A good annual communication plan doesn’t sell itself; you need to convince senior management of its merits. Don’t waste your time developing a plan that you can’t get approved. This article explains how to get your annual communication plan approved by decision-makers.
Obviously development of the annual plan is the main opportunity to conceive and propose new ideas for communication activities for the coming year. However, there also may be opportunities to propose other initiatives during a year, especially when the organization is faced with unforeseen issues and concerns, which has been increasingly the case in recent years.
Here are several suggestions for winning approval for your annual communication plans. These include:
Identify key players and lead times
The first step is to meet with the highest level manager you are on good informal terms with to find out the latest information about the planning process in the organization.
You need to identify the key players, who may not necessarily be in upper management. Other levels of management and technical or specialist executives may be involved, such as a legal adviser. If your organization has a corporate planning department or planning manager, that person is a logical stakeholder to help with the fact-finding process.
It is vital to find out key lead times for your annual communication plan. Annual corporate strategic planning normally starts at least 6 months ahead of the start of a financial year, and so you need to start thinking about initiatives well before, so you have the main points fleshed out by the time formal planning starts.
Follow the format of the organizational strategic plan
The organizational strategic plan may be commercially sensitive and, depending on your seniority, you may not have direct access to it, but at least you can ask a senior manager for access to it to read through in order to take notes. The plan will indicate the organization’s highest priorities, and so you can take the hint and relate your plans to those priorities, which may be called strategies or goals.
Use the same broad headings and format of your organizational or divisional strategic plan in your proposed communication plans. And use the same jargon. You have to adapt your language to theirs. Forget about using PR jargon like ‘publics.’ No one else in the organization will know what that means; most will think it is a typo when ‘public’ was meant. Avoid other terms like ‘earned media,’ ‘impressions,’ and ‘reach.’
Look for outlined activities in the organizational or divisional plans where you can identify communication activities that can enhance the operating performance. For example, look for change management, productivity or safety programs – these are significantly more successful if communication systematically is applied to them.
Annual communication plan
Having reviewed the organizational strategic plan, you can base your department’s annual plan and individual programs on the same broad format, but obviously on a much smaller scale.
When planning your communication initiatives around perceived organizational priority areas, ensure you go and talk with the managers from the respective corporate and operational areas about the part of your proposal that relates to them. Find out what their priorities are and what their ‘points of pain’ are so you can see if you can help them address those concerns. You can even propose a business unit communication plan or a communication project to them. If you can, go and sell them on the merits of your proposed organizational communication plan. That way, you have them onside from the start, and your plans aren’t sprung on them in meetings.
Also meet with key external stakeholders or with people who can advise you about those stakeholders’ views so your plans take those views into account.
Focus on employee communication
Research has shown the most important stakeholder group is employees – much more important than shareholders and customers. As part of your planning process, you should meet with the HR manager to find out his or her priorities and points of pain that you can address in your communication plan. Also hold a couple of informal focus groups to find out the main points employees are interested in or are concerned about.
If you can, you should conduct a communication audit to find out attitudes towards previous communication programs. As part of this you can meet with managers to interview them, which gives you a great opportunity to create a good working relationship and convince them of the merits of your plan. You can also conduct a desk audit to review the tangible outputs and outcomes of those past processes. This is a good way to identify shortcomings and enables you to show in your plan how they will be solved by better communication.
The feedback from these various stakeholder groups will ensure you can make the case to senior management for each communication activity based on objective data and facts rather than your subjective views. It is important to keep all this impersonal and businesslike.
Start with stakeholder feedback
Initially, talk to those who you need to influence. Meet individually with them and ask questions to understand what they understand to be the main factors your organization is likely to face in the coming financial year. Probe to identify the challenges they’re facing in their portfolio, and what their individual goals are for their role. The discussion will alert you to their likely attitude at decision time and will give you the opportunity to adjust your plan in the light of their feedback. This process may take time and effort, but it is a vital commitment on the path for you to get your annual communication plan approved.
When your plan is ready, meet individually with each of those decision-makers and others who may influence the attitudes of the decision-makers to brief them on the key content and to gauge the extent of their support.
Your plan should include broad costings and action steps with appropriate thoughts on staff resourcing.
Outline the benefits of your communication plan
After your stakeholder analysis, review what you have learned about those you need to convince. If they are not clear about the necessity or benefits of your annual plan, you need to clarify these points in your discussions and presentation to them.
What are the benefits to them or the organization if they make this investment? For instance, if your service will save money, be prepared to show how much they can expect to save. If it will reduce turnover, quantify by how much. Demonstrating a cost-reducing impact is critically important when budgets are lean. The arguments have to be persuasive for you to get your annual communication plan approved by decision-makers.
Emphasize the importance of the key initiatives in your plan
The decision-makers may ask you the important question: “Why now?” You can make the point in your presentation that if action is not taken now, delayed decisions are likely to cause problems down the track, such as increasing the cost to the organization or missing the opportunity to influence industry committees, government regulators, major customers, etc.
Prepare for possible objections or disputes
In your discussions with internal influencers you are very likely to have unearthed the potential objections that could be raised about parts of your plan. Prepare for these attitudes by briefly addressing the way your plan overcomes these problems. For instance, heads of individual business units are always alert to any proposal that reduces their authority or ‘turf,’ even though they may not raise this concern specifically. Be very aware of this by reviewing each element of your plan so that your explain the elements in terms that don’t alarm a decision-maker or influencer.
If you know of other organizations successfully using similar communication strategies to address some of the issues raised in your plan, especially if they are in your industry, you can quote these successful actions.
Measure what matters
When presenting your annual plan, explain that you have developed objectives for each relevant element of the plan and will measure the results against the objectives in quantifiable terms. Your organizational leaders will want to know these results and that your plan has a worthwhile impact on the organization and its goals.
Accept useful suggestions
As the communication function always has limited funding, you should be ready with recommendations and fallback options if you are asked about which activities could be cut from your plan in order to keep the overall cost more modest.
In presentation meetings to the decision makers, always ask for and welcome feedback, and incorporate good suggestions into a revised plan.
Give a clear call to action
Rather than allow the presentation meeting end inconclusively with delayed decisions on key initiatives in your plan, you can say to the meeting that if you incorporate the suggestions made or barriers raised for various parts of your plan, will they approve the plan based on those changes rather than delay until later. This leads to you giving a clear call to action that outlines the next steps in your plan. By saying something like “When we decide to move forward with this plan, our next steps will be the following.” This helps the decision-makers to envisage the reality of the plan taking shape, and makes it easier for them to say yes.
Tips on making presentations
For helpful tips on making persuasive presentations that get your annual communication plan approved, read my article, “Make persuasive presentations to senior executives.”
- The above steps should help strengthen the case you put for senior management approval of your communication plans. You can read more helpful advice on developing communication plans in our Annual Communication Plans topics section.
- My ebooks on developing successful communication plans offer you a generous number of helpful, practical insights. Tremendous value – just like having your own comms coach immediately available by your side!