Into every small business, a little bad press must fall. With the rise of social media, it’s more likely than ever that businesses of any size will find themselves in the middle of a PR nightmare—either by accident, or of their own design.
And once the news is out in the wild, it’s harder than ever to stop the global digital audience from piling on and amplifying it.
That’s why it’s never been more critical to have a communication plan ready to go in the event you ever wake up one morning and find yourself trending on Twitter—for all the wrong reasons. As the adage famously says, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”
Communication plans aren’t just useful in a crisis either—they can be used to effectively communicate new product releases or public relations initiatives. Yet many small businesses just aren’t prepared with what they should be communicating, meaning that their messages land poorly or not at all. And in the absence of a formal PR or communication department, this responsibility is often thrust onto an untrained social media manager or content creator.
But the goal for any public-facing communication for your brand is to be proactive rather than reactive, giving you control over the message, the medium, and how your business will respond.
Whether you work with a PR agency, have a marketing team that manages communications, or don’t really know how to tackle communications but know that you want to, this blog post is here to help.
By following the steps we outline, you’ll understand the importance of having a proactive communication plan template, what one looks like, and how to put it to use—before that next crisis hits.
Oh, and if you want to follow along, you can download our communication plan template and fill it in as you read through this post:
In this post, we’ll answer these questions:
- What is a communication plan?
- What makes a “message?”
- What makes an “audience?”
- What makes a “channel?”
- What makes a “responsible party?”
- How do I write a communication plan?
What is a communication plan?
A communication plan is, at its core, a document that helps to provide clarity around your communications. In essence, it should cover:
- What you want to say
- Who you want to say it to
- Where you want to say it
- Who is responsible for it being said
For example, let’s say you’re launching a new product upgrade to your existing customers. That’s your audience. You want to tell them about how the product upgrade will change their lives—that’s the message. You’re planning on reaching them via marketing emails and social media—those are your communication channels. And your marketing team is tasked with making sure the message is delivered. They’re the “responsible party.”
What makes a message?
Whether you’re communicating to thousands of potential customers or having a conversation with your partner, your message—that is, what you want to say—is crucial. A good message is made up of three parts:
- The who (Who is your audience? What do they care about?)
- The what (What do you want to achieve with your message? What should your audience think, feel, or do?)
- The how (How can you deliver the message in a way that helps you achieve your goal?)
The goal for any message should be clarity. Know what your audience wants to hear and what you want to achieve, and communicate those things clearly and succinctly.
What makes an audience?
A business can have the most impactful message in the world, but if they’re not delivering it to the right audience, it’s all for nothing. Knowing—and understanding—who you’re talking to can have a huge impact on how effective your messages are.
When you’re considering your audience, you might look at a mix of:
- personas (generalized data about your customers or users),
- behavior (customers who have purchased a certain product, or people who are angry at you for a PR misstep), or
- demographic info (including gender, personality, job title, location, income, etc.)
What makes a channel?
Different strokes for different folks—your different audiences will hang out in different places, and creating an effective communication plan template means delivering the right message to the right audience in the right place. Don’t make your audience go out of their way to hear your message—make sure they’re delivering it straight to them with minimal work on their end.
For example, the RingCentral app lets you make phone calls, video calls, and send messages in real time—so you can reach people who you regularly have conversations with, wherever they are:
On the other hand, you might need to communicate with people on your email list—or even your social media audience on channels like Twitter or Instagram. In these cases, particularly if you have a larger audience, it might be helpful to have a platform that keeps track of all these conversations for you:
Knowing where your audience is will help you get your message to them quickly and effectively.
What makes a responsible party?
How many times has this happened to you? You come up with a communication strategy, craft your message, identify your audience and channels—and then fail miserably at the execution side of things because there’s too much ambiguity over who is ultimately responsible for making sure the strategy is deployed?
Different functions, channels, and audiences may all have different owners in your business, so it’s best to clearly define a responsible party from the outset to make sure things are being done correctly. In a nutshell: who’s responsible for these communications? Identifying this person early on will help avoid headaches down the road.
How to write a communication plan
Okay, we’ve looked at the main components of your communication plan—now, let’s take a look at how you can start tying them together to build a template that you’ll use for future communication initiatives, helping you to start delivering the right message to the right audience on the right channel.
Step 1: Know what you’re working with
To start your communication plan template off on the right foot, it helps to know what information you have to start with. Do an audit of your current communication process—include audience data you have, demographic information on your target audiences, any user personas you might have built, channels, and designated owners.
Check your audit for any existing gaps—for example, are there designated owners for each audience or channel? Make note of any gaps to fill in later, like audiences you need to flesh out, owners to be assigned, or channels that you’d like to see added.
Some extra legwork might be necessary here—for example, if you have gaps in your audience data, you’ll need to survey your audience to gather what you need to know, as well as identify missing channels.
If you haven’t downloaded the communication plan template above yet, grab it here and start filling it in:
Make sure you’re collecting the data you need to build the strongest communication plan template possible.
