Nine top ways to develop an annual communication plan
Developing an annual communication plan is a complex task. You need to gather information from a range of sources about organizational activities that need a communication program to make them more effective. Then you use your professional judgment to prioritize the activities, checking that they support the achievement of your organization’s corporate and business unit goals.
Finally, you assess which activities are feasible within available budget funding. Your annual budget generally originates in either of two ways: (1) a lump sum allocated to your function by top management (probably as a percentage increase over last year’s budget), or (2) lump sum covering the cost of your proposed annual program of activities that top management has approved.
Firstly, the context
Your annual communication plan needs to developed as part of your organization’s strategic planning process, which is explained in Part 1., “Organizational strategic planning.” Then you need to gather information from a range of sources about organizational activities that need a communication program. Nine possible sources of information are explained in section 2, “Nine top ways to develop an annual communication program.” Once you have prepared your wish list of activities, you prioritize the list to fit within the available budget. Simple? Not really, but you can learn more about the process in this article.
Organizational strategic planning
Strategic planning starts the ball rolling in setting the direction, and in initiating the activities of the organization. The organizational strategic plan is the sum of individual programs, projects and campaigns, so you can identify the target audience behavior/s and the measures for the outcome being sought for each. In more detail, strategic planning is used to:
- set priorities
- determine operational and administrative activities and resources
- strengthen operations
- ensure employees and other stakeholders are working toward common goals
- agree on intended outcomes/results
- assess and adjust the organization’s direction in response to the changing business environment.
Strategic planning is a disciplined activity that produces fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization is, who it serves, what it does, and why it does it, with a focus on the future. Effective strategic planning outlines where an organization is intended to go, the actions needed to make progress towards the desired destination, and also how it will know if it is successful.
What is a strategic plan?
A strategic plan is a document used to communicate the organization’s goals, the actions needed to achieve those goals and all of the other critical elements developed during the planning process.
Vision and mission lead the way
Here’s the ‘big picture’ of strategic planning in organizations. Firstly, the corporate priorities are decided during corporate strategic planning sessions, and then the various business units decide how best they can support the achievement of organizational priorities. The corporate communication in turn supports both the corporate priorities as well as operational priorities.
The communication team acts both at a corporate level, and at a business unit level using communication to support the activities of the various business units. These units can be corporate like HR and marketing, as well as operational like supply and production.
The organizational planning pyramid
Organizational vision statement
An organizational vision is defined as forming a picture of a desired organizational state in the future. A number of studies have suggested that describing and providing vision is vital for leaders.
A vision statement is a description of the organization as its leaders want it to be. It involves seeing the desired future for the organization and briefly describing this vision. The description might include how things will be, where, with whom the organization will be doing business, what it will be doing and how its employees will feel. Ideally, the organization’s vision statement:
- describes a future state at a selected time
- is described briefly
- is quantifiable
- is generally agreed – ideally developed through group participation, not just the senior management team, but also through other employee levels being asked to comment.
- Alzheimer’s Association: Our Vision is a world without Alzheimer’s disease.
- Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. *If you have a body, you are an athlete.
- Amazon: Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.
- Devon Energy: To be the premier independent oil and natural gas company in North America.
Organizational mission statement
Once the vision is developed, the organization can compare its present position with its desired future to determine ways to close the gap between the two – often known as gap analysis.
A mission statement can then be formulated, which describes the broad practical steps to close the gap between the unsatisfactory present and the desired future for the organization, as summarized in the vision statement. Each word in the mission statement should be carefully crafted so it can be defined and measured. It is pointless to have good intentions expressed in vague words.
A mission statement is a statement of an organization’s unique purpose and the scope of its operations in product and market terms. The organization’s mission statement should be:
- consistent with, and supporting, the organization’s vision
- the broad ‘road map’ describing how the organization will reach its vision
- telling people what the organization’s purpose is
- the source of strategies that collectively create a business plan.
Different mission statements focus on different aspects. Four main types of emphasis within mission statements have been identified by research:
- Purpose – why the organization exists
- Strategy – supporting the purpose
- Values – providing the ‘moral link’ between purpose and behaviors
- Standards and behaviors – management style and interpersonal relationships.
- Caterpillar: Our mission is to enable economic growth through infrastructure and energy development, and to provide solutions that support communities and protect the planet.
- Target: Our mission is to make Target your preferred shopping destination in all channels by delivering outstanding value, continuous innovation and exceptional guest experiences by consistently fulfilling our Expect More. Pay Less. Brand Promise.
- Devon Energy: Devon Energy is a result oriented oil and gas company that builds value for its shareholders through its employees by creating an atmosphere of optimism, teamwork, creativity, resourcefulness and by dealing with everyone in an open and ethical manner.
Together, the vision and mission statements show where the organization is going and how it is going to get there. If management and staff can’t clearly state the purpose of the organization and how they are going achieve it, then the organization is disadvantaged.
