How to Write a Communications Plan

Posted by on September 30, 2015 in Service Desk

ITSM Communications Plan

It’s human nature to seek out others to communicate.  Through communications we learn, relate, help, influence, and play.  Communication is the currency and propellant of our society.

Thanks to technology we are connected and able to communicate more today than at any previous time in our recorded history. We have become ‘digital citizens’ and many of us ‘digital consumers’.

Add to this that pretty soon just about any device will be able to interact and communicate with any other device (the infamous Internet of Things concept), what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty it seems.


From home life, to work and everything in between, it seems a “failure to communicate” is cited as the biggest risk and the primary cause when things go wrong. “I didn’t know”, “You didn’t tell me”, “I didn’t realize”, and the infamous “That’s not what you said” are recognizable claims from the victims of poor or missing communications.

The biggest reason offered, for failing to communicate properly, is time. That is, not enough time to prepare a communication plan to ensure it’s effective, and not enough time by the recipient to read and digest properly.

Hopefully, through reminding you of the key concepts and basic principles of communications, I can help you decide if, when, and how much time you will invest to make sure your communications have the desired effect.

The Communication System

Firstly, communication is the act, by one or more persons, of sending and receiving information as messages. Such messages are distorted by noise from other communications happening simultaneously, and can be additionally affected by a filter (representing local bias, capability, or language) at both the sender and receiver ends.

Communication incurs within a situational context, has an effect, and provides the opportunity for feedback.  Communication involves choices and those choices will determine the effectiveness.

Individual and organizational culture permeates all forms of communication.

In any interactional situation, communication is inevitable.

It’s almost impossible to get through any given day without the need to interact with someone, or something.

What’s the longest time you’ve gone or can go without some form of communication?  Were you trying to avoid communication, or were others? Have you ever deliberately tried not to interact, only to discover that no response is in itself a response!

Communication is irreversible.

Once a message is received it cannot be taken back.  Say something, click “send” on your email, or perhaps flash your headlights at the driver taking your braking distance – it’s done.  There’s no easy way to ‘un-communicate’ a message received.

You can of course try to reduce its effect.  “I didn’t really mean what I said”.  “That’s not what I meant”.  “You misunderstood what I said”.  Communication is reparable – but at an added and unexpected cost of time, effort, and perhaps the relationship.

Sometimes the more clarification you offer, the worse the effect!

The good news is some communication – verbal for example, fades as soon as it’s spoken.  It’s the digital communications that are persistent, and typically un-erasable.

Finally, communication is unrepeatable.

The circumstances that existed and set the context for a previous communication are subject to constant change.

Relationship dynamics, frame of mind, and the situational context are always in flux. As a result you can never recapture exactly the same situation; you can’t simply replay the communication and expect the same effect.

It should come as no surprise when I say the more important it is to make sure the communication has the desired effect, the more time you should invest in planning that communication.

My Planning Checklist

A communications plan is the obvious result of planning your communications, and is typically a written document. It can span a single improvement or change, or an entire program or project, and address the messaging of one audience, or multiple audiences. Here’s my checklist for planning communications:

  1. Know why you need to communicate. What do you want to be different as a result of communication, what is the purpose of the communication?  What do you want your audience to hear, think, and do as a result?
  2. Create your starting message. Draft your base with a starting message irrespective of audience, tying this back to your purpose. Be prepared to revisit and change this as you address the needs of each audience.
  3. Consider who you need to communicate with. Make a list of your potential audiences. Exploit any existing ‘stakeholder analysis’ research or taxonomy of stakeholder communities.
  4. Define the scope of the messaging. Check if each audience is one or more discrete parties; sub-divide and segregate as necessary.
  5. Characterize and prioritize the audiences. Define a ‘persona’ or set of common characteristics for each audience. For example ‘ VIPs’ versus ‘general workforce’.  Rank them by importance to your goals.
  6. Research and tune into each audience. Locate any available communications, reports, articles, and similar materials from the target audience. Research key objectives, performance measures, and likely problematic concerns. List and compare between audiences. Identify common themes.
  7. Connect to keywords. Identify and catalog keywords used, key concepts, important language, and culture-specific aspects of the audience.
  8. Be relevant. Find and define a basis for your message being relevant to the audience. Connect your message to a problem or area of interest for each audience.
  9. Position your message. Take your starting message and change as necessary to better position it in the ‘minds eye’ of each audience. Establish the reason why they should pay attention to your message over others.
  10. Assume their position. Put yourself in the position of each audience. Ask “what’s in it for me?”  What do these audiences think about the topic or issue? Are they supporters, or protagonists?  Will they create friction or remove it?
  11. Channel surf. Identify what delivery methods are preferred by each audience, and are available to use. What additional resources and costs might be involved? Decide what channels you will use to deliver each message.
  12. Plan of action. Develop your action plan to develop and combine the messaging with the selected channels, include any special resourcing or elements containing high costs or major risks.
  13. Develop with agility. Write your key messages for each audience. Be aware of and responsive to changes in circumstances within each audience. Be prepared to revisit any earlier item in this list.
  14. Time travel. Decide when you need or prefer to deliver your messages, differentiate between important milestones and interim progress markers.
  15. Collision avoidance. Check for other communication plans, similar messaging activities, or major activities within an audience scheduled for your preferred timeline. Conduct ‘collision avoidance’ – adjusting your timeline or influencing others to change theirs.
  16. Noise abatement. Subject to the likelihood of collisions competing for attention, are there any other major distractions that could negatively affect the success of your communications plan?  If there are, how will you overcome this ‘noise’ and gain the attention you require?  Be prepared to revisit items 8 and 9.
  17. Execute and orchestrate.Execute your communications plan, orchestrating its delivery with any actions of an associated program or initiative.
  18. RARE – Received And Responded to as Expected. How will you check the message was received and understood as you expected and as you require? Define a means for verifying RARE based upon your initial purpose statement. This could include an online survey, interactive ranking system, or a like/dislike question or prompt.
  19. Invite feedback. Optionally, communications are designed to solicit one or more of the three types of feedback from the audience based upon the ACE model (appreciation, coaching, and evaluation). The communication may also offer ways in which the audience can become more involved in associated activities – termed a call for action or CTA.  Decide if a CTA is required and how you might invite and invoke feedback using one of the common methods.
  20. Research results. Analyze and assess the results of the communication to verify it had the desired effect. This includes situations where feedback was solicited. Was feedback received, in sufficient quantities, and useful?

The more important the message, the more value there likely is in investing your time to plan what the message is, who needs to hear that message, and what result you require to guarantee success.

If you have an important idea, change, improvement, or project, consider investing time, no more than perhaps 30 minutes, in drafting a simple communications plan for at least one audience using the checklist as your guide.

When you’re done, ask yourself – do you think about your messaging and approach differently than before? Was the difference important and helpful? Do you think your communication will be more effective?

I hope you found this article and my checklist for communications planning helpful. Lets keep the conversation going!  Drop me a line and let me know how you are doing and remember…

Communications are inevitable, irreversible, and unrepeatable. 

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