Do you know which direction your internal comms is heading over the next year? Are you nearly there yet? If you don’t have a plan, you won’t know.

17th February 2019

The future is uncertain, now more than ever – we know that. But stumbling blindly from one comms project to the next can be stressful and stop you from delivering the best project possible.

It’s sensible to have a 12-month outline of your projects and campaigns, but many IC practitioners have only a vague route in mind. Here, we ask the questions you need to consider when mapping out a solid internal communications plan.

What are the benefits of having a plan?

Answer: If internal communicators want to be taken seriously and have a seat at the table of management, they need to show they can have strategic input – and a good plan demonstrates that.

Many well-seasoned internal communication professionals will tell you they’ve seen planning and strategy documents that took weeks to develop and days to sign off only to be abandoned before the first quarter has ended. Some will say the plan was undeliverable from the start. You might ask then: why bother?

It doesn’t take an MBA to understand that planning is integral to most business functions and can improve performance by giving the department and its partners a clear direction of travel.

How can you adequately resource what you do, and be accountable for it, if you have no plan against which to measure success?

Andrew Hesselden, an internal communications consultant who has worked for a broad range of large organisations, believes IC professionals need to approach plans more practically and intelligently. 

“I’m a firm believer in keeping things agile and even would go as far as to say that I am strongly opposed to having a rigid plan covering all of your activity,” he says. “There needs to be flexibility, with plenty of room to manoeuvre. No business leader will ever thank you for belligerently sticking to your plan. Having a broad outline plan or documented approach, however, is vital to win your licence to operate.” 

A plan that changes is not a failed plan. It should be a living document that can be adapted to follow an ever-evolving strategy – updating it and sharing it only furthers
your credibility.

How do you get started?

Answer: Understanding the objectives of your organisation and employees' needs will help you focus on what needs to be communicated, when and how.

If you want to know where you’re going with a plan, you need to know where you’re starting from. 

Begin by creating a situation analysis that provides a snapshot of what is going on in the organisation at that time. You will need to assess the current state of communication within the business, what state the organisation is in and what its goals and strategy are, and what employees need to understand to achieve those goals.

Further to this, understanding your employees, the segments in which they operate, how they work and how they like to receive communications is also crucial.

Ross Wigham, head of communications and marketing at Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust, manages internal communications to more than 5,000 staff, including surgeons, nurses and support staff. 

“One of the biggest challenges we have is communicating to a wide variety of professions and people, and pitching things in a way that’s fair and everyone can understand.” 

The Trust recently conducted research using the NHS national staff survey and their own local survey to assess if internal communications were hitting the mark. 

Ross says: “We got a good response to that and it informed a lot of our planning. There was a clear message from staff on the sort of things they felt worked and those that didn’t.”

What goes into the plan?

Answer: It will vary from one organisation to another, but, in a nutshell: what, how, when and who.

Communications planning is not a one-size-fits-all exercise. However, some standard elements need to go into the plan or at least be considered before committing thoughts to paper.

Critical to all plans will be objectives and how they link to the organisational goals. Having done your research, you will need to clearly identify in your plan: the audience; what you want them to know, think, feel and do; the activities or tactics you will use to reach your audience; how you will confirm that you have achieved those outcomes; the timings; and who will be responsible or involved.

Before writing a plan, think who will see it, as this may determine the level of detail: is it just for yourself, your team or something you need to show to the leadership? If it is primarily a tool for communicating to leaders and senior managers, it needs to be clear, succinct and ideally on one side of paper. A more detailed plan may be necessary for your team.

There are other considerations to bear in mind, says Andrew Hesselden. 

“Think about how you’re going to approach sign-off. If you don’t work that out up-front, then every time you put a communication out, you’ll go through a big loop of getting it signed-off – and because no one is sure who is responsible, the default is that everybody signs off and it takes forever.”

Andrew adds that a good plan must show how you will know if you have been successful. 

“It's important the plan is focused on outcomes, not just activities,” he says. “By measuring reach – emails opened and clicked, town hall attendance, etc – you’ll know whether or not you need to do follow-up activities to make sure the message gets where it needs to go.”

Who needs to be involved in making the plan?

Answer: Even if your plan is just for your own reference, you need input from your team and some guidance from leaders and project sponsors to ensure your plan and deliverables are in line with their goals.

A collaborative approach to planning is essential. Involving key stakeholders in developing a plan reflects diverse perspectives and gains support from both your team and the leadership.

In forming an overall internal comms plan for the department, Saskia Jones, internal communications consultant and coach, advises: “It goes without saying that your plan needs to be developed with your team. It’s not about completing it behind closed doors and getting their buy-in afterwards. Equally, plans should not be formed by committee. Explain to your team the thinking process behind its creation – including the clear link to business goals and lessons from employee feedback.