Step 2: Get goal-oriented
How are you going to measure the success of your communication plan? What’s your objective for each message you send out into the world? Whether you’re doing damage control, bringing a new product to market, or announcing a charitable giving initiative, each communication plan needs to have a goal aligned to it.
- Specific: Focusing on a single objective that can be summed up in one sentence
- Measurable: Your goal can be tied to performance data through analytics and hard numbers
- Achievable: Not too far-reaching or outside of your budget
- Relevant: Your specific goal is tied to the big-picture goals of your business
- Time-sensitive: Your goal should be completed within a certain time frame or deadline
Good examples of SMART communication plan goals are:
- “We want to increase press pickups of our charitable giving initiative by 35%.”
- “We want to see 1000 interactions with our new product launch social posts by the end of the week.”
- “We want to achieve a satisfaction score of 4.5 on our crisis communication responses.”
Armed with your audit and a specific goal, you’ll be well on your way to building a strategic communication plan template.
Step 3: Identify your audience
This might seem counterintuitive, but the best way to work is to first identify your audience. Knowing who you want to communicate with will help you to build a strategic communication plan by mapping the proper message and channels to your audience.
For example, if your audience is your customers, your most effective way of reaching them may be through your email channel, customer community, or social media. But if your goal is to reach the press, your best option is likely a press release sent to industry contacts or posted on the wire.
Step 4: Choose your channels
After conducting your audit and identifying your audience, you should know where the best place to reach them is (or, at the very least, have a good idea.) Do they read a specific publication? Hang out on a subreddit? Meticulously monitor their emails?
Or are you more likely to reach them on the phone through an outbound calling campaign?
Communication channels abound these days, so the more data you have about your audience, the better. (Don’t know where to start? Head back to step one and try collecting more data!) Better yet, map all of your audiences’ preferred channels in this communication plan template so that you’re never left guessing. As you deliver more campaigns and measure effectiveness, you can update your audience/channel matrix to highlight the channels that produce the best results.
Lastly, remember that channels aren’t just limited to digital properties. Sure, there are plenty of social media platforms, video platforms, message boards, blogs, messaging platforms, and online communities to choose from—but there’s also an entire world of offline channels, including print publications, outbound calling campaigns, and physical marketing mediums such as billboards or transit ads.
Step 5: Craft your message
You know where your audience is. You know what your goals are. You know, ultimately, who will be responsible for executing your communications marketing plan. All that’s left to do is figure out what you need to say and how you want to say it.
Great messaging takes a few things into consideration:
- Be brief and concise: The average person is exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 marketing messages each day. In order to have your message land, it needs to communicate as clearly and in as few words as possible. Nobody is going to take the time to read your entire 3,000 word press release—especially if it can be summed up in a single tweet.
- Step into your audiences’ shoes: Write the message for your audience—many companies make the mistake of crafting messages from THEIR viewpoint; language that’s centered on “we.” Instead, make the message about your audience—show them that you understand the “you.”
- Lose your knowledge: Similarly, when we’re crafting a message from an internal viewpoint, we often have a tendency to forget that our audience might not have access to the information we do, making it more difficult to match our audience’s level of understanding. To craft a successful message, we need to forget everything we know and observe the message from the viewpoint of someone learning about it for the first time.
- Have a call-to-action: A call-to-action is essentially what you want your audience to do after your message is received. Remember setting your goals? It will likely be tied to that—but regardless of what your goals are, have a clear statement telling your audience what you want them to do next: “Buy our new product,” “Visit our downtown location,” or “Forgive us, please” are all great examples.
Map your various messages to your audiences and channels in your communication plan template. You’re almost there!
Step 6: Ready to launch
You’ve got it all: goals, a clearly defined audience, the channels on which to reach them, and a message that’s optimized both for the audience and the channel. You’ve designated your DRIs (directly responsible individuals) tasked with carrying your communication plan across the finish line. Congratulations—you’ve officially built your communication plan and you’re ready to take your message to the masses.
But your work won’t stop there. As you launch successful communication plans, you’ll collect more data that will help you refine your plans in the future. A particular channel isn’t working? Chop it. Has your audience behavior shifted? Update your template. Make sure you’re always tracking the effectiveness of your different tactics and strategies and making note of what works and what doesn’t. Before long, you’ll be masters of communication, knowing exactly what you need to say to your audiences to elicit the response you’re looking for.
Get your free communication plan template—and get started!
Effective communication is the lifeblood of any business—the success of any marketing campaign, PR push, or even 1:1 interaction is knowing how to deliver the message your audience needs to hear.
By using a communication plan template to give your stakeholders everything they need to communicate successfully upfront, you’ll take the guesswork out of the equation and create messages that land every time.
Or, more succinctly, this free communication plan template has everything you’ll need to master communication for your small business. Don’t launch another campaign without it:
Originally published Mar 15, 2020, updated Aug 25, 2021