Working with a new client or organization is exciting! They trust you to tell their story, to communicate with their audiences (or help them build new ones), and help them succeed as an organization. You can’t wait! You want to jump right in and get to work.
But before you start looking for story ideas, planning events, or designing infographics, you have to develop an often-overlooked part of communications—your strategic plan.
Remember Hannibal Smith in “The A-Team?” Do you remember the scene near the end of each show where he’d stand, looking out on yet another improbable victory with his trusty cigar in hand and say: “I love it when I throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks!”
No. Of course not.
His memorable quote is: “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Without a plan, Hannibal would be looking at the rubble around his feet crying, “Why?????”
Because we want to keep you from being in that position, we are going to discuss what a good communications plan should include.
What a Good Communications Plan Includes
Whether you’re working for an agency, a nonprofit, or a corporation, you need a solid plan. A good communications plan helps you set expectations early during a campaign. It defines success for the organization, and better protects you from unrealistic—or out-of-scope—demands.
Several years ago, we hosted a webinar with Benson Hendrix on how to craft a strategic plan. While it’s a few years old, the message behind why and how to develop a great strategy has not changed.
It shows you how you can create measurable objectives, with solid strategy and tactics. It focuses on the “Four-Step Process” and “Management by Objectives,” two important ideas to help you develop strategies that make sense for you and your clients.
It will help you develop your strategy chops.
One of the great things about planning is that different people have different ways of developing plans. Almost none of them are ever completely wrong, but there are some basics to what you should include.
The 16 Things Your Communications Plan Should Include
Nearly every communicator prefers to jump right to tactics and we forget about the research and plan phase of what we do. While it’s certainly not as exciting as tactics, we should not do anything without it.
Can you imagine being in a new city and having to find your way to a meeting without GPS, your phone, or a good old-fashioned map? That’s what it’s like when we try to run a communications program without a plan. We’re trying to drive somewhere without having any idea where we’re going.
If you dread annual planning—or really have no idea where to start, this will help. There are 16 things every communications plan should have that will drive all marketing, business development, growth, and results.
Money, money, money, mooooney! Let’s dig in!
The most important of your communications plan is to have a process. If you just stick some goals up on a whiteboard and call it a day, it won’t work.
However, if you have a process and it’s implemented well, it will force you to confront challenges and contradictions that could trip future growth. It needs to be developed with colleagues who feel comfortable being brutally honest.
The reason creating a communications plan is harder than it seems is that we often see what should be rather than what is. If you have colleagues who aren’t on the client team or not in the communications or marketing department, use them. They’ll have ideas that transcend your world.
If you are a one-person show or have colleagues you don’t trust, use the Spin Sucks Community. We love a good brainstorm session that spans several days.
In today’s virtual world, it can be a bit challenging. If you can craft this process in person, you can get it done in a day or day and a half, but on Zoom, it may take you some time. For instance, I wouldn’t ask people to sit on a Zoom call for a full day or day and a half. I’d break it up into two-hour segments over several weeks.
If you want your communications plan to drive real business results, and you work in a B2B world, the objective will always be to increase conversions. If you’re working with nonprofits, it will be to increase fundraising or volunteers. And with consumer brands, it certainly depends on the organization, but I can’t imagine you wouldn’t want to affect sales in some way.
From a B2B perspective, which is my expertise, this is where you’ll state how many new customers you need by size, industry, and marketing needs. You also can describe here how much growth can come from existing customers. After all, it’s far easier to grow existing customers than it is to obtain new ones.
You also should say how much the increase should be and make it realistic enough that you can actually achieve it. For instance, don’t say you want to add $10MM next year if you added only $1MM this year.
The objective is the what—what you want to achieve—and make it measurable. For one client we’re working with, the objective is to increase highly-qualified marketing leads We look at four things: quality of audience, origination, contribution, and conversion, which leads to return-on-investment.
For another, we look at the website and blog traffic that comes from organic (content marketing and SEO) and direct (awareness and reputation) at the top of the funnel.
