A 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle draws me in like a magnet. How are these 1,000 little pieces going to make one whole picture? The challenge of crafting a strategic communications plan is a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle. But shaping a communications strategy is an open-ended kind of puzzle. At the beginning, you are given neither the pieces nor the picture that hints at where they belong.
Instead you have a strategic goal in mind. To achieve it, you must first envision the picture you are trying to build. From there you figure out how to bring that vision to reality by designing the pieces you will put in place.
Here’s an overview of the innovative process of puzzling out and writing a strategic communications plan.
The entire plan will be directed by the answers to the question “why?” — Why is communications important in reaching our goals? What can it do for us to achieve a broader purpose? Without knowing this, you cannot be sure who to reach or what to say to shape opinions and actions.
The first step in developing a communications strategy is assessing an organization’s overall objectives and what is needed to reach them.
Many variables must be considered — the organization’s mission, its products or services, the proper target audiences, past and current successes and challenges, the organization’s reputation with others, current and future trends and their expected influence on the enterprise.
A written strategic communications plan begins with a situation analysis which describes in a few paragraphs where an organization is and why it wants to move in a new direction. This is followed by the objective section, summarizing the desired result in two or three sentences.
A jigsaw puzzle has only one correct path to success, but strategic planning opens many possibilities for reaching a goal. Creative thinking grounded in logic shapes the second section of the plan. This section reflects many judgements about what should be done to achieve the goal. Strategists weigh factors such as costs and benefits, needs and wants and available resources such as staff, technology, money and time.
Ideas may apply elements of popular culture, sports, psychology, economics, or other fields to the challenge at hand. Carefully chosen words, themes, images, tone and format will be presented here.
This creative section of a plan includes:
- Key audiences to be reached.
- Up to three key messages, each in one summary sentence.
- Broad directions for activities, also called strategies. Forming alliances with like-minded groups might be one strategy, for instance, that allows a group to get better results in bringing issues to public attention.
- Specific steps supporting the broad directions, also called tactics. Some tactics that could support alliance-building may include developing opportunities for joint meetings or guest blogging.
A sound strategic communications plan includes ways to evaluate its impact. This section sets criteria such as how many new people engaged with a campaign or how many policymakers acted on policy recommendations.
The final sections of a strategic plan allocate the time and money needed to implement strategies and tactics. A time line breaks up tactical steps into specific weeks or months.
The budget sets a total cost and breaks down the prices of each activity. A consultant’s budget will list out-of-pocket costs such as travel or honoraria separate from the cost of the consulting team’s time for work such as writing or research.
Both jigsaw puzzles and strategic communications plans test problem-solving skills. But unlike a jigsaw puzzle, a strategic plan can empowers an organization to shape elements of its own future.