|Learn how to develop a plan for communication to raise awareness about community issues and your organization's accomplishments.
Developing a communication plan can help focus your message and reach your target audience. A plan can also influence the efficiency and simplicity of your communication methods. This section looks at what a communication plan entails, how and when to create one, and how to use a communication plan to raise awareness about your issue or project.
What do we mean by communication?
Communication is the process of transmitting ideas and information. For a grass roots initiative or community-based organization, that means conveying the true nature of your organization, the issues it deals with, and its accomplishments to the community.
Communication can take many forms, including:
- Word of mouth
- News stories in both print and broadcast media
- Press releases and press conferences
- Posters, brochures, and fliers
- Outreach and presentations to other health and community service providers, community groups, and organizations
- Special events and open houses that your organization holds
To communicate effectively, it helps to plan out what you want from your communication, and what you need to do to get it.
What is a plan for communication?
Planning is a way to organize actions that will lead to the fulfillment of a goal.
Your goal, in this case, is to raise awareness about your initiative's long-term benefits to your community.
To develop a plan for communication, you have to consider some basic questions:
- Why do you want to communicate with the community? (What’s your purpose?)
- To whom do you want to communicate it? (Who’s your audience?)
- What do you want to communicate? (What’s your message?)
- How do you want to communicate it? (What communication channels will you use?)
- Whom should you contact, and what should you do to use those channels? (How will you distribute your message?)
The answers to these questions constitute your action plan, what you need to do to successfully communicate with your audience. The remainder of your communication plan, involves three steps:
- Implement your action plan. Design your message and distribute it to your intended audience.
- Evaluate your communication efforts and adjust your plan accordingly.
- Keep at it.
Communication is an ongoing activity for any organization that serves, depends upon, or is in any way connected with the community. The purpose, audience, message, and channels may change, but the need to maintain relationships with the media and with key people in the community remain. As a result, an essential part of any communication plan is to continue using and revising your plan, based on your experience, throughout the existence of your organization.
Why should you develop a plan for communication?
- A plan will make it possible to target your communication accurately. It gives you a structure to determine whom you need to reach and how.
- A plan can be long-term, helping you map out how to raise your profile and refine your image in the community over time.
- A plan will make your communication efforts more efficient, effective, and lasting.
- A plan makes everything easier. If you spend some time planning at the beginning of an effort, you can save a great deal of time later on, because you know what you should be doing at any point in the process.
When should you develop a plan for communication?
As soon as your organization begins planning its objectives and activities, you should also start planning ways to communicate them; successful communication is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.
Communication is useful at all points in your organization's development - it can help get the word out about a new organization, renew interest in a long-standing program, or help attract new funding sources.
How do you develop a plan for communication?
Planning for communication is an eight-step process. The steps are:
- Identify the purpose of your communication
- Identify your audience
- Plan and design your message
- Consider your resources
- Plan for obstacles and emergencies
- Strategize how you will connect with the media and others who can help you spread your message
- Create an action plan
- Decide how you will evaluate your plan and adjust it, based on the results of carrying it out
1. Identify your purpose
What you might want to say depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with your communication strategy. You might be concerned with one or a combination of the following:
- Becoming known, or better known, in the community
- Educating the public about the issue your organization addresses
- Recruiting program participants or beneficiaries
- Recruiting volunteers to help with your work
- Rallying supporters or the general public to action for your cause
- Announcing events
- Celebrating honors or victories
- Raising money to fund your work
- Countering the arguments, mistakes, or, occasionally, the lies or misrepresentations of those opposed to your work.
- Dealing with an organizational crisis that’s public knowledge – a staff member who commits a crime, for example, or a lawsuit aimed at the organization.
2. Identify your audience
Who are you trying to reach? Knowing your audience makes it possible to plan your communication logically. You'll need different messages for different groups, and you'll need different channels and methods to reach each of those groups.
There are many different ways to think about your audience and the best ways to contact them. First, there’s the question of what group(s) you’ll focus on. You can group people according to several characteristics:
- Demographics. Demographics are simply basic statistical information about people, such as gender, age, ethnic and racial background, income, etc.
- Geography. You might want to focus on a whole town or region, on one or more neighborhoods, or on people who live near a particular geographic or man-made feature.
