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This article details the process of designing a plan for strategic communications as discussed in The Jossey-Bass Guide to Strategic Communications for Nonprofits, written by Kathy Bonk, Henry Griggs and Emily Tynes, 1999.

A communications plan is an important part of an organization's daily operation. As a living document, it frames media activities, including internal and external communications, clarifies the organization's priorities, target audiences, resources and staff assignments.

What are the elements of a communications plan?

The elements are basically the same whether an organization is, for example, a large not-for-profit hospital, a museum, a university, a small advocacy group, service provider, or foundation. A communications plan affirms and is driven by the organization's goals and outcomes, its vision, as expressed in a mission statement, and its values and beliefs.

Overall communications goals:
The organization's communications goals may include:

  • Developing and implementing communications plans for enhanced visibility and crisis management
  • Generating positive media coverage by cultivating relationships with reporters
  • Increasing the awareness and involvement of specific, targeted groups of individuals
  • Changing attitudes or teaching new skills to clients and staff
  • Generating support from the public, policy makers, and clients for community reforms across your state
  • Encouraging financial contributions

The activities in the communications plan should support the organization's overall communications goals. It is important to set measurable goals in order to know when they have been achieved and to be able to gauge the progress along the way.

Vision and mission statement
The organizational mission statement is the cornerstone of the communications plan, driving the overall direction of media activities. The organization should include this mission statement at the very beginning of the communications plan to remind staff, board members and other internal decision makers that media-related activities flow from the organization's core mission and vision, not just from its communications department. Media activities enhance the organization's overall image, advance its agenda and influence public will.

Organizational values and beliefs
Every organization, foundation, public agency and institution has at its heart a system of values and beliefs. These values should be reflected in all that the organization plans and does, including communications goals and strategic plans.

Critical elements of a communications plan
In addition to the goals, vision and values that form the cornerstone of an organization's communications strategy, there are six critical elements organizations need to construct that strategy:

  • An understanding of the target audience and how to reach it
  • Research into past media coverage and public opinion about the issues
  • Messages to be delivered
  • Materials to be produced
  • Financial resources from which staff and equipment will be drawn
  • A written work plan

It is important to identify these elements and put them in place before implementing day-to-day activities. Successful implementation of a communications plan depends on pulling these elements together:

Identification of the target audience
The first task is to identify who the target audience is and how to reach it. List categories of people who are important to the success of the organization and identify ways to reach them. Audiences may include donors, potential members, elected officials, church groups, judges and the legal community, business leaders, communities of color, trade associations, women's leaders, teens, senior citizens, and the general public. In addition to these important outside audiences, it is important for organization not to forget its internal audiences, such as staff, board members and volunteers.

Research into media coverage, public opinion and facts How do target audiences perceive the organization and its issues? With the Internet, it is not difficult to develop a profile of how the organization's issues are covered in the media, how often the organization is quoted or described, and what public opinion polls have been done on relevant topics. A short and simple media analysis can be an instructive tool and will indicate the amount of resources necessary to increase name recognition.

Good data can be a gold mine in outreach to the media. Most media use “factoids” to help their audiences put stories in perspective. A good communications plan should collect data on the important issues in formats that can answer the “who, what, when, where, why and how.”

Message development
Develop a phrase of four to ten words to describe the organization that can be used every time a reporter does a story about the agency. It is important to be able to tell reporters how the group wants to be described; otherwise, journalists will come up with descriptions that may not be accurate.

The next step is to develop message points for the organization's spokespeople to use when they talk with reporters. One might consist of the basic facts about the group, but should be limited to three or four points to communicate in each interview.

Answer the following questions in-house before every media event or interview: What should the headline be? What should the article include? Answers given in the interview or at the media event should always deliver the key points.

Production of high-quality public relations materials Public relations materials are important tools for reaching reporters, donors, policy makers, and others in the target audience. These should include:

  • A consistent and easy-to-recognize logo and stationery design
  • An easy-to-understand, one page fact sheet about the organization
  • At least one press kit on the issues and activities to be highlighted in the media
  • Hard copy brochures and consistent Web site content
  • Videos, slides, overheads and computer presentations
  • Reports and studies for public release as news items
  • One paragraph and one page biographies on spokespeople and agency heads
  • Copies of the current newsletter, if there is one
  • Copies of newspaper articles about the group

Assessment of resources
The communications plan needs to spell out how resources will be allocated, including staff time, budgets, computers, software, equipment, databases, in-house and contract services and volunteer help. For mid-sized to large organizations, it is prudent to hire communications director. In agencies with fewer than ten employees, everyone from the executive director to the person who answers the phone should be a part of the communications team. A resource review for the organization should do the following:

  • Assess staff time, in-house services and existing media technologies
  • Recommend and arrange for training and technology updates as needed
  • Designate or decide to hire a communications director
  • Develop a budget that includes provisions for outside contracts and services, such as freelance writing, video production, database management, graphic design and Web site management
  • Access funding and build programs for expanded activities that include executive loan programs, internships, pro bono support from commercial media firms, donations from local and regional corporations and grants from foundations.

Development of a work plan
Organizations should develop work plans for each major activity or event and try to review overall plans at least quarterly. Elements of a communications work plan should spell out assignments and important tasks:

  • Develop timelines, calendars of events and priorities
  • Assign responsibilities to lead and support staff, giving each a list of specific tasks
  • Review progress and enforce or revise deadlines
  • Hold people responsible for completing work and reassign tasks as needed

Crisis control
The work plan should also include a crisis control plan. This should be thought of as a fire drill, and regardless how non controversial the organization, there should be a plan in place to deal with possible negative stories in the media. This plan should include the identification of a crisis coordination team, a plan to ensure timely and appropriate responses to negative press and regular internal briefings about the procedures for implementing a damage control plan.

Evaluation
No strategic communications plan is complete without a built-in evaluation component as a way to check accountability and make improvements over time. Major evaluation activities might include analyzing media content and monitoring certain developments, such as shifts in public opinion, policy changes, increased membership and organizational participation, and improved institutional capacity.

Summary
A written communications plan should be easy to read and should have a format adaptable for overhead or computer presentations to larger audiences. Most organizations have been through a strategic planning process at some point; this effort is no different. Remember, the elements of a communications plan are basically the same whether the organization has thousands, hundreds, dozens, or a handful of employees.

Bonk, K., Griggs, H., & Tynes, E. (1999). Designing a Communications Plan, Chapter 4. The Jossey-Bass guide to strategic communications for nonprofits. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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