Some organizations may use slightly different terminology but invariably the words cover the same broad concepts.
Renowned management consultant, Peter Drucker, said organizational goals flow from the mission, and show the fundamental long-range direction of the organization. Goals are overarching and there should only be about 5 at the most.
Drucker used the example of an art museum:
Mission: To bring art and people together.
- To conserve the collections and inspire partnerships to seek and acquire exceptional objects.
- To enable people to discover, enjoy, and understand art through popular and scholarly exhibitions, community education, and publications.
- To significantly expand the museum’s audience and strengthen its impact with new and traditional members.
- To maintain state-of-the-art facilities, technologies, and operations.
- To enhance long-term financial security.
Drucker said building around mission and long-term goals is the only way to integrate short-term interests: “[Organizational] objectives are the specific and measurable levels of achievement that move the organization toward its goals.”
Examples of organizational objectives:
- To reduce workplace accidents by 10% within the next 12 months through coaching all operational managers to implement the new procedure for training employees in workplace safety.
- To set up partner arrangements with customers by 10 June to provide solutions to ongoing customer dissatisfaction with new product performance.
So, this has summarized the organizational strategic planning process. The most effective ways to develop an annual communication plan are outlined below. In a sense, this is a wish list, because you have to find out how much funding is available for your annual communication plan. Such funding comes from your own budget and from sharing costs with corporate and operational business units. You may also engage in some communication activities at no cost to your budget because you are conducting the activities on behalf of other business units who agree to pay the costs. For example, you might share the cost of:
- sponsoring an event with the marketing department
- running an HR-based program like employee onboarding or retention
- using communication to help your production department coordinate its employee activities more effectively.
An example of all the cost being borne by another business unit might be the cost of materials used for communicating to all affected employees about a change of head office location.
You can read my detailed article about setting communication goals and objectives as part of your planning process: “Setting goals and objectives makes your PR planning more effective.” This will be helpful for setting and measuring the achievement of your communication objectives.
In addition, my article, “Use SWOT and PESTLE analysis for communication planning,” provides useful insights into situation analysis as part of communication planning.
Nine top ways to develop an annual communication plan
1. Carefully review the organization’s vision, mission, goals, and objectives.
This will help you determine how potential communication programs may best support each factor. You consult with the heads of corporate and operational business units to find out which of their business goals and objectives would benefit most from communication support. Item 9 below could help with this.
2. Meet with senior managers if it is difficult to connect communication with the corporate mission and goals or business unit goals.
Discuss organizational goals and the factors the managers think will determine whether the goals will be achieved or not. The key stakeholders relevant to those factors should be identified along with what the organization wants the stakeholders to do and when this needs to be done. Then you can support the business goals by identifying how communication activities can be used to reach the key stakeholders, and influence their attitudes, behavior and decisions.
To link communication goals and objectives to business goals and objectives, important questions can be asked such as:
- What are we aiming to achieve, and what communication activities can best support these aims?
- How are stakeholders likely to respond to management decisions?
- What response does management want from target stakeholders?
- How can communication programs help to influence these responses?
- How can communication be more effective than other alternatives such as marketing and legal responses?
3. Conduct a SWOT and PESTLE analysis to examine the internal and external operating environment.
This type of analysis may have already been conducted by management as part of the corporate strategic planning process. SWOT refers to strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, while PESTLE refers largely to the external environment such as political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental factors. You should especially seek to analyze the apparent attitudes of stakeholder groups such as customers, shareholders, government regulators, etc, towards the business unit or organization. If this specific information is not available, refer to more general research about the issues and trends in the industry. You can read more about SWOT and PESTLE analysis in my article, “Use SWOT and PESTLE analysis for communication planning.”
4. Conduct a communication audit to obtain stakeholder feedback.
You can conduct all or some of the steps in a communication audit to find out the attitudes and concerns of internal and external stakeholders. For instance, when you meet with business unit managers to discuss their priority goals and objectives, you can ask them about their biggest foreseen challenges in the year ahead. This discussion can reveal many important and often unwritten issues. Rather than trying futilely to shift communication higher up their agenda, use communication to address the issues that are already at the top of their agenda. Find out what is causing them pain, and then show how communication can solve their relevant problems.
Good questions to ask are:
- What will be the most important issue to you/your area in the next 12 months? Describe the issue/situation in detail.
- If nothing changes, what impact would the issue/situation have on you?
- What difference will it make when this is resolved?
- What do you believe is the best way to resolve this issue or situation?
- What area under your responsibility are you most satisfied with? Least satisfied with?
In considering those issues, work back from the desired outcomes. Focus the managers on clear and measurable business outcomes such as increased cooperation between departments, identification of cost reductions, the removal of bottlenecks. All these affect performance. Problem areas could include such things as poor quality of goods and services, low customer satisfaction or retention rates, poor cross-selling or high staff turnover. Communication activities can directly improve the efficiency of these operational areas in many cases. Meet again with those managers to ensure they support any proposed communication actions relating to them that will be contained in your annual communication plan.
