A carefully written communications plan can provide strategic direction. Learn how to craft eight components of an effective plan with these detailed tips and descriptions.
Having a plan is a good thing for almost any endeavor in life, but because strategic communications is not yet squarely on the plates of many organizations, leaders often miss the opportunity to think strategically about how to communicate to the array of stakeholders in their communities.
It’s best to think of a Communications Plan as a blueprint for your work. Like a blueprint, the Plan will establish the general parameters of your work and include many of the details. But it is also a living, breathing document that will continue to change over time as new developments and new needs become apparent. The key is to make it real, but flexible.
The main elements of a Communications Plan are:
- Situation Analysis
- Core Message
- Goals, Objectives, and Tactics
- Budget & Timeline
Many people do not know the purpose of a Communications Plan. It will be your job to make the case. You will probably want to begin with a very simple definition: “In order for our school remodeling efforts to succeed, we must build public understanding and support for the work we’re doing. We are not trying to ‘convince’ or ‘sell’ to our community, but rather to build genuine understanding and invite deep engagement in our work. We believe the community has a great opportunity to learn together about the exciting new direction in which we are headed and that’s why we must communicate clearly and regularly.”
An effective Communications Plan is built off of an organization’s overall Strategic Plan. It’s much easier, and much more effective, to create a Communications Plan when you have an organizational Strategic Plan because communications can then become an engine for all of the work you do. Your Communications Plan must be aligned with your organization’s vision, mission and values.
2. Situation Analysis
The Situation Analysis describes the context of your school and district—both historical context and current social, political, and economic realities. It includes information about your school, your district, and the community at large, and paints a picture of the greatest opportunities and the greatest challenges you face in moving a student-centered learning agenda forward.
3. Core Message
As you already know, a movement requires a sturdy frame—a story or narrative that can hold all of the various aspects of student-centered learning. This story must help people see that, even if they don’t have children in the schools, they need to care about the quality of the schools in their community.
The big umbrella story goes something like this:
- In order to prepare our community and its young people for a prosperous future at a time of momentous societal change, we need strong schools.
- Currently, our education system—like most across the country—needs to be brought “up to code” to match the demands of 21st century life.
- We are, therefore, embarking on a significant remodeling of our education system in the months and years ahead. This requires partnering with and drawing upon all of the deepest strengths in our community.
- Fortunately, we know more now than ever before about how the brain is wired, how people learn, and what enables children to thrive. These new understandings are guiding our efforts to make learning more student-centered.
This narrative is significantly different from the one that we typically hear in the public square: that our students aren’t achieving, our schools are broken, and teachers are to blame. Your core message is a redefinition of the problem statement, from focusing on negative, counterproductive frames to one that recognizes the need for schools and other organizations to adapt to a world that requires more of all young people.
In the education arena, there are many different stakeholders: students, teachers, administrators, parents, school boards, business and community leaders, higher education leaders, and taxpaying citizens. (Remember the “Orchestra” metaphor?)
Many organizations, including schools, think they need to create a different message for each stakeholder. While that may be true in the world of marketing, it is not necessarily true when it comes to the public understanding of issues. In our case, there is a single core story (a frame) that is shared across your community, with some room to create specific messages for specific audiences. For example, if you are talking with parents, you will need to tie the core story to the work of individual students. But remember that parents are also citizens, and we want them to keep their citizen hats on, even as they wear their parent hats. If you are talking with business leaders, you may be tempted to tie success in schools exclusively to success in the workplace, but remember that a stronger, healthier citizenry is good for business, too. Business leaders can be driven by the same mental and cultural models as civic leaders.
One way to think about your audiences is to categorize them by the extent to which you want them to be engaged in your efforts. We like to think of them in three groups:
- Stakeholders who need to be continually engaged
- Stakeholders who need to be strategically engaged
- Stakeholders who need to be informed
5. Goals, Objectives, and Tactics
A Goal is generally a high-level aspiration that is the umbrella for more specific aspirations and activities. Typically, you will articulate 3-6 communications goals. Here is a goal that appears in the Communications Plan for the Pittsfield School District in New Hampshire:
Increase understanding of and support for The Redesign of the Pittsfield Schools by creating tools and trainings that will help internal and external leaders demonstrate the benefit to the community as a whole.
An objective is a more specific and measurable activity that helps realize the goal. Here is an objective that follows the goal articulated above:
Develop a common language among all leadership stakeholders around the future preparation of Pittsfield, through the creation of materials and through training and technical assistance.
A tactic is an activity that happens on the ground to accomplish the stated objective. Typically, there are several tactics under each objective. Here is a tactic that is intended to make good on the promise of the objective above:
Help teachers and students learn how to best share their experiences of student-centered approaches to learning with the larger community by conducting spokesperson trainings.
Many organizations do not have directors of communication, and even if yours does, it will be important to designate a leader and a team for developing and implementing your Communications Plan. Many organizations are forming communication teams, often consisting of multiple stakeholders, who come together on a regular basis to generate ideas and monitor progress on the work plan.
7. Budget & Timeline
Every Communications Plan has a budget and a timeline: what is it going to cost to implement your plan and how long will it take to carry it out successfully? Once you agree on the plan, create your calendar, and finalize your funding, you can then create a work plan that looks something like this:
|TASK||START DATE||END DATE||OWNER||STATUS|
|PowerPoint Presentation about the Reorganization||8.1.13||9.18.13||Jane/John||Completed|
|Revised Talking Points & FAQs||8.10.13||9.10.13||Jane/Ross||Ongoing|
|Create one-pager or brochure about Redesign||8.5.13||9.30.13||Jane/Holly/Leadership Team||Due September 5|
|Community Connection Night||9.19.13||9.19.13||Molly/John||Completed|
|Communications Planning Meeting||8.21.13||Communications Team||Completed|
|Conversation about FAQs||8.21.13||9.21.13||Communications Team||Due October 24|
|Begin Disseminating Explainer||8.27.13||Ongoing||Communications Team||Ongoing|
Evaluation of communications/engagement efforts is still a relatively new field that we are following closely. It can be challenging to measure your progress, but we advise you not to skip this important step of the process. As the saying goes: “what gets assessed gets addressed.”
A few simple ways to assess your traction:
- Do you have a group of ambassadors (preferably educators and students) who are competent messengers for student-centered learning in your school and/or community?
- Are you beginning to hear school and community people talk about the need for school/district redesign?
- Are you beginning to hear people mention elements of student-centered learning as central to getting our communities and our young people ready for increasing societal demands?
- Are business and community leaders engaged in the schools?
- Is the media covering your issue?
- How is the media covering your issue? Is their approach building public understanding? (Remember that no coverage is better than bad coverage.)