Developing a Communications Plan: Aligning Expectations at Three Big Questions
Written by Lorie Bonham, Strategic Programming and Expansion Manager VISTA.
The key to developing a realistic and achievable communications plan is starting with an honest discussion about why communication matters to the organization. What works for one organization may not work for another, and what has worked in the past may not work in going forward. This strategic discussion should kick off every communications strategic planning process. Using these THREE BIG QUESTIONS consistently is an excellent way for organizations to ensure alignment on the what, why, and how of developing a successful communications plan.
- Connecting to the Mission: What role does communication play in helping us achieve our mission and goals?
- Defining Success: What do we think we want to do? How will we know we are successful?
- Setting Realistic Expectations: Who will do the work? Do we have the tools we need to be successful?
Many organizations see what others are doing and feel they need to do the same thing. Rather than starting by looking outward, it is better first to explore what the organization is trying to achieve and how communication can support those goals.
Connecting to the mission should be addressed upfront because communication for the sake of communication is rarely successful and difficult to maintain long-term. Many organizations see what others are doing and feel they need to do the same thing. Rather than starting by looking outward, it is better first to explore what the organization is trying to achieve and how communication can support those goals. What big projects or milestones are coming up? What challenges has the organization faced in the past that they want to finally address? How can communications engage key stakeholders around changes or new initiatives? Think of this as a top-down analysis.
Defining success asks organizations to answer the question, “if we were successful in our communication activities, how would we define that, and what do we need to do to get there?” This part of the process is the most fun or most frustrating, depending on who you are in the discussion, because it consists of asking a lot of questions. It should be an honest interrogation of assumptions focused on getting to the heart of how communication can be an ally in the organization’s overall success. Why do you want to increase your social media followers? Why do you want to have a website? Why are you sending a newsletter every two weeks? How do you define volunteer engagement? How much do you want to increase newsletter open rates? Why? Are open rates more relevant than click percentages? Why? The answers to these questions will reveal what is valuable to the organization, where communications teams should focus their efforts, and what should be measured and reported.
Setting realistic expectations helps organizations, especially nonprofits with limited resources, get real about what is achievable. Unless a communications plan is crafted with an honest and practical understanding of skills, resources, and volunteer time, it will not be successful. It isn’t enough to know why communication is important to an organization and how successful communication is defined. Organizations need to answer the practical question of how the work will get done and what tools or resources need to be prioritized to be successful.
After working through these THREE BIG QUESTIONS, it is time to develop a realistic and achievable communications plan. Sometimes these questions are easy to answer, and sometimes they require honest investigation of how other parts of the organization are set up for success or failure. As communication programs become more mature, the discussions change, but these questions should be a part of the communication plan kick-off process each year.