From there, we create opportunities for them to be marketing qualified leads (they subscribe or download content), then sales qualified, and then new customers.
While we aren’t in charge of converting from sales qualified to conversion, we definitely track where they came from.
For some reason, goals are really difficult for communicators. When I worked at FleishmanHillard, I got so tired of people asking me what a goal should include, I wrote a list of active words and posted it on my wall. It included words for goals and for strategies.
Today, that seems kind of silly, but it worked and it taught people how to build goals, just by looking at my wall. The goals should be no more than five (ideally only three) and should be actionable.
For instance, how will you reach your objective of increasing your conversions? You have to have goals that work backward from there:
- Increase website traffic from XX to XX
- Build email database from XX to XX
- Increase marketing leads from XX to XX
- Increase marketing qualified leads from XX to XX
- Increase sales qualified leads from XX to XX
- Convert XX percent of sales qualified leads to customers
If you don’t yet have the numbers you need to include in your goals, you can set benchmarks. For instance, I would craft a 60- or 75-day plan to set benchmarks and then go back and create the goals.
For the aforementioned client, we started with a list of 250 prospects. We tagged them all in the CRM as prospects and we got to work. If they subscribe to the blog, download some content, or fill out a form, they become a marketing lead. Now we’ve hit our first three goals—increase website traffic, build email database, and increase marketing leads.
At this point, the marketing and sales qualified leads that lead to conversion are different for each organization.
But this gives you a really good start.
Next, you’ll move to your strategy, which is what helps you achieve your goals—it’s how you’ll do it. It becomes your map or GPS.
If your goal is to build and enhance your reputation to attract more clients in your target market, then your strategy has to be a sentence or two that describes how you’ll do that.
This is the vision of your communications plan. What does success look like a year from now? Really think about what you will have accomplished by the end—it could be three months, six months, a year, or five years.
Imagine what the client or CEO is saying to you, after a successful year. Write that down.
Now it’s time to start building your communications plan. You will need to get information from your client or your executive team to fill some of this in. They may delay getting you the information—or won’t provide it at all.
Fight for it.
You cannot affect change in the organization unless you know where the business is going and how you can help it get there.
If some of the following information does not yet exist, force a strategic planning session. We will not work with a new client without that session—and we require every member of the executive team to sit in it. It is painful for some—and I once had a client CEO walk out because he didn’t want to discuss growth in front of his team—but it created a communications plan worth its weight in gold.
This one is easy! Create a one-page recap of everything in your plan. It should sit on your desk so you can review it daily.
It should include:
- Core values
- Key messages
- List of communications tactics
- Any issues or challenges that came up in the initial planning meetings that you haven’t yet solved
- A list of things you would like to do if resources open up (but are not part of the main plan)
During the meeting where you bring together colleagues from other departments, you will create a list of challenges you’re facing. These could be anything from a lazy salesperson to a commoditized business.
Create a description of the products or services you want to market and what challenges you might face in doing so. For instance, we have productized our intellectual property for communicators and for agency owners.
One of our challenges includes communicators who don’t have budget control. (Which means they can’t spend money on professional development.) Or perhaps a competitor has more experience in an industry you want to enter. Or your organization doesn’t yet have the history a prospect would want.
List every challenge you can foresee.
The situation analysis, then, is an identification of key industry status metrics. We have a client who does this quarterly. He includes what’s going on economically, from a global perspective, as well as industry metrics.
It’s incredibly helpful to see how things change from quarter to quarter and how the work you’re doing falls within the industry trends.
Your situation analysis should include your overall goals and focus, your culture, your perceived strengths and weaknesses, and your market share position.
The customer analysis in your communications plan could also be a brand persona creation.
- Who are the three or four customer types you want to attract?
- How many customers do you want to have by the end of the year?
- What are the values of your targeted customers?
Include an overview of the decision process those prospects use to hire an organization like yours (or your client’s).
