The resources and advice found on this page are designed to provide the user with an overview of the communications planning process and some tools for getting started. Communication is a complex process that can best be described as both a science and an art, so the information on this website won’t cover everything. For additional support, contact Beth Strike, Director of Creative Services & Communications.
Step 1: Ask the right questions
Asking the right questions is an important step in communication planning for a number of reasons. To start with, communication is often generically identified as a key problem for a team or organization without really understanding what needs improvement. Often times it’s not that people don’t know how or what to communicate, but that they aren’t taking the time to do it or coordinating their efforts with others. Having a plan won’t solve the issue, but a plan combined with clearly identified timelines, responsibilities and actions may. The whole idea of this step is about seeking clarity.
Begin by asking the right questions of key groups or “stakeholders” (both internal and external) to help gather the information needed to get started. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways including personal interviews, focus groups, and surveys. Consider getting help from an outside facilitator from your Area Education Agency (AEA) who can be objective and clearly neutral to those being interviewed.
Communications Audit: The “big enchilada” of data collection
A more formal approach to data collection is a communications audit, where a thorough study of opinions, attitudes, and beliefs about communication within the organization is conducted. Key clients or customers (known as “external stakeholders”) are also included in the study. This approach provides the richest and most plentiful data and is helpful when beginning communication planning on a large scale.
Using a strategy like the 5 Why’s can help get at the root issues where communication planning really needs to begin. When someone throws out the comment that “it’s a communication problem” ask “why” up to five times until a root cause is discovered. The problem may also center on other issues like trust or leadership, which you’ll need to know to be more strategic in your plan.
Step 2: Make Sense of the Results
So, you’ve asked the right questions and have the data in your hands. Now, what to do? Take a close look at what you have and decide what the themes are. Maybe the data say that you’ve been pouring all of your resources into your website and nobody is actually going there. Is it a marketing problem? Perhaps you haven’t done a good enough job of letting people know what is on the website. Maybe it’s a content problem–people just don’t like what they find on your website. The key here is that you have something to go on beyond gut instinct. If the first round of data collection doesn’t tell you what you need to know, go deeper and collect more.
Divvy up the responses to the data gathering activities you conducted in Step 1 and get your team together to conduct the theme analysis. Deciding together what the data is telling you will build ownership in the planning ahead.
Step 3: Let the Rubber Hit the Road
Once you’ve got a handle on what the data is telling you, set some goals, or maybe one goal, for improvement through strategic communication. Every goal should motivate behavior. You should be able to look at each goal and ask the question, “What behavior are we trying to motivate here?” The answer should be obvious if you’ve written your goal well.
- Increase understanding and support for administrative decisions.
- Increase feelings of connectedness between second-grade teachers and parents.
After you’ve arrived at your goal(s), you are ready to build a plan. Many people make the mistake of skipping right to communication “activities” without really thinking through why an activity is worth doing. “We need a brochure!” “We need a website!” Maybe we do, but it’s important to understand the purpose of each activity.
Here’s the “quick and dirty” on types of communication activities. To be strategic, you have to understand that there are really two types of communication: interpersonal and mass. Interpersonal communication is two-way, where two or more people have a chance to interact and ask clarifying questions. While face-to-face communication is the highest form of interpersonal communication, e-mail and phone conversations also fit under this category. The most important thing to remember about interpersonal communication strategies is that you need them to affect behavior. And since we know that your communication goal(s) are designed to impact behavior, you have to include interpersonal strategies to get the job done.
The second type of communication is mass. Mass communication is a one-way communication where the sender sends his/her message to the receiver without much opportunity for feedback. Written memos, informational websites (with the exception of those where feedback avenues are built in), newsletters, etc. are all examples of mass or one-way communication. The most important thing to remember about mass communication strategies is that they build awareness. It might appear that mass communication is the “poor cousin” to interpersonal communication. After all, if the mass communication doesn’t really change behavior, but simply raises awareness, what’s the point? The point is that mass communication can reinforce interpersonal communication strategies and go a long way in creating familiarity with your key audiences. Newsletters, memos, informational websites and the like are great tools and should definitely be used, just not exclusively and always with the understanding of their limitations.
A word about choosing audiences or group that you want to impact with your plan: Narrow your focus. Instead of trying to reach everyone with your message, zero in and pick just a few critical groups. One of the audiences most frequently left out in communication planning is the INTERNAL audience within the organization or team itself. Always begin internally first. If our own folks aren’t on board, external communication won’t be nearly as effective.
As a team, brainstorm all of the possible interpersonal and mass communication strategies you can. After you’ve brainstormed, discuss which strategies you could manageably employ to work toward your goal. Keep in mind that in order to be successful, the strategies you select have to be doable from the standpoint of time and resources (both human and financial). Don’t include in your plan an activity of 15 face-to-face meetings with parents each week if it’s unrealistic to do so. Also, remember to strive for a balance between mass and interpersonal communication approaches. While interpersonal strategies give you the most bang for your buck, mass communication strategies also have their place in your plan.
Step 4: Get Honest About Results
The final step in communication planning is all about evaluation. Did your plan change behavior (your goal)? Do you have more work to do? Evaluation is tricky because it can be very complex to measure true behavior change and concretely say which factors contributed. Pure behavioral scientists would probably scoff at the simplicity of this suggestion, but the bottom line is that your evaluation process can be both about collecting data (refer back to Step 1) and making some basic assumptions. Evaluation is sort of the “post-test” to Step 1’s “pre-test” so consider going back and using similar methods and questions as you used in Step 1 to gather your data.
When you evaluate will depend on the magnitude of your goal and the timelines of your activities. Some goals are so large that it would be unthinkable to try and evaluate before a year’s time (e.g. annual goals). Other goals are smaller in nature and could be reviewed after three or six months.