A good comms plan helps you to get to where you want to go… without one you are almost certainly going to fail.
You can fire a rocket into the sky and you might successfully hit the moon but the chances are you won’t.
Back in 1969 when NASA put a man on the moon they did so with research, resources, planning, science, evaluation and creativity. Without those elements they would have failed.
I’m going to tell you why I realised comms planning was a good thing.
There are many comms plans. This one is mine. You are free to use it. I’ve uploaded it to Google docs here.
Don’t do fig-leaf comms planning
Here’s a thing. I came to realise that comms planning was the most useful tool very slowly.
For 12-years I was a reporter. Forward planning was literally tomorrow lunchtime. It was the here and now of frontpage leads and by-lines.
Moving to communications, I wan’t sure about comms planning. Some people would demand a comms plan when all they actually wanted was eight pages of text to add to a submission.
“See?” They would say. “We’ve got comms covered.”
This fig-leaf comms planning drove me up the wall. Your work as an attachment that’s never looked at again will never work. There was a better way.
Why you should write a good comms plan
A good comms plan makes a difference.
It asks where you are now, where you want to go, who you want to talk to, where they’ll be, what’s the one thing you want them to do, how much worktime and money you have, how long you’ve got, how you’re going to evaluate to see if it has worked. It then looks at the tactics. In other words, the things you’ll do. The content you’ll write.
Comms planning is a tried and trusted process that leads you to the right answers. It may not be the poster that your client first demanded. But that’s okay. You’ll have something better than a poster.
It stops the ridiculous waste of ‘I want back of bus ads’ without the research into whether or not bus ads will work.
But before you sit down with the comms plan
This is the hard part. It can save a lot of time and spare blushes. The purpose of the comms plan is to help someone move from A to B. For example:
– Move from we need 20 new nurses to having 20 new nurses.
– Move from we need 100 sign-ups to we have 100 sign-ups.
– Move from we need 10 per cent fewer calls to the switchboard to have 10 per cent fewer calls to the switchboard.
But here is the tricky part. You need to put a number on the A and the B. Without that you won’t really know where you are and where you are going to. Like a driver with a map, you’ll be going round in circles.
You need – gently – to ask and challenge whoever is asking you for some PR and comms to go away and define where they are and where they want to go to. You need this to be done ahead of the comms planning session.
UK Government executive director of comms Alex Aiken is a big advocate for not doing comms without a business plan. I get that. It’s a handy rule of thumb.
You can’t write a comms plan if they don’t know where they are or where you are going.
And when you sit down with the comms plan
Here’s a simple rule. Have the people in the room who will make the key decisions and those who will carry them out. Four or five people? That’s fine. Just you and one other person? I wouldn’t bother. You want people to feel as though this is their comms plan.
As the comms person, you are facilitating. Time is of the essence. Spend no more than 15 minutes on each of the first nine elements. Set out the timings at the start. This way you won’t be distracted or go up a blind alley.
Find a place where you won’t be disturbed for a couple of hours. Put your phones away. A cup of tea or a drink. Some biscuits, maybe.
Oh, and two things are banned. The word ‘aewareness’. It means nothing. It is nebulous. Why do you want them to be aware? To volunteer? To sign-up? Ask. Challenge politely.
I’ve added timings to this. You can change them for something you are looking to do. It can be maybe 10 minutes far shorter for a small plan, for example. But having timings set out from the off can help keep you focussed.
Where are you now? (5 minutes)
You’ve done this before the meeting, so there’s no need to spend too long on this. This points out on the map where you are.
Where do you want to go and why? (5 minutes)
You’ve done this before the meeting too. This works out where you want to go. Why do it? Because a campaign to recruit 100 new nurses is different to one to recruit 10.
Who do you want to talk to and why? (10 minutes)
This is the part where you work out who you really want to talk to. So, for a campaign to recruit nurses it is members of the nursing profession. You want to talk to them so you can recruit them.
What’s the one thing you want them to do and why? (5 minutes)
Make this a call to action. You want the nurses to go to the recruitment website and apply.
Where do they hang out? (15 minutes)
This is the part where you work out how to reach them. Are there nursing forums or publications? Can you find them on Facebook with ‘nurse’ as a tag?
How much work time and money do you have to help you reach them? (15 minutes)
This is the part where you look at your resources. You may have a day a week of capacity, for example, and a budget of £500. If the budget is zero, this is the point where you establish this and frame if more is needed. If none is forthcoming, this is the point where you manage expectations.
How long have you got? (5 minutes)
How long do you have to recruit people? A month? Six months? 12-months? This sets the timeframe and gives a sense of panic and urgency if that’s needed.
