January is officially underway. For many of us, it’s an opportunity to not only set our personal resolutions for the coming year, but also a time for setting out our business objectives for 2018.

Whether you’re defining your internal communications proposal or your external communication strategy, a plan is paramount for success. It’s your roadmap; defining not only where you want to go, but how you’re going to get there. It clarifies your objectives, who you’re targeting, and how.

Even if you’re a seasoned pro at pulling together strategy plans, the process can feel overwhelming when you’re staring at a blank document and wondering where to start. Here’s some ideas to help get your 2018 comms plan into shape.

Internal vs. external communications

Before we dive in, it’s worth looking at the internal/external divide. Both are unique professions, serving distinct audiences with different objectives. So, why are we grouping them when it comes to making a plan?

Although it’s been brewing for a while, 2017 was the year we saw a definite and marked shift on the issue of transparency. We saw it with Uber, under fire for a culture of sexism when an ex-employee blog went viral. The #MeToo campaign that followed the Weinstein revelations showed the willingness of individuals to come forward into the public domain. Simply put: there’s nowhere for anyone to hide anymore.

In a world of complete citizen empowerment – of Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – failure to align your internal and external messaging can cause extreme reputational damage. Being honest and open with both customers and employees – and ensuring a consistent message is being delivered on both sides – is vital.

Writing for allthingsIC, radio broadcaster and journalist Adam Kirtley summons it up:

“In my experience in covering stories the two are inextricably linked and depend on each other. They are twins, not identical, but twins. And when the internal twin misbehaves or malfunctions, the poor external twin often has to pick up the pieces.”

Transparency is now firmly on the C-suite radar and 2018 will see it become a priority for all communicators – internal, and external (if it isn’t already.)  Even if you have two distinct plans in place for internal and external communication within your organization, take the time to ensure they align.

Step 1: Take stock

Before we move forward, we need to look at where we’ve been. If we don’t understand what has worked previously – or where our weaknesses and gaps are – we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes, or become static.

So, evaluate. Look at the campaigns you ran in 2017 – whether internal or external – and audit the results. Why were these campaigns undertaken, and who for? How were they delivered? What were the results, and how were they measured?

Don’t just consider campaigns in isolation, however. Look to the overall contribution your communications efforts made to the business, and how that aligned to business objectives. How did you define success? Did you realize your goals?

Seek feedback from your audiences – whether internal, or external. Use surveys, request anecdotal feedback. Look to the analytics of your platforms. It may also help to look to your competitors, and what they’re doing. Building a research-based picture of what works – and what doesn’t – will help steer your plan for 2018.

  • Look at previous campaigns
  • How were they delivered?
  • What were the results/measurements of success?
  • How did comms contribute to overall business objectives?
  • Seek feedback from your target audience
  • Look at competitors

Step 2: Set out your goals

You know where you are now. So, where are you headed – or where do you want to be?

Communication has evolved from a tactical tool to distribute necessary content or information, to a key element of business strategy. So, the first step is to look to your overall business objectives and direction for the year, and determine the role communications needs to play in supporting those.

Perhaps there are particular challenges or changes lying ahead for your organization that need to shape your objectives for 2018. This will include acquisitions and mergers, industry changes or regulatory updates, your product roadmap, or even wider economic and political changes – such as Brexit or the introduction of GDPR in the UK.

Seek input from multiple departments, where possible. They may have specific objectives that require comms support over the coming 12 months.

Revisit or define your key messages – whether for the organization as a whole, particular campaigns, or specific parts of the company. Who are you, and what do you stand for? What is your mission and your brand? What is important to you, and what is that ‘certain something’ that makes you unique? Strong self-awareness and a defined tone of voice should run through every piece of communication coming from your business – internal and external.

Finally, take time to re-evaluate what to perceive to be ‘effective’ or ‘successful’ communication. Is your campaign a success simply because people look at what you’ve distributed, or are you seeking an action?

Determine your key performance indicators (KPIs) and set tangible, quantifiable goals or objectives. “Increase employee engagement” is not an objective. “Increase employee traffic to the company intranet news pages by 5% by close of Q2” is.