You should use these occasions as opportunities to learn as much as possible about the operational areas so you can gain a better understanding of the internal and external environment. Communicators are notorious for not making the effort to know the operations well, so operational managers will be impressed if they see a communicator making the effort. This makes you vulnerable to criticism from operational managers who just see corporate communication as a head office overhead while they do the hard work of earning the revenue. Your time spent getting to know operational functions will help to change their attitudes. Ask them about the marketplace, their competitors and current and future technology. Get to know the internal operating environment as well – resources, infrastructure, products and customers.
5. Examine the business and marketing plans of all operational areas.
Consider the business and marketing plans in relation to the organizational mission and goals and also in relation to divisional and business unit goals. These will be a very revealing source of the intentions, assumptions and priorities of those key areas.
6. Review your current and previous communication programs to assess their merit.
Aspects of current and previous programs are likely to have been around for some time because they may be ongoing or may have been funded for the balance of the financial year. Some of those programs may still have merit.
7. Compare the communication programs run in other organizations.
Peers in respected communication departments in other organizations (they don’t need to be in your industry) are usually helpful if you tactfully seek their assistance. Also, details of award-winning programs in other organizations may be available publicly from industry bodies.
8. Use your previous experience as a guide to desirable programs.
From your own observations over time, you will have an idea of the types of activities that would be relevant and have been effective elsewhere. When I started as the corporate affairs manager of a company, I was the sole staff member in the department at first. The person I replaced was a former journalist who had no idea of developing an annual communication strategy, so I had to rely mostly on my own experience to drive activities during my first year. If you have previous experience as a PR staff member, you can draw on what you have learned to start developing an annual communication plan.
9. Identify the business strategies with the best potential to increase profitability and which also have the best potential to be improved by communication.
The magic matrix
I’ve saved the best until last! The “magic matrix” I describe here enables you to decide which business strategies you can make your highest priority to support because they are likely to be (a) the most profitable and as well as (b) the most likely to benefit from your communication support at the same time. Once you understand how the matrix works, you can apply the principle to many situations to determine which organizational activities will be the most worthwhile for investing your communication resources. What’s more, if you explain your thinking to top management, they will be hugely impressed with your sophisticated approach. Usually, matrices are used by smart thinkers, so this will reflect well on you!
Applying the magic matrix in your work is a great method to help decide which communication activities should be a priority. Here’s how it works. Firstly, you identify the business strategies that have the greatest potential to increase the company’s profitability, which you show on the horizontal axis. You can either inspect the business strategies yourself and make your own decisions about this, or you may also consult your senior managers to get their guidance.
Let’s use a hypothetical example of Beyond Supermarkets, a big grocery retailer. The business strategies used in the matrix actually comprise a real-life example from a retailer, word-for-word. As a result of its corporate strategic planning, the company decided that its four key growth strategies for the next financial year would be:
Beyond Supermarkets: key growth strategies for next financial year
- Range change – Improve on-shelf availability for customers and tailoring product ranges.
- Improved value platform – Fewer, more compelling offers with better availability and clearer in store messaging.
- Store investment – Significant capital investment in both new stores and store refurbishments.
- Fresh food focus – Fresh produce end-to-end supply chain review to help deliver an improved quality product for customers.
After consideration and consultation with senior managers, you believe the growth strategies can be categorized as high, medium and low potential for profitability during the next financial year. The matrix shows the potential impact of each strategy along the horizontal axis.
The numbers for the growth strategies are shown in the relevant boxes. The return on investment for capital expenditure on stores (growth strategy 3) is not going to show an immediate return; it might take a couple of years before this investment starts to pay off, so you allocate this strategy to the “Low” box. You believe growth strategies 2 and 4 will offer medium financial return in the next financial year, while growth strategy 1 is likely to offer a higher return for that period, as shown in the boxes.
After completing Step 1, you analyze with your team the likely prospects of communication activities being able to influence the four growth strategies in the coming financial year. You agree that your communication efforts are likely to have the most impact in helping to maximize the financial return on growth strategy 1, so you put 1 in the “High” box in the vertical axis.
In a similar way, you analyze the prospects for the other growth strategies to benefit from communication activities, and put them in relevant boxes in the vertical axis. You would give a higher priority for communication support to growth strategies 2 and 4 than to growth strategy 3 because the potential financial impact of growth strategy 3 is only low for the next financial year.
Once you get the hang of the magic matrix, you will be able to use it for decision-making in many different situations. For instance, as some non-financial goals of the organization could have a high impact on its ability to operate, a similar matrix to the above could be prepared on the basis of the potential political, environmental or social impact of its operations and the potential for communication programs to have an impact on those goals.
A similar matrix could be developed for government organizations based on, say, the potential impact of efficiencies (or effectiveness) and the potential for communication programs to have an impact on those efficiencies (or effectiveness).