- Employment. You may be interested in people in a particular line of work or in unemployed people.
- Health. Your concern might be with people at risk for or experiencing a particular condition – high blood pressure, perhaps, or diabetes – or you might be leveling a health promotion effort – “Eat healthy, exercise regularly” – at the whole community.
- Behavior. You may be targeting your message to smokers, for example, or to youth engaged in violence.
- Attitudes. Are you trying to change people’s minds or bring them to the next level of understanding?
Another aspect of the audience to consider is whether you should direct your communication to those whose behavior, knowledge, or condition you hope to affect, or whether your communication needs to be indirect. Sometimes, to influence a population, you have to aim your message at those to whom they listen – clergy, community leaders, politicians, etc.
For instance, in the 1970s, advocates wanted to stop Nestle from selling baby formula and paying doctors and nurses to recommend it to parents in the developing world. Most parents couldn’t afford formula after the free samples ran out, and many didn’t have clean water to mix with it, so the practice led to large numbers of unnecessary infant deaths. Rather than target Nestle or the medical professionals who were selling the formula, advocates aimed at Nestle’s customers around the world, instituting a boycott of Nestle products that lasted for over ten years. Ultimately, the company agreed to change its practices.
3. The message
When creating your message, consider content, mood, language, and design.
In the course of a national adult literacy campaign in the 1980s, educators learned that TV ads that profiled proud, excited, successful adult learners attracted new learners to literacy programs. Ads that described the difficulties of adults with poor reading, writing, and math skills attracted potential volunteers. Both ads were designed to make the same points – the importance of basic skills and the need for literacy efforts – but they spoke to different groups.
You should craft your message with your audience in mind; planning the content of your message is necessary to make it effective.
Consider what emotions you want to appeal to.
The mood of your message will do a good deal to determine how people react to it. In general, if the mood is too extreme – too negative, too frightening, trying to make your audience feel too guilty – people won’t pay much attention to it. It may take some experience to learn how to strike the right balance. Keeping your tone positive will usually reach more people than evoking negative feelings such as fear or anger.
There are two aspects to language here. One is the actual language – English, Spanish, Korean, Arabic – that your intended audience speaks. The other is the style of language you use – formal or informal, simple or complex, referring to popular figures and ideas or obscure ones.
You can address the language people speak by presenting any printed material in both the official language and the language(s) of the population(s) you’re hoping to reach, and by providing translation for spoken or broadcast messages.
The second language issue is more complicated. If your message is too informal, your audience might feel you’re talking down to them, or, worse, that you’re making an insincere attempt to get close to them by communicating in a way that’s clearly not normal for you. If your message is too formal, your audience might feel you’re not really talking to them at all. You should use plain, straightforward language that expresses what you want to say simply and clearly.
Channels of communication
What does your intended audience read, listen to, watch, or engage in? You have to reach them by placing your message where they’ll see it.
- Fliers and brochures - These can be more compelling in places where the issue is already in people’s minds (doctors’ offices for health issues, supermarkets for nutrition, etc.).
- Promotional materials - Items such as caps, T-shirts, and mugs can serve as effective channels for your message.
- Comic books or other reading material - Reading material that is interesting to the target audience can be used to deliver a message through a story that readers are eager to follow, or through the compelling nature of the medium and its design.
- Internet sites - In addition to your organization's website, interactive sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are effective mediums for communication
- Letters to the Editor
- News stories, columns, and reports
- Press releases and press conferences
- Presentations or presence at local events and local and national conferences, fairs, and other gatherings
- Community outreach
- Community or national events - The Great American Smokeout, National Literacy Day, a community “Take Back the Night” evening against violence, and other community events can serve to convey a message and highlight an issue.
- Public demonstrations
- Word of mouth
- Exhibits and public art - The AIDS quilt, a huge quilt with squares made by thousands of people, commemorating victims of the HIV epidemic, is a prime example.
- Movies - Since the beginnings of the film industry, movies have carried messages about race, the status of women, adult literacy, homosexuality, mental illness, AIDS, and numerous other social issues.
- TV - TV can both carry straightforward messages – ads and Public Service Announcements (PSAs) – and present news and entertainment programs that deal with your issue or profile your organization.
