How to Write a Communications Project Plan

Pat Poston

When your company or organization has important information to communicate and your usual channels are insufficient, plan a tactical communications project customized to the content and circumstances. Announcements benefiting from custom plans typically are significant one-time, non-routine events, such as a change in executive leadership, hiring plans and layoffs, change in employee benefits and relocation of company facilities. They often involve external and internal audiences. Making a tactical communications project plan helps ensure you consider key questions: who needs to hear what, from whom, by what means, when and toward what end? A plan also identifies tasks, accountabilities and timelines---smoothing the job of project management.

Clarify and confirm before you plan. Identify the project's "owner"---usually the person assigning it---who will advise and approve your plan. With that project owner: --Confirm the gist of announcement content, desired timing and confidentiality requirements. Confirm whether unusual sensitivities or circumstances exist, such as legal or membership reporting requirements. --Affirm how the project fits as tactic in overarching public relations and communications strategies. --Agree upon sources for the more detailed information and input you will need, for example, your company's human resources manager or executive search committee chair. --Identify approval and reporting requirements for your project. Agree whether you will manage the project informally or structure a project team. --Identify approval requirements for work products flowing from the plan, for example, review by legal, human resources and finance designees or by specific executives. --Establish parameters for needed resources such as budget expectations and use of outside agencies.

Crystallize purpose and objectives. Purpose is what you want to make happen, typically beginning with "To..." Objectives typically begin with action verbs---they are what you want to do by when, stated as processes or desired outcomes. In that light, the aim of making your announcement on a certain date is an objective. The purpose may be "to meet the needs and preferences of stakeholders for timely and factual information concerning (topic), in a way that affirms the company's image and values." Relate that purpose back to overarching public relations and communications strategy.

Profile stakeholders and audiences. Strategic planning quite likely has identified communications targets in broad strokes. For your tactical project, sharpen focus. Stakeholders are groups or individuals that will be affected by the specific information you intend to impart and are thereby key audiences. Add to the list other audiences in which you want to create, change or affirm perceptions. Use a table or spreadsheet with the following column headings to summarize your analysis of: --Audience Segment. Give each a name and if needed footnote those constituents included. Sub-segment a group if communication needs will differ within the group. Example: all employees, employees of the affected division, supervisors. Ask: "Who will need to or like to know about this---and why?" For example, consider key customers, equity owners, the general public, colleagues in your industry, political bodies and significant suppliers. Choose whether news media outlets will be targeted segments or instead will be employed as channels to reach segments such as the general public and business community. --Need/Message. Although awareness and understanding are aims for all audiences, some may have special needs. Employees may want to know how they will be affected by an office closing, for example, or association members the process by which a resigning executive leader will be succeeded. Board members, executives, supervisors and account managers are among those who need not just the news but your plan for communicating it, particularly if they are to play a role. Identify key messages for each segment. --Key Communicator. From whom would each segment expect or like to hear your news? Identify the spokesperson to be the "face" of the communication to each group---who will be quoted in a news release, for example, or lead a conference with employees. Although the business community may expect to hear from the chief executive officer, employees may prefer to be informed by their supervisors and key customers by their account managers.

Plan cascade sequence and channels. If you have ever been astounded by learning first from a newspaper of big changes your company is planning, you understand the principle of "no surprises" and the importance of cascading information to ensure no surprises occur. On a temporary working table or spreadsheet, list your target segments in the order they will be informed, working back from the date and time your information is to be most broadly known (often the time of a general news release). Although some distributions may be simultaneous, consider whether some segments need advance notice of communications to come. For example, supervisors may need time to prepare for employee questions and board members may welcome notice of impending newspaper articles. In the column beside each segment, identify the channel(s) through which communication will be made. Channels are information distribution methods typically involving events and written content. Examples: --For executive team, governing board members, key department heads and supervisors---advance notices by email. --For employees---advance email notice, departmental meetings, videoconference, website content. --For key constituents---advance notice by fax and email, live presentation. --For general public---distribution of general news release, news conference, website content.

Planning collaterals

Identify needed collaterals. Collaterals are the materials used in execution of your communications project plan---documents and audiovisuals such as photos and recordings. Categorize them as: --Foundation collaterals, for use with multiple segments. Examples: news release, fact sheet, Q & A, photographs, website content. --Segment collaterals, the communications that go to specific audiences addressing their needs and preferences and in the "voice" of their preferred spokesperson. Often these are memos from the segment's Key Communicator attaching copies of the foundation collaterals above, particularly news releases. "I wanted to let you know our company is announcing later this afternoon the news that..." These collaterals also may include talking points, content outlines, or AVs for Key Communicators such as executive team members and supervisors. --Advisory collaterals, memos from you to others expected to take part in the project, apprising them of the communications plan and their expected roles in it. Attach relevant copies of foundation and segment collaterals. On a table or spreadsheet, identify for each collateral the following: Name, Key Communicator, Assigned to, Draft Due Date, Approval(s) Required, Final Due Date.

Confirm needed support. Identify what support the roll-out of your project will require and confirm its availability. If no standing support exists, use a table or spreadsheet to detail how you will obtain support such as the following, identifying Support Item, Source, and Cost: --Drafting of collaterals --Compilation of distribution lists with contact information for your target segments --Capability and responsibility for mass transmissions such as group emails --Arrangements for group meetings, news conferences and other associated events.

Planning project roll-out

Detail project roll-out. Use a table or spreadsheet to sequentially list and establish timing for each activity you plan for your communications roll-out. Identify who will do what and when, and also the collaterals each will use. Consider these column headings: Number, Date and Time, Activity, Collaterals to Be Used, Responsible Person(s) and Status or Notes. Plan to include the Project Roll-Out Detail in the advisory collaterals you provide to others who have a part in it, such as executive team members, supervisors and support personnel.

Plan project follow-up. Use a table or spreadsheet to detail such follow-up as: --Post-announcement questions from stakeholders such as employees and news media --Project evaluation, quite likely including the success of project execution and subjective assessments of audience response

Make a budget. Identify anticipated costs consistent with your organization's financial policies. You may need only to identify those not already included in the existing budget for general communications support.

Get your project plan approved. Provide your work to the project's owner for approval before you begin execution and ask for improvement suggestions. Preface your proposal document with a short executive summary. Follow this outline and incorporate your tables/spreadsheets in lieu of detailed narrative: --Executive Summary --Project Purpose and Objectives --Stakeholders and Audiences (table or spreadsheet) --Communications Roll-Out Detail (table or spreadsheet) --Collaterals (table or spreadsheet) --Follow-Up Plans --Needed Support --Budget

Tips

  • If confidentiality allows, consult with stakeholder and audience members or those who work with them to better understand their information needs and interests. Besides your usual communications channels, plan special events for non-routine news to signify its "specialness."

Warnings

  • Some announcements may be subject to labor and securities laws and regulations. Check with legal and human resources chiefs.

About the Author

Chris Cook has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, working as a newspaper reporter and corporate communications executive responsible for strategies and execution of communications collaterals such as news releases, brochures and website content. She has a bachelor's degree in English from Limestone College.

Photo Credits

  • Pat Poston