Repercussions from the COVID pandemic have created a stronger appreciation of the communication role in businesses. CEOs have realized that genuine communication with employees and other stakeholders is essential in this fraught and complex business climate. We have joined the frontline of organizations’ response to the COVID-19 crisis. Communicators have gained more access to the C-suite, are sought out for advice by other business units, and have gained new stature, according to research in 2021. These conditions create the potential for a more strategic comms/PR role – as well as more challenges. One of those challenges is how to get your annual communication plan approved by senior management.
A good communication plan doesn’t sell itself; you need to convince management of its merits. Don’t waste your time developing a plan that you can’t get approved by senior management. Also, you need to fit in with the budgeting processes in your organization.
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.
Angela made several suggestions for winning approval for communication plans. These include:
The first step is to meet with the highest level manager you are on good informal terms with to find out 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 that so you have the main points fleshed out by the time formal planning starts.
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.
The timeless advice from Angela is to 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.
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. If you can, go and sell them on the merits of your 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.
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 their 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.
When your plan/s is ready, meet individually with each decision maker or member of the executive committee to brief them on the content and to gauge the extent of their support. 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 investment.
Your plans should include broad costings and action steps with appropriate thoughts on staff resourcing.
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 executive committee or senior decision makers, always ask for and welcome feedback, and incorporate good suggestions into a revised plan.
These 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 the Annual Communication Plans topics section in this website.
This was one of the key points made by Angela Sinickas, a US expert on communication planning and measurement. When I brought her out to conduct six workshops around Australia and New Zealand, she always impressed participants with her ‘street-smart’ approach. In true professional style, she surveyed participants at the end of every workshop to gauge their responses and ensure she was in line with their expectations.
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