June 13, 2022 / News & Blog

What Is a Communications Plan and Why Do I Need One?

This article is part of the “Communications 2022” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Maureen Wolsborn, Hamilton Place Strategies

A communications plan is an organizational road map to ensure that your mission and message reach your community. While the initial creation of the plan takes time, it will pay dividends down the road as it provides the organization with internally agreed-upon processes and expectations. Outlining clear deliverables and timelines empowers your team to execute your messaging strategy while reducing the need for day-to-day oversight.

Developing a plan can seem daunting if you do not have a communications background. However, creating an effective plan is a simple matter of organizing and writing down what you already know about your organization and how you’re currently communicating about it.

Start by dividing the plan into the four integral parts: Goals, Audience, Messages, and Tactics:

GOALS: Define the why.

Why are we doing any of this in the first place? What is the purpose of updating the website? Why do we need to post about events on social media? This may sound pedantic, but going back to the beginning and defining what you are trying to accomplish is a vital step in the process. Below is an example from one of my plans created for a school district bond program.

Prove the value and impact of the 2018 bond measure through accurate, up-to-date, culturally appropriate, and easily accessible information and communications on bond projects and their long term-term impact on student experience and the greater community.

An example for a children’s museum’s goal could look like this:

  • • Educate our community on enrichment programs available at the museum.

Keep each goal to one or two sentences—brevity and clarity are paramount. While there can be multiple goals, remember that a dense message can be challenging to follow. The purpose of the “goals” section is to help everyone pull in the same direction.

AUDIENCE: Define the who.

Establishing your goals will help you understand who you need to reach to achieve them. If one of your organization’s goals is to expand access and visitorship amongst culturally diverse populations, then identify those groups. It is not about singling out one population, but rather ensuring you are creating communications that are culturally and linguistically appropriate for a specific audience.

Audiences can be as broad as “teachers at our K-12 schools” or “parents of children ages 0-18 in Denver.” If you get stuck on completely defining them all, start with a broad view and go back later to refine the list as your plan develops.

MESSAGES: Define the what.

Message creation can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Start with the obvious sources for inspiration: mission, vision, and strategic plan. Then jot down any commonly used phrases or terms specific to your organization. This will give you an idea of the consistent tone and voice your communications should convey.

Next, write a few key messages to guide the rest of your plan. Key messages don’t need to encompass everything you’re trying to say. They exist to ensure future team members understand how to write in your organization’s voice. Keep those goals and audiences in mind as you write. An example of a key message might be “the children’s museum welcomes children and families looking for fun ways to play and learn together.”

If there are specific audiences, events, or benchmarks you are trying to reach or accomplish with your communications, it’s a good idea to write a few key messages that are targeted to those needs. Think about your supporter base: getting an existing supporter to sign up for a new program offering (e.g., “Sign up now for the museum’s new and improved Summer of STEM!”) is different than trying to recruit brand new supporters (“Instill a love of science in your kids by exploring STEM at the museum!”). Goal-specific messaging should be tailored to each deliverable.

TACTICS: Define the how.

What are you already doing to get your messages out? Is it working? How do you know? It is tempting to jump right into tactics, but make sure you have tools set up to monitor your metrics and performance first (more on this later). Perhaps you’ve seen another museum do something cool—like a great TikTok post or YouTube video—and you want to do one too. It’s great to seek that creative inspiration, but before you take that leap, ask yourself if that new strategy will help meet your goals and reach your audience.

For example, let’s say you have new summer program offerings for kids:

  • • Why do we want people to know about it? Engaging kids and families is part of our mission.
  • • Who needs to know? Teachers, so they can spread the word; parents, so they can sign up their children; and kids, so they’re excited to attend.
  • • What do we want them to know? The details of when/where/how much, as well as what’s being offered.

