A communication plan looks very much like a strategic plan or a marketing plan.

Remember, to be called strategic, it must share some of the same elements and methodology of accepted planning formats. My model for a strategic communication plan contains the following sections:

  1. Executive summary.
  2. The communication process (a description for instructional purposes). Not all decision makers are trained in communication, PR or integrated marketing communication. This section builds the business case for using communication as a strategic management tool. Omit it if your decision makers get it. From my experience, few do.
  3. Background. How did you get to where you are today? What are the major milestones in the organization’s history? What has led the organization to its current situation?
  4. Situation analysis. This includes an analysis of current issues – problems and opportunities – plus an analysis of publics/stakeholders/audiences. This is your research component. Included should be a SWOT analysis, a strategic planning tool that documents strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats the organization faces both now and in the future.
  5. Strategic summary. In this section, you set goals and objectives – the expected outcomes of your communication activities – and formulate your message strategy for each public/stakeholder.
  6. Schedule. This section documents the implementation of your tactics, your specific communication tools and activities that touch each stakeholder.
  7. Budget. Enough said.
  8. Monitoring and evaluation. This section documents how you will monitor implementation and measure success in achieving goals and objectives.

This eight-step model is ideal for an annual communication plan or for a shorter duration plan that deals with a specific issue, such as planning a major trade show or a nonprofit’s annual fundraising event. It also works quite well for a plan containing internal, external and other components, such as some advertising/promotional tactics or community relations activities. The planning model works equally well for internal communication.

In the reality of day-to-day use, you will probably use many of these steps in combination, without using the complete model step for step. That’s okay. The beauty of strategic thinking is just that – you think strategically, that is, you know the purpose of your organization; you examine the environments in which your organization operates and the issues it faces; and through this systematic analysis, synthesis and evaluation, you develop a plan of communication action to help the organization achieve its mission. You may frequently use only five elements – issues, publics/audiences/stakeholders, message, media and evaluation – in counseling and advising the people you support. If you use them in that order, you are still practicing strategic communication management. You are recognizing the cause-and-effect relationship of communication and the achievement of your organization’s mission. Consider the issues (cause) and what they are making happen (effects), then develop communication activity that will help the organization achieve its goals.

Excerpt from The Communication Plan: The Heart of Strategic Communication, third edition, by Les Potter, ABC, IABC Fellow.