  • signage;
  • speeches; and
  • invoices.

When to Develop the Plan

The best time to develop your plan is in conjunction with your annual budgeting or organizational planning process.

Where to Get Information

Grist for the plan generally comes from five sources:
  1. your association mission statement,
  2. a communication audit,
  3. membership surveys and focus groups,
  4. committee and leadership input, and
  5. discussions with other staff and departments.

How to Develop the Plan

Take the following steps to develop an effective communication plan:

Conduct a research-communication audit. Evaluate your current communications. Some associations hire firms to do this, but the price for the objectivity of an outside auditor can be high. To conduct your own audit, find out

  • what every staff person is doing in the way of communication,
  • what each communication activity is designed to achieve, and
  • how effective each activity is.
To get the answers you need,
  • brainstorm with communication staff,
  • talk to other departments,
  • interview the chief staff executive,
  • interview the board,
  • talk to communication committee members,
  • survey the membership,
  • host focus groups, and
  • query nonmembers.

Define objectives. Armed with information from your audit, define your overall communication objectives-the results you want to achieve. These might include

  • excellent service to members,
  • member loyalty,
  • centralization of the communication effort,
  • increased employee teamwork,
  • improved product delivery,
  • visibility for the association and the industry or profession it represents, and
  • influence on government, media, consumers, and other audiences.

Define audiences. List all the audiences that your association might contact, attempt to influence, or serve. Included on your list may be

  • members;
  • nonmembers;
  • consumers;
  • related associations;
  • adversarial associations;
  • educators;
  • federal, regional, and local governments;
  • related industries; and
  • the media.

Define goals. With stated objectives, and considering available human and financial resources, define goals-in other words, a program of work for each objective. Goals include general programs, products, or services that you will use to achieve stated objectives. For example, if the objective is to improve member service, goals might include improved training for the member-service function, special communications directed at first-time members, a reference manual for handling complaints, and ongoing information for members.

Identify tools. Decide what tools will be used to accomplish stated goals. These tools can be anything from a simple flyer to a glossy magazine. Don't overlook less obvious tools such as posters, report covers, Rolodex cards, and Web sites. Brainstorm ideas with your staff.

Establish a timetable. Once objectives, goals, audiences, and tools have been identified, quantify the results in a calendar grid that outlines roughly what projects will be accomplished and when. Separate objectives into logical time periods (monthly, weekly, etc.).

Evaluate the result. Build into your plan a method for measuring results. Your evaluation might take the form of

  • a monthly report on work in progress,
  • formalized department reports for presentation at staff meetings,
  • periodic briefings of the chief staff executive and the department heads, and
  • a year-end summary for the annual report.

Developing a written communication plan will take effort. Plan on three or four days the first time you do it. Once in place, the written plan will smooth your job all year long, earn you respect from the CEO and other staff, help set work priorities, protect you from last-minute demands, and bring a semblance of order to your chaotic job.

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Questions or comments? Email Robin Mayhall