Strategic Communication Planning: Why the basics matter more than ever

communication-plan-basics750x420In 2006, British supermarket giant Tesco announced its entry into the competitive U.S. market with the opening of hundreds of Fresh & Easy grocery stores in California and Nevada.

The firm conducted research—a lot of it. It spent years profiling the market. It sent executives to live with families in California to observe how they shop. It built secret test stores and randomly investigated the contents of Americans’ refrigerators.

Last year, after six years of struggling to make its venture a success, Tesco announced it was selling Fresh & Easy. It was giving up.

What went wrong?

Timing, for one thing. Tesco launched Fresh & Easy just before a crippling recession hit. But it also ignored its own research, relying on what worked in the U.K., a very different environment from the U.S.

Tesco made its U.S. stores entirely self-service, which American shoppers found off-putting. It sold food in small packages, while U.S. shoppers like buying in bulk to save money. Its stores sold Tesco’s unknown private brands in a market that is famously brand-conscious.

Basically, Tesco believed it knew better than its research, and the result was a marketing disaster.

Failing to trust the process

This isn’t an isolated example. Communication and marketing professionals skip critical parts of the strategic planning process all the time.

They’re often tempted to proceed directly to a communication solution without engaging in the pesky, time-consuming planning process. While each step in the planning process is important, some steps get left out more than others. Here are five common mistakes made in communication planning:

1. Not identifying an effective goal. It’s difficult to know where you’re going if you don’t know your destination. That sounds obvious, but many communicators invest considerable resources in programs without knowing what they’re really trying to achieve.

For example, a communicator at a manufacturer of personal-care products may try to counter rumors about safety issues with her organization’s products by convincing consumers that the products’ safety has been unquestionably verified.

When asked what her goal is, she responds, “To get the truth out about our products.” Yet that only describes what she intends to do as a communicator.

An effective goal defines the desired end result. In this case, the goal might be “To instill trust and confidence in our products among consumers.” This describes an audience outcome and provides a direct connection to the organization’s bottom line.

2. Not trusting your research. Research is essential to any communication plan—whether conducted upfront to identify a goal or afterward to understand the audience, situation and environment.

10 Steps of Strategic Communication Planning

1. Identify the strategic goal (long-term desired end result).
2. Research the audience (key stakeholders).
3. Research the situation.
4. Research the organization.
5. Set supporting objectives.
6. Identify key messages.
7. Identify strategies.
8. Identify tactics (solutions).
9. Create and implement plan (with timeline and responsibilities).
10. Measure and analyze results.


Because the audience plays a critical role, they’re often the primary research target. Through surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc., audiences come into clearer focus. We learn who they are—their habits, concerns and preferences. All this data is invaluable when planning communications.

Yet planning can get clouded when communicators believe they know better than their research. This misstep frequently shows up when selecting communication approaches.

“Communicators often don’t align audiences with the right communication channels,” notes IABC Fellow Mary Ann McCauley. “They try everything rather than focus on what will be most effective. This ‘shotgun’ approach never worked in the past (when channels were more limited) and it certainly fails in today’s environment of 24/7, multi-channel communication.”

There’s also the temptation to try the latest, buzz-worthy media approach. “When planning, ask audiences which channels they seek when making a decision about buying, forming an opinion, adopting a behavior, voting, etc.,” says McCauley. The channels your audience prefers may be quite different than the “flavor of the month.”

3. Not understanding the organization. Many communicators feel their research is complete once they’ve taken a look at their audiences. Frequently, though, another ingredient in the mix—the organization itself—goes unexamined.

“A situational analysis is rarely given enough attention,” says Mary Hills, a principal at Heimann Hills Marketing Group. “It benchmarks the ‘story’ of the organization. What does the organization do? Where is it going? How can it achieve sustainability? Every planning step depends on getting the story down so resources can best support the company’s strategic goals.”

A situational analysis often surfaces other issues requiring attention. “As practitioners, we may say, ‘I don’t want to go there. I just want to get the project done,’” notes Hills. “But we must stay the course to understand where the organization is at that moment so we can truly help advance its goals.”

4. Setting poor objectives. As with goals, communicators often misunderstand the importance of setting clear objectives.

Ideally, communication objectives describe an outcome from the audience that supports the goal. While the goal might be broadly stated, objectives must be precise—clearly defining, with an exact metric (typically a number such as an amount or percentage), an audience outcome.

For example, if your goal is to ensure community support for an expansion of a light rail line, supporting objectives might include:

  • Obtain endorsements from more than 50 percent of community leaders by the end of the year.
  • Reduce the number of online comments opposing the rail line by 25 percent by the end of the year.

These objectives describe an audience outcome—not what the communicator does.
They also are measurable: Each has a specific metric and time frame. Once the communication plan is complete, these objectives provide a clear way to determine its success.

5. Omitting audiences from planning. Many communicators believe audience research ends before planning begins. Effective communicators, however, continue to involve audiences throughout the planning process.

Try to include members of your target audience on the planning team, and involve them when selecting strategies, messages and tactics. Your preliminary research should drive much of your planning, but further involving audience members can help clarify that research as well as ensure buy-in.

If it isn’t practical or possible to include your audience in planning, involve them in reviewing your website, marketing materials, public service announcement, etc. And be prepared to act upon their responses.

Seeing through the trees

Many communicators may find reviewing basics tedious . It’s not difficult to see why. Today’s multidirectional, multimedia communication environment is mind-numbingly complex. New approaches surface every day and are incredibly distracting. That makes it difficult to see the forest—your long-term strategic goal—for the trees.

What’s the answer? Return to the process, keeping in mind your communication goal and the research that supports it. That will keep you on course.

It’s basic, but it works.

Nick Durutta

Nick Durutta

Nick Durutta, ABC, is a consultant specializing in communication planning and business communication. Throughout his 40-year career he has worked with many high-profile corporations and organizations, and has been affiliated with IABC’s professional development activities as a speaker, author, program facilitator and member adviser. He is based in Pasadena, California.

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