How to write a communications plan. (Part 1)
10 Principles for good communications planning.
An organisational change project, or any other project, will need good communication to effectively engage people in the process. Remember, time after time, people are found to be the most important factor in the success of any project. Neglecting their need to know about and understand what is happening would simply undermine your efforts to make the changes your organisation needs.
Thoughtfully preparing a communications plan will help you reduce the feelings of fear and insecurity which are a natural reaction to change. Allowing those feelings to flourish has a negative effect on productivity and acceptance of proposed changes. Research by Gallup estimates lower productivity from disengaged workers generates losses of more than $24 million annually in Australia.
Therefore, planning a communications program which will provide your team and the wider organisation with information and answers which manage their perceptions and expectations is a good use of your time.
Whether your project is a whole of organisation cultural change program or a productivity improvement program in one section of your operations, you will need to communicate. Aim for a professional, organised, and respectful program which treats anyone who is negatively affected by the changes with dignity, while maintaining everyone else’s sense of belonging by keeping them appropriately involved and informed.
Start your planning process with these ten principles in mind. Applying them as you work through building your plan. In How to write a communications plan. Part 2, we will give you some tools and templates for writing up your plan.
Ten principles for good communications planning
1. Clearly define the purpose of your communication.
People will need to relate to the vision for the project and understand their part in it. To help them see, hear, and feel the vision you will need to deliver more than just a direction.
Saying this is where we are going, will need to be supported with what, why, and why now, as well as the benefits of the project, which might be financial, technological, organisational, or people related.
You need to develop the story you are going to communicate. Being clear about how your project will affect your audience and what you want them to do. Giving a clear explanation about why the change is needed, the importance of acting quickly, building their confidence in the value of the project, and reducing uncertainty.
Developing your project story will help you create messages for each stage of the project which link to the vision and business drivers for the change. Helping your audience to process and understand what is happening.
2. Always remembers that youʻre ahead of everyone else on the journey you are telling them about.
Overlooking the fact that you have been thinking about the project for a while is an easy trap to fall into. You’ve had time to process what the impact of the project will be. You are also engaged in organising what will happen, which gives you a sense of control over future events.
Take a step back each time you are communicating about the project and walk in your audience’s shoes. Think about the emotional impact the messages will have on them, what they will be thinking, and the questions they will have about how it affects them.
3. Aim to help people through the change rather than get them onboard after the event.
Use the opportunity to bring people along with you. Projects don’t happen quickly, they take numerous steps and detailed organisation. In the time between the project kick-off and implementation involving them they will forget your well thought through messages. Unless you show them how the project is having an impact.
Tell them about each change, the successes that are happening, examples of the benefits you told them about being achieved.
Build their belief in the process and their willingness to tackle the challenges.
4. Use leaders to communicate.
Managing a project doesn’t mean that you do all the communicating. People want to hear from the leaders they are familiar with, as the chart below shows. You need to work with the leaders who are the most appropriate people to deliver the message.
Leaders in senior management who are credible, committed to the objectives of the project, and who the staff expect to hear from as an authority figure in the organisation.
Frontline managers whose existing relationship with their teams means they are well placed to deliver more detail, listen to feedback, and reinforce the messages delivered by senior managers.
Advocates/evangelists/thought leaders/influencers who are energised by the changes the project will bring, and as one of the team have more casual opportunities to support understanding and acceptance of the project’s messages.
Prepare these people to be part of the communication program. Brief them all on the key messages that need to be delivered. Coach them on how to deliver those messages. Involve them in the planning, assessing, and adjusting of the communications program.
Frontline managers have a high level of influence on their teams and have a particular role to play in getting people onboard. Prepare them with skills to; listen empathetically to their team’s concerns, help team members reframe their thinking and beliefs, and support and reinforce the adoption of new work practices and behaviour. Remind them, that they are influential and that their attitudes and behaviour will have a significant impact on how their team perceives the change process.
5. Communicate early.
When you are kicking off a project and you don’t have all the answers it’s tempting to think you should wait until you have more information to share.
Silence is dangerous, it invites speculation. It is much better to communicate what has been decided, what is intended to happen, and what further information will be forthcoming as decisions are made or events occur.
6. Communicate in-person.
Face-to-face communication is very important. Kicking off a project with an email announcement wastes an opportunity to build buy-in and overcome fear and suspicion.
A CEO speaking at a company-wide meeting delivers not only the words of the messages, but also all the non-verbal signals which we use to interpret what is meant and how important it is. Delivering the message in-person also invites people to ask questions and provide their ideas and views.
Communicating in-person is a tool for opening-up communication, increasing engagement and feedback.
7. Provide opportunities for two-way communication.
Two-way communication can be achieved in-person and through other communication channels. Online forums, invitations in project newsletters to submit ideas, and surveys are just a few ideas. Workshops, lunchtime sessions and other in-person communications haves the advantage of providing answers in real-time.
Having feedback loops in your communications gives employees the opportunities to participate, air their concerns, give feedback, and ask questions. Their input and participation will let you know how they are hearing and interpreting your messages. Giving insights which will allow you to improve and refine your communications.
8. Demonstrate that everyone in the organisation is involved.
Your project may be focused on changing the efficiency of the warehouse, but it affects the whole organisation.
A reduction in costs improves the bottom line. Improvement in despatch times and accuracy reduces customer inquiries. These outcomes have an impact on the success of the organisation, job security, and the daily work experiences of employees.
9. Communicate consistently.
Delivering your messages consistently, again and again, ensures that it is heard, and the audience has the chance to think about it and take in the details.
When we learn about a change at work, our first thought is how will we be affected. Distracting us from other aspects of the message which we need know about. Repeating the key messages consistently and often, at different times, and in different forms will help your audience grasp all the details.
Consistency also prevents confusion. At every level of communication, through every channel, and over time it is best to keep your key messages consistent.
If you need to change your key messages, then step your audience through the change. Think about the way branded products change their identity. The packaging stays largely the same, and elements of the new brand identity are gradually introduced. Over time colours, names, shapes, and typography subtly alter the product, but not so much that you cannot recognise the product on the shelf.
10. Continue to communicate throughout the project.
Ongoing consistent communication is the key to maintaining momentum. Interest and engagement will flag without regular communication demonstrating things are happening, progress is being made, and there is determination to achieve the objective.
Where to find more help
Calling on others for help is a good idea. Who is responsible for internal communication? They will have policy, resources, and experience which could save you time and effort.
Human resources, marketing, or the chief executive’s office are places to check with.
Previous projects could provide insights too. Were there successful approaches to communication or lessons learnt that you should apply.