And now it’s time to do a customer analysis. It should look at your own marketing position, along with the market positions of your closest competitors. I would also include the domain authority of all of your competitors and a look at where they rank for your priority keywords.
Moz and SEMRush will both let you do this automatically if you have $99/month to spend. If you don’t, you can do it manually. Then update it monthly. It won’t take you very long. It’s just a spreadsheet and a Google search.
Include any weaknesses that could curtail your efforts to compete effectively.
Your implementation summary is an analysis of how you will use the above information to achieve your goals. This should be as specific as possible to allow for accountability.
Who needs to do what, and on what timeline? Do you need help from other departments (the answer is yes) or will you work in a silo (the answer is no)?
Write down a summary of the big things—product launches, events, speaking engagements, board meetings—and who will need to help.
These could also be called key messages if you prefer. It’s the language you will use in your marketing materials to differentiate you from competitors. It should highlight our key service mission and qualitative skill sets.
It seems odd to add a cost strategy in your communications plan, but it’s important to look at the overall business. In this case, the cost could definitely affect your ability to deliver results.
Include an overview of the organization’s pricing structure, relative to that of the competitors and averages for the size of company, industry, and region. The more you can claim deep expertise, the more you can charge. In a PR agency, for instance, crisis communications experts do well here because they get paid based on their expertise.
Once you have this complete, you should consider posting pricing on your website. It can stay internal, but it’s worth the conversation.
The PESO Model™
Now we can finally talk tactics. This is where most communicators start—but you can see how much you should do before you get here.
This is where you’ll include the fun stuff, such as creating a new media room. Build a cranberry bog in Times Square (which we actually did). Host a celebrity chef cook-off for catfish (did that, too). Or hold a fire ant funeral, complete with a pastor and mourners (the pinnacle of my career).
Go wild here—all of your tactics will work and be measurable because of all of the work you’ve done to this point. This should include tactics that fit within a PESO Model™, are integrated, and are measurable. It should include a detailed delineation of who on your team will implement specific elements of the plan and a timeline.
Changing Market Analysis
Forecast anticipated changes in the fiscal landscape of your target industries in the next three to five years. How will these changes affect you?
For instance, no one in a thousand years could have predicted a global pandemic would shut businesses down for several weeks. Actually, that’s not true. Bill Gate predicted it, but no one believed him. Guess we learned that lesson!
I think we can all agree the past couple of years have been special—not only did we deal with a pandemic, the Death Valley recorded the hottest temperature ever, three hurricanes hit landfall at the same time, Utah had days of earthquakes, murder hornets flew over Washington…not to mention social justice movements, cops murdering civilians, and a climate crisis.
The point is, you have to be prepared for the outside forces that will affect your communications plan, even if you can’t predict the specific instances.
And last, but certainly not least, you must include metrics. If you did your work upfront correctly, you already have your metrics.
Scroll back up to the Goals section. You know where I said, “XX to XX”? Those should be actual numbers Those numbers become your metrics.
If you need help building this part of your communications plan, we have plenty on the topic, which you can find here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Make sure you follow the SMART structure when creating your communications plan: are they specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound?
Get Your Communications Plan Written!
This is not an easy assignment, but the time is right. If you don’t already have many of these things written down and in stone, it may take you several weeks of brainstorming and testing to get it right. You have enough time to get it done between now and the end of Q1.
Work with colleagues in other departments. Force a strategy session with the executives. Ask for help in the Spin Sucks Community. Access the organization’s analytics and any other data you can get your hands on.
And then get to work. You’ll be happy you did!
Need More Help?
That one was a doozy, but this is incredibly important work.
I know we’d all like to skip it—just like we’d all love it if one workout a week kept us in tiptop shape (or maybe that’s just me, but it would be pretty amazing!).
Don’t skip it! Do the hard work. It’ll be worth it.
To boot, the PESO Model Certification will teach you exactly how to do all of this work—and get you there in just eight short weeks. By the time you finish, you’ll have your PESO Model plan ready for global domination.