Tactics include updating your website, posting to social media, and calling the local reporter who gives you column inches every spring to publish summer programming for families. Organize these tactics in a way that makes sense to you and that matches your organizational capacity. The easiest structure to follow focuses on each of your channels. Channels are the communications tools that you own and control: your social media, website, newsletters, etc.

Perhaps you need to update the website a certain number of times with camp registration information in order to reach that previously stated goal. In this case, that tactic would go under “website.” You can then attach any additional details—such as messaging, graphics, timeframe—to this category.

Time and resources are major limiting factors for any plan. Before you build out a lofty communications plan, think about how much time you and your team are able to put into executing it. If one person is able to spend four hours a week on it, be sure your plan reflects that reality. One person won’t have time to shoot, edit, and post six TikTok videos a week while also doing the other necessary functions of their job. Based on what you already know about which channels work best for which audiences in your community, establish work focus priorities. Setting realistic expectations gives your team the opportunity to succeed and the foundation to grow your skills as you become more comfortable in this work.

SOCIAL MEDIA: Navigate the changing landscape.

Every organization today wants compelling and engaging social media content to be a key component of its communications plan. But how do you get there? The most important pillar when building a social media presence is consistency. Working off a schedule of where and when you post and then assessing engagement will allow you to continually tailor your social media strategy.

Consider your audiences. What do you know about their interests in your organization? Where do they get their information? What messaging has been successful in the past? Answering those questions will lead you in the right direction.

The styles, content, and schedules of different social media is a topic too vast to sum up in a couple of paragraphs. However, a key attribute across the board is that social media should be interactive. Engage with your audience through direct messages, posts directed at your organization, and comment threads on whatever platforms you use. If someone tags you in an Instagram post about the fantastic experience they had at your museum, respond with a comment to say thank you. Conversely, maybe someone didn’t have a great time and chose to vent online; a sincere response from the organization may turn that feeling right around, or at least let the venter feel heard.

If you don’t have the time or know-how for any social media posting, turn to the users! Have a social media contest where people submit content for you to publish on your channels. Or consider an “Instagram takeover” on your account, handing the reins over to a social media user you trust who creates great content. For example, hand over the reins of your Instagram account to a media-savvy member of your floor staff for a day. They can post the sweet or funny things that happen while playing with kids in an exhibit. Or run an Instagram LIVE during a program launch.

NEWSPAPERS ARE NOT DEAD: Utilize print media and choose platforms.

Despite the current focus on social media, print ads and promotions are still popular and effective with many audiences. How people like to get their information changes constantly, and there are plenty of people out there who get overwhelmed by the noise on social media.

A community newspaper, for example, could be a great place to run a focused earned media piece. The better you understand your audience(s), the easier it will be to reach them with your communications. The myriad options can be intimidating, so test out different messaging and delivery methods to see what works best. You might be surprised at what you find.

SO, DID IT WORK? Measure success.

This part is hard. Start by determining how you define success for a campaign, what data you need to measure it, and how to get that data. This is where digital platforms provide the most insight. If your organization has the budget for it, use paid ads on various platforms with different messages and examine the performance analytics to determine what succeeds.

As a baseline, be sure your website and newsletter platforms have an analytics tracking component that allows you to go back and run reports on performance for specific time periods, campaigns, and audiences. These simple viewership numbers can provide insight into how your communications are performing and what items within your communication strategy are drawing the most engagement.

Last word

There are no silver bullets for any of this work. A communications plan provides a guiding structure for the organization, but it is a living document. Don’t hesitate to make changes. You’re going to learn along the way, so it helps to be adaptable. When in doubt, get some people in a room and try a good, old-fashioned conversation to start identifying your museum’s Goals, Audience, Messages, and Tactics.

Maureen Wolsborn has nearly a decade of experience in Colorado public policy, citizen engagement, and communications. She managed bond communications for Jeffco (Jefferson County) Public Schools and Denver Public Schools. She recently became a creative director at Hamilton Place Strategies, an analytical public affairs firm.