Framework for Strategic Communications Planning

Framework for Strategic Communications

Contact: Lauren-Glenn Davitian, Davitian [at] cctv [dot] org">Davitian [at] cctv [dot] org, 802.862.1645 x12

Based on recommendations from our partners at the SPIN PROJECT ( and the "Smart Chart" developed by Spitfire Strategies ( there are five major strategic decision points for you to consider as you undertake strategic communications planning:

  1. Program Decisions (Goal, Decision Maker, Success Measures)
  2. Context (Internal and External Scans)
  3. Strategic Choices (Audience, Message & Messenger)
  4. Communications Objectives
  5. Tactics

You will find it helpful to put together a team of people to work on your strategic communications planning. It is important to have executive level involvement in this work. Your team may also include trusted volunteers and board members. Be sure that the team members are a/ empowered to implement the plan on behalf of the organization and b/ that your plan ties into other organizational decisions you have made/ are making.

1. Program Decisions
What are you goals? Who are you trying to influence? How will you measure success?

a. Goal – What are you trying to do? This is the most important component of a good plan and needs to be as SPECIFIC as possible.
Your goal is not your mission. Your goal is what you want to change.

What is it, exactly, that you want to accomplish? Do you want to:

- change behavior or
- change policy?

Each of these goals are different and require different strategies.

b. Decision Maker – Who makes your goal a reality?
It is crucial to identify who will make your goal a reality. Who exactly are you trying to influence? If your goal is to change behavior, it may be a specific consumer group. If you goal is to change policy, the decision maker may be a key policy influencer (such as a legislator or governor or CEO).

You may not yet have direct access to these key decision makers, but once you identify who they are, you can figure out the best way to influence them.

c. Measurements of Success – How do you know what you are doing is working? A good way to determine if your goal is specific enough is to chart how you will measure your progress. This can be done through qualitative (anectodal) and quantitative measures. It can be a mixture of outputs (short term deliverables) and outcomes (change over time).

Measurements are best defined and reviewed over the course of your communications program. Ongoing assessment allows you to revise your strategy and maximize your success. It is a reality that your strategy will change over time.

2. Context: The Internal and External Scans
The success of your efforts depends on an accurate assessment of the environment within which you operate and are seeking to make change happen.

a. Internal Scan – What are the assets and challenges of your organization that impact your plan?

Assess the capacity of your organization by examining your internal assets and the challenges you face as an organization. This can include:

- Resources: staff, resources and tools that are available to undertake your communications work.
- Perception: How is your organization is perceived by the public?
- Competition – Are there other organizations are doing the same work that you are doing? Can you work with them in partnership?

b. External Scan – What is already happening outside your organization that may impact this plan?
This may be even more important than the internal scan. What work has already been done in this area? Is there opposition, existing players or a debate underway on this issue?

c. Define Your Position - Once you determine what the existing situation is, you can decide if you are going to:

- Position 1: Leap in to an existing debate– Fortify and amplify an established debate and spend your time and resources fortifying your position. This means “heavy implementation”, i.e. discussing the best tactics that can be employed in a widespread way.

- Position 2: Frame the debate – Most organizations think they are in this position—a blank slate, with no misperceptions to correct. Activities involved in framing a debate include research, language, development, messaging, audience research and opposition planning. For implementation this usually means agenda-setting tactics, such as placement of a key news article or speech at a high profile event with important stakeholders who will echo the message. While most organizations think they are in this position, it is not usually the case. Once the debate has been framed, move to Position 1 – to fortify and amplify.

- Position 3: Re-Frame the debate –Most organizations find themselves in this position. Sometimes groups fortify and amplify a losing debate, when what you really need to do is cut your losses. How do you talk about a issue in a new way, to gain traction and make progress? Activities include research and messaging, meeting with allies to determine new ways to discuss the issue and then continued framing activities, such as agenda-setting articles, opinion pieces and speeches.

3. Strategic Choices
Who is your target audience and what do they care about? What is the best way to approach them? What key messages will they respond to? Who will be the messenger? At this point you need to make some important decisions.

Decision 1
a. Audience Target – Who must you reach to achieve your goal? The more clearly you define your audience the more strategic you can be about reaching that audience. The “general public” is not a target audience and will result in a watered down message. You must choose a specific, definable audience: male or female? From which geographic area? How old are they? What educational experience do they have? (etc.) For example: Don’t Mess with Texas campaign decided to target male Texans under the age of 25.

b. Values/ Core Concerns – What existing beliefs can you tap into to reach your audience? What will compel members of your audience to move toward your goal? What can you do to tap into one of their existing thoughts or beliefs to gain their support? Remember this is about THEIR value system not YOURS. How they think and what lens they use to make decisions are important to understand if you want them to connect with your issue. Remember it is always easier to tap into a value someone already holds than to create a new one. You may need to conduct research to understand the “points of persuasion”.
Once you have identified these points, review your goal, target audience, your internal and external scans and make a decision.

Decision 2
a. Strategic Approach – What is your overall strategy? Strategic Approach is frequently confused with tactics. Strategic approach is the big picture. Tactics are the lines you use to draw the picture.

Decision 3
a. Message – What key points to you want to make with your target audience? Once you know who you want to reach, how you might persuade them, and what strategic approach you will take. Now you need to decide what to say. Consider their value system (not yours). Review the persuasion points. Remember: “it’s not what you want to tell them, it’s what they can hear.”

b. Messengers – Who has the best chance of resonating with your target audience? Who delivers your message is just as important as what you choose to say. The right message delivered by the wrong messenger will fall on deaf years.

4. Communications Objectives
How are you going to get your message to your audience using your chosen approach? These are the big “to dos” of the communications plan. These answer how you are going to get your message to your audience using your chose approach.

a. Goal
b. Decision Maker
c. Measurement of Success
d. Strategic Approach
e. The Message
f. The Messenger

5. Pick Your Tactics
Consider your goal, internal and external scans, target audience and message. Then answer the following questions. Run every tactic through these questions.

  1. Who will the Tactic Reach (your Target Audience)
  2. How does this support the goal?
  3. What is the anticipated output? (Usually an activity that your organization controls)
  4. What is the anticipated outcome? (Usually a consequence of an activity or action your organization implemented).