When and how are you going to evaluate? (10 minutes)
This is critical. Be clear at the start so you can see if the campaign has been a success. If you are recruiting nurses, count the number of recruits. But if you just leave it at that you aren’t seeing the full picture. Why do you need to recruit nurses? Because you have to pay agency staff? And how much extra do they cost? £5,000 a year? And how many agency staff are you paying for now? So each one you recruit saves £5,000? So if you recruit 10 you are saving £50,000? This is the point where you may be able to loosen the purse strings if this is needed. In addition, ask what the difference to the organisation will be if the campaign is a success. Will more nurses bring more capacity? How many hours a week? Ask questions. Suggest the research is done. Everyone is busy. But without this data you are flying blind.
Once you’ve got a handle on what metrics you’ll count, look to keep tabs on it. A year-long campaign to cut recruit nurses should be checked at regular stages to see what tweaks are needed.
Who are you going to tell that you are doing this so you can tell them how it has gone? (5 minutes)
This is a simple one. When you run a Marathon you make a public declaration so you need to follow through. Is it your boss? The client’s boss? Work out who that person is.
Whats the timeline of tactics for it all? (15 minutes)
This is something you can start in the session but you may need to work up away from the planning session. Tactics are all the things you’ll look to do. The posters, the Facebook ads, the LinkedIn discussion.
Picture credit: informedmag / Flickr https://informedmag.com/
When a terror attack struck London the people who ran towards it were members of the public sector.
We’re used to seeing police act when a man with a gun is on the loose. Brave? Yes. That’s what they’re trained for, isn’t it?
But nurses and doctors running from a nearby hospital towards the noise? That floored me.
Underpaid, taken for granted, criticised and budget cut to the bone the UK public sector is a hard place to work. It has none of the glamour of the private sector. But when chips are down they deliver.
Police at the scene and the nurses who risk their lives should get full credit. But the locked-down civil servant who then returned to work the next day also serve. So to do the public sector communicators who responded to keep the public informed.
For students of how the media works, Stephen Waddington has produced an excellent summary of how the attack happened. From the first frightened tweets from those at the scene to rumour and hate speech. You can see it here. It got me to thinking of the role public sector comms played.
Here is a bit of background.
The London terror attack response began with burning cows
In 2001, the UK farming industry was devastated by foot and mouth disease. Thousands of cattle were destroyed and generations of farmers’ work was ended in minutes. For days the country seemed paralysed. Government agencies, the British Army, councils and others all worked across each other. Many left hands didn’t know what many right hands were doing. Enough. The result was the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which sets out who will respond about what. The key principle is to ‘warn and inform.’
A piece of law ensured that a bunch of people who don’t always work with each other that well now would. In a geographic area council, police, fire, NHS and others work together in local resilience forums. A dry name for your Parish-pump COBRA.
Emergency planners know where the bodies will go
Every council has an Emergency Planning officer. They have plans in place for when things go wrong from a Second World War hand grenade to a major terror attack. They’ll know how to respond, who will respond and if needs be where the temporary mortuaries will be.
“See those emergency planning officers?” I was told when I started to work in local government in the West Midlands. “They even have a plan for an inland tsunami on the local lake.”
It’s true. They have.
Emergency comms isn’t crisis comms
My good friend Ben Proctor has devoted much of his life to the study of emergency comms. A former head of comms he also works as a volunteer for the Stand Task Force. These are volunteers from around the world who act globally in support of major incidents.
Ben is very clear that emergency comms isn’t crisis comms. Emergency comms is lives being at risk. Crisis comms is a company’s reputation. As he has blogged, that’s quite a big difference.
Practice in peacetime when cars aren’t on fire
One reason why the public sector communicators rose to the challenge during the terror incident was the planning and practice.
Just over 12-months ago the public sector led by London Fire Brigade ran a four-day exercise involving 1,000 casualties. A collapsed tower block and crushed tube trains were the mocked-up scenario. Talking to communicators afterwards, they learned lots.
The riots of 2011 where social media emerged also played a role. The public sector realised that when the cars were burning it was on Twitter that the news was breaking. Bright police officers realised they could reach people directly by social media to shoot-down rumour and reassure.
Today, the starting point for an emergency is Twitter. As London Ambulance Service said this week at our masterclass when a crisis happens the last thing they do in the comms team is answer the phone. They go straight to Twitter and communicate with journalists and the public at the same time. That would have been an amazing thing 10 years ago. Today? That’s common sense.
Six tweets that show how to respond in an emergency
A marker holding statement and the death of the press release
By putting out a brief statement on Twitter London Ambulance Service put two markers down. First, they knew and are responding. Secondly, it sets them out as a trusted source for further information. The days of waiting six hours for the full picture and a press release are long, long gone.