- Theater and interactive theater - A play or skit, especially one written by people who have experienced what it illustrates, can be a powerful way to present an issue or to underline the need for services or change.
Several interactive theater groups in New England, by stopping the action and inviting questions and comments, draw audiences into performances dramatizing real incidents in the lives of the actors, all of whom are staff members and learners in adult literacy programs. They have helped change attitudes about adult learners and bring information about adult literacy and learning into the community
What do you have the money to do? Do you have the people to make it possible? If you’re going to spend money, what are the chances that the results will be worth the expense? Who will lose what, and who will gain what by your use of financial and human resources?
Your plan should include careful determinations of how much you can spend and how much staff and volunteer time it’s reasonable to use. You may also be able to share materials, air time, and other goods and services with individuals, businesses, other organizations, and institutions.
5. Anticipate obstacles and emergencies
Any number of things can happen in the course of a communication effort. Someone can forget to e-mail a press release or forget to include a phone number or e-mail address. A crucial word on your posters or in your brochure can be misspelled, or a reporter might get important information wrong. Worse, you might have to deal with a real disaster involving the organization that has the potential to discredit everything you do.
It’s important to try to anticipate these kinds of problems, and to create a plan to deal with them. Crisis planning should be part of any communication plan, so you’ll know what to do when a problem or crisis occurs. Crisis plans should include who takes responsibility for what – dealing with the media, correcting errors, deciding when something has to be redone rather than fixed, etc. It should cover as many situations, and as many aspects of each situation, as possible.
6. Strategize how you’ll connect with the media and others to spread your message
Establishing relationships with individual media representatives and media outlets is an essential part of a communication plan, as is establishing relationships with influential individuals and institutions in the community and the population you’re trying to reach. You have to make personal contacts, give the media and others reasons to want to help you, and follow through to sustain those relationships to keep communication channels open.
The individuals that can help you spread your message can vary from formal community leaders – elected officials, CEOs of prominent local businesses, clergy, etc. – to community activists and ordinary citizens. Institutions and organizations, such as colleges, hospitals, service clubs, faith communities, and other health and community organizations, all have access to groups of community members who might need to hear your message.
7. Create an action plan
Now the task is to put it all together into a plan that you can act on. By the time you reach this point, your plan is already done, for the most part. You know what your purpose is and whom you need to reach to accomplish it, what your message should contain and look like, what you can afford, what problems you might face, what channels can best be used to reach your intended audience, and how to gain access to those channels. Now it’s just a matter of putting the details together – composing and designing your message (or messages, if using multiple channels), making contact with the people who can help you, and getting everything in place to start your communication effort. And finally, you'll evaluate your effort so that you can continue to make it better.
If you evaluate your communication plan in terms of both how well you carry it out and how well it works, you’ll be able to make changes to improve it. It will keep getting more effective each time you implement it.
And there’s really a ninth step to developing a communication plan; as with just about every phase of health and community work, you have to keep up the effort, adjusting your plan and communicating with the community.
Communications Planning: Getting the Right Messages Across in the Right Way, by Mindtools.com, will help you through the preparation steps as well as create an audience-focused communication plan that is sure to get your message heard.
Creating a Communications Action Plan, from viaSport in British Columbia.
Developing a Communication Plan, by the Pell Institute and Pathways to College Network, is an excellent, simple resource providing information on how the communication plan should be designed as well as questions to be answered in order to develop a working and effective plan.
MED Communication Handbook. This 119-page PDF booklet was prepared by Pinnacle Public Relations for the European Territorial Cooperation MED Programme, 2007-2013.
Media Advocacy by Sandra A. Hoover
Newsworthy elements, from the Berkeley Media Studies Group, includes a checklist of questions by category to help you prepare and focus your story.
Planning Before You Communicate. This helpful tool developed by the Public Health Foundation will help you to address and organize essential factors of communications planning, execution, and evaluation. Doing this preparation work before you communicate will save you valuable time and resources when and where they are needed most.
Worksheet: Crafting your media advocacy plan, from the Berkeley Media Studies Group, can help you identify key moments in the political process or opportunities — such as holidays, anniversaries or other key dates — far enough in advance that you can prepare and act effectively.