  • Align with business objectives
  • Identify 2018 events, changes, or challenges
  • Go company-wide
  • Define your key messages, brand, tone of voice
  • Determine what ‘success’ looks like
  • Set out quantifiable KPIs

Step 3: Make a plan

Now you have a clear idea of where you want to go, it’s time to figure out the route there. This part of your plan is the ‘brass tacks’: the more tactical specifics.

Start with your audience. Who are you targeting, and has that changed? Don’t assume that this remains the same; consumer trends change regularly, and the introduction of Generation Z into the workplace has strong implications for internal comms. How do you segment and target your audience? Personalization and tailoring of communication is more vital than ever before – mass marketing should be firmly left behind in 2017.

Consider introducing personas into your communications plan, if you haven’t before. These use behavioral, demographic, and psychographic research and data to form a fictitious archetypical character that can be utilized to shape your messaging.

Next, look to your communication channels. What are you currently using that has proven successful? Are there alternatives you may want to introduce to your plan for 2018, or certain channels that should be given higher priority? The continuing trend towards visual communication may see you shift towards more interactive or video content, for example.

Create a calendar of key events or areas of focus for each month or quarter. How far in advance do you need to begin communication efforts? If you have a company acquisition, for example, this may require a staggered communication effort over several months, targeting different individuals with timely and relevant information accordingly.

What resource do you have available in terms of budget, people, time? Consider who has responsibility for creating and delivering your communications, alongside any additional resource requirements. Clearly define roles and expectations. Factor in any budgetary requirements, including new platforms/channels, PPC, campaign budgets, any external support and more.

  • (Re)define your audience and create personas
  • Evaluate existing and potential comms channels
  • Create a communications calendar of major events
  • Outline resource needs
  • Determine budgetary requirements

Side note: Planning for the unexpected

Remember: a plan is not a hard-and-fast structure that you have to adhere to. Communications is, by nature, often reactionary – responsible for the management of dispersing and managing information in response to unforeseen events, changes, or incidents.

Planning for the unexpected may sound like a contradiction, but there are processes and protocols that can be put into place to ensure that ad-hoc communication is managed successfully. Ensure you have a defined pathway for what needs to happen, and who needs to be involved.

If communications need to be escalated or approved before they can be distributed, for example, create a hierarchy of responsibility and include ‘backup’ options as a safety net. If a crisis hits and a statement needs releasing, whether internally or externally, it doesn’t bode well to be withholding information as the designated approver is unreachable on annual leave.

Step 4: Act and evaluate

It sounds obvious, but don’t let your communications plan become all talk and no action. Ensuring you have accountability, deadlines and regular check-ins to gauge progress are key to getting your plan off the ground. They also safeguard against the risk of failing to deliver on your objectives.

Don’t wait until the close of 2018 to evaluate your success. Seek agile feedback from your audience or on specific campaigns and where possible, report regularly against your KPIs and objectives to ensure you’re on track. This will help identify any failures or weaknesses early on, meaning you can react or adjust accordingly. Learn from your successes and failures.

Keep a finger on the pulse of any trends, changes, or developments, both inside and external to your organization. An annual or even 3-year plan used to be a pretty solid framework for organizations: now, this is simply no longer the case. In an age of continuous innovation and development the pace of change is so rapid, that even monthly plans can become redundant before they’re actioned. Make your comms plan should be a living and evolving document. Revisit it and make adjustments to KPIs or targets where necessary.

  • Assign timelines, deliverables and accountability for your plan
  • Book in regular evaluations to check progress
  • Seek agile feedback
  • Keep up-to-date with trends and developments

Any plan is better than no plan at all

Planning for 2018 may have started months ago. Or perhaps the Christmas rush and chasing of your Q4 target placed forward-thinking on the backburner. It may be the first time you’ve attempted to formally plan out your communications approach; or perhaps you’ve been compiling these for years, and you’re simply looking to update last year’s efforts.

Regardless of your position, even taking the time to simply jot down the basics can make a tremendous difference to your success. The idea of creating a plan or strategy can put many people off, but this doesn’t need to be a 50-page essay stuffed with business jargon and complex ROI formulas. In fact, it should be anything but.

The most effective plans are simple, accessible, and evolve over the course of delivery. They serve as a reference point, a framework, a roadmap – rather than a comprehensive end-to-end project plan. Even a list of bullet point responses to those key summary questions we’ve set out here will set you well on your way to success.