— London Ambulance (@Ldn_Ambulance) March 22, 2017
Ask people nicely not to circulate graphic content
When a plane crashed into traffic passers-by shared graphic images of debris, body parts and burnt corpses in a car with the number plate clearly visible. At first, they admonished those who shared the images. But after a backlash they realised it was better to appeal to people’s better side. Which is the same approach that the Metropolitan Police took:
Please use common sense and restraint in circulating pictures and videos of those that have been injured during the incident in #Westminster
— Metropolitan Police (@metpoliceuk) March 22, 2017
Signpost to people to the right place
The best meeting I ever took part in during my time in the public sector took place a few weeks after the 2011 riots. Police, bloggers and council comms sat round a table to work out how we could do a better job. No media were invited. Why? Because their print-first next day communication strategy was exposed as flat footed. The hyperlocal bloggers who were fielding rumour were the frontline of news.
One thing became clear. The bloggers told us that they knew the council wasn’t responsible for the emergency. But they didn’t understand why council accounts online were silent.
“Just signpost us to where we can find out what’s going on,” one told us.
So, we drew up a strategy of if the emergency was police-led, the council would point towards them.
As Westminster Council did here:
— Westminster Council (@CityWestminster) March 22, 2017
Speak to journalists directly by making the update public
One of the biggest changes in dealing with an emergency is how public sector comms people deal with the Press. Post the updates on Twitter and you won’t have 20 phone calls on the same subject.
Following the incident in #Westminster this afternoon, we can confirm that our Emergency Department treated 8 patients – 6 males & 2 females
— King’s College NHS (@KingsCollegeNHS) March 22, 2017
Reassure in realtime
As I’ve been banging on about, video in realtime works. So, a message of reassurance works.
Londoners will never be cowed by terrorism. pic.twitter.com/SidIuIztvu
— Mayor of London (@MayorofLondon) March 22, 2017
It is your job too to combat rumour
Buzzfeed ran an excellent post on the rumour and fake news that circulated in the wake of the attack. But here’s the thing. While it is useful for the public sector to challenge rumour we all have a role to play in not circulating it.
— Laura (@LauraLand1510) March 22, 2017
Not long ago a council launched a snazzy video for residents on how they were looking to make millions of pounds of cuts.
The first question asked by a resident was ‘how much did that video cost?’
By and large free stuff – pens, pencils, stress balls and the like – aren’t given away in local government any more.
But elsewhere this week I’m surprised to hear that’s not the case.
Despite £22 billion of savings needed in the NHS and 1.2 million people on waiting lists for social housing there are still parts of the NHS and social housing who give away freebies. Why? Because evaluation shows it makes a difference? No. Because they always have.
Unless you can clearly evaluate the difference that lucky gonk made in pounds shillings and pence I’d stop it, if I were you.
Picture credit Flickr / inthepottershands
There is an amazing post doing the rounds on Twitter.
It speaks volumes about where newspapers and council press officers are.
This is it:
We were sent photos of the leader of Slough council at a new roundabout. So here is the leader of Slough council at a new roundabout. Enjoy. pic.twitter.com/64NeO3zRRV
— WindsorSloughExpress (@ExpressSeries) March 2, 2017
It’s an image of a councillor stood forlornly at a roundabout. There’s a story behind this, I’m sure, and I’m not being too hard on Slough Council for this.
‘Why,’ one person in my timeline asked ‘didn’t the reporter ring up and ask about it?’
Because newsrooms have been slashed. Unless it’s particularly interesting-looking they probably won’t.
Unless you make the content interesting and sharable they probably won’t be interested.
So flipping make it interesting and sharable, then.
Before you post ask yourself if it tackles ‘Who, what, when, where, why… but most of all WHY.’
And if its digital content, if doesn’t make you go: Oooh! Aaah! Wow! OMG! Ha! I didn’t know that! then don’t post it.
I keep saying this over and over.
You are not there to write someone a press release, design a poster or start a Twitter account when they click your fingers and ask for one.
You are there to give good professional communications advice.
Yes, that sometimes means telling someone that in your professional opinion they shouldn’t have that press release, poster or Twitter account.
Unless you do you’ll always be nothing more than a glorified shorthand typist and they won’t have a professional opinion of you.
Yes, you are better than that.
VIDEO LESSON: What a cringe-making public sector video can teach you about making a non-cringe-making videoPosted: March 5, 2017
Stilted, awkward and forced.
Pity the poor graduates forced to endure the Austalian Government finance department’s attempt at recruitment.
For more than two years I’ve helped to deliver training on how to make and deliver good comms video. Along with my colleague Steven Davies we’ve looked at best practice. But sometimes you can learn from not-so-best practice, too.
What does this teach? Don’t work with a script. Let people be human.
There’s also a parody. But watch out. It’s parental advisory.