Creating a communications plan? Gather your flock

This article is cross-posted from the engine room blog.


All advocacy organizations do communications work. Whether you are fundraising, mobilizing supporters to take action, raising awareness, or educating your representatives – communications plays a substantial role in these efforts. For all organizations, particularly small ones with limited resources, it’s really important to focus your communications efforts on what makes the most impact to help your organization reach its objectives. The best shot you have at achieving impact is to make a plan.

A communications plan will help you focus your resources on what supports your organizational goals. Sure, you could go on your instincts and send out four newsletters per month on your organization’s efforts in general. But how will you ever know if your audience would actually prefer two newsletters specifically on what you’re learning? Taking the time to create a communications plan will help you think through what tactics you want to try, and test how well they’re working over time.

The steps we took to create our communications plan

Purpose of plan: The first step is to write down what this communications plan is meant to achieve. This may include:

  • engage effectively with stakeholders
  • prioritize communications efforts and how we organize the work
  • understand how our day-to-day work connects to the organization’s objectives
  • identify gaps in activities
  • ensure that the team all understands  the organization’s priorities and how they’re communicated in public
  • measure what communication tactics are working and what are not.

What is the timeframe? The communications plan I led for the engine room covers one year. This is our first of its kind, and we want to give ourselves the freedom to really change it up at the end of the year.

Current analysis: Then you’ll want to write down the organization’s current situation. What do you do? What are your communications strengths and weaknesses? Conversations around these questions can be very helpful and enlightening.

Organizational objectives: Now you’re ready to start laying the foundation for the plan by starting with your organizational objectives. I started with these four engine room organizational objectives for 2014-2015:

  1. Make it easier for activists to get the support they need, when they need it.
  2. Make it easier for advocates to use data and evidence ethically, credibly, securely and openly.
  3. Document our engagements to help build on successes over time.
  4. Carry out original research on what does and does not work in tech-supported advocacy.

Communications objectives: How will communications efforts support these organizational objectives? These will be your ‘communications objectives’. I identified between two and 12 for each organizational objective.

Audience, message and channels: At this point, with lots of input from the engine room team, I created a table to organize our key audience groups, our message for each audience, and the key channels we’d use to get the message to the audience. This helps you think about the most appropriate indicators and activities (the next steps).

Indicators: The next step will be to ask yourself, ‘how will I know I am on the right track to achieving this communications objective?’. Think creatively about these indicators! If you are doing a lot of engagement work, you may find MobLab’s report on Beyond Vanity Metrics useful.

Goals: You’ll also want to identify specific goals for each indicator (or maybe a few goals for one indicator). This will be a specific number or output in a given timeframe (e.g.  on average, 30% of newsletter recipients open the email by December 2015).

Activities: Now, what kinds of activities will you perform to reach these goals? What will you do to encourage newsletter recipients to open those emails? [I had initially brainstormed activities before indicators, but found that identifying the indicators made it easier to then find the more appropriate activity.]

comms template

You’ll probably find this is much easier to create with the input of your colleagues, so don’t be afraid to ask for ideas! I received some great ideas for indicators from my team. And creating this plan collaboratively will build ownership and understanding of what you’re trying to do, which will be incredibly helpful during implementation. Communications is not just the responsibility of one person – the entire team must be involved in order to make these efforts successful.

Finally, once you have this information in place, you’ll want to connect it to an implementation plan that will include:

  • Who is responsible for what (it might be helpful to identify who leads the activities and who is involved)
  • Timeline
  • How each indicator will be tracked and reported on
  • Any resources required (this could be money, equipment, education)

Putting the plan into action

Once I had all of this documented, I started to create monthly communications workplans that I could share with the team so that they can see what’s happening that month, what’s on the horizon, and what their role will be. I have also created monthly communications reports to share progress with the team.

Keeping the plan alive

Keep in mind that this is a living document – if activities, timelines, roles don’t make sense or priorities change, revisit the plan and update it. I recommend keeping the communications objectives, indicators and goals consistent, so you can see which activities are working. If things do change, document them so you can learn from this at the end of the year.

It’s easier to understand the plan when you see how the parts fit together. Here  are the templates we used, and here is a snippet for our own communications workplan to use as an example.

[Note: I based much of this process on documentation from KnowHow NonProfit]

Image: Cunning planning (Source: Flickr)

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