“Have a brainstorm to generate ideas – including draft objectives, tactics and ways to measure. Listen to others carefully, take in all their suggestions and then complete it alone – trust your judgement and experience when deciding the final plan.”

Seeking endorsement and direction from senior leaders is also valuable and helps validate your thinking in the eyes of other influencers and relevant stakeholders.

For specific change communications, you need the input of the people involved in leading that change, which may be a programme director or sponsor of the project. There may also be an HR person needed if you’re asking employees to do things differently; you may also need someone from IT to provide an implementation perspective.


What planning tools can I use?

Answer: Something as simple as a shareable spreadsheet may work for you – but be prepared to invest in more sophisticated software if the scale of your plan or team changes.

When it comes to formats for your plan, choose one that works best for you and creates the best platform for sharing your programme with team members and stakeholders.

However, there is an argument, particularly in larger businesses, for greater alignment and integration of plans supported by software. 

Daniel Penton, an internal comms consultant and co-founder of cloud-based communication planning platform ICPlan, says: “In many organisations, there is no consistent way to plan communications. It’s everything from an Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint, to a Word document, and that can be just in one department.”

Software that can centralise your communications management in one place and also track channels and messages to evaluate their benefit to the business can help your team execute communications more efficiently.

Daniel points to HR and marketing where there is much more uniform and accessible data across platforms and tools. 

“There has been a big shift in business functions moving to consolidated and consistent ways of sorting and storing data, such as Workday or SAP for HR and finance – and it is now on the radar in communications too.” 

A software platform that integrates with other key internal comms documents enables people to share their plan as they develop it and helps stakeholders and team members add their input efficiently, particularly if those people are scattered globally.

So how do you assess what approach is right for you? 

Daniel says: “If you are all in one office and have the governance and discipline in place to keep a shared spreadsheet or document updated – that’s brilliant. However, as soon as teams start widening, it becomes much harder to keep it updated. People don’t have the latest links, they don’t have access to the SharePoint folder, or they don’t have time to update it. The plan can very quickly go out of date.”

While large organisations are increasingly looking to planning software, some are also giving the sole responsibility of planning to one individual in the communications team whose role is to urge colleagues to update and share their plans and provide timely information. 

Sophisticated tools can be helpful in very complex organisations, but keeping it simple is always good practice.

Saskia Jones has created an internal comms plan template that lists all the key elements in a plan. The same template can be used for small projects, such as a CEO lunchtime talk, or complex business changes.

“It’s a simple and scalable way to navigate how to plan a communications project, all on one page,” she says.

How does the plan work with other vital documents?

Answer: Channel strategy documents, audits and editorial calendars go hand in hand with your plan – but must support your own preferred method of working.

A communications plan means different things to different people. Communication managers will sometimes include other tools, such as their channels matrix and communications calendar, as part of the communications plan. 

These are essential tools that should dovetail with your main plan. Every plan you create is an opportunity to review and test the effectiveness of your channels and how they will support your objectives.

Andrew Hesselden has turned his back on the practice of using a calendar-style grid: “Some people use a spreadsheet with the audience down one side and the months along the top. But the problem with that approach is that it focuses on activities and not on outcomes.” 

Instead of a calendar format, Andrew prefers to list a sequence of activities, which takes up less space and sits more efficiently on a one-page plan. Importantly, this makes sure you focus on the key audience groups.

He says: “If you create a months-versus-audiences grid, people often focus on the gaps and it can encourage you to over-communicate. It is better as a simple sequence of events for the audiences that matter, such as email first, conference call second, blog post third and so on. So you’re presenting a logical progressive sequence to people.” 

Clearly, some things need to go out at specific times, Andrew argues, but it is easier to deliver against a sequence of communications when delivery is in the right order, but not on a fixed date. 

“If you have someone senior who is late signing off communications and you miss what would otherwise be the deadline, you are not being held – or holding others – to arbitrary dates.” 

It gives you flexibility and enables space for additional follow-up communications if you feel the message hasn’t landed.

How do I get the most value out of a plan?

Answer: Have your plan at your fingertips whenever you need it. Take it to meetings, use it to guide discussions with your partner team or use it on your own.

Once the plan has been written and agreed, it’s not uncommon for it to sit on the shelf and be forgotten about. Actively using it ensures the plan stays relevant.

Primarily a communications plan helps you to organise and prioritise your work, track your progress and deliver to the organisational strategy. It is also worth thinking of the plan as a communications channel in its own right. It’s not only guidance to your team, it is also a way of engaging senior leadership and managing upwards. Furthermore, if you constantly keep it up to date, it provides a starting point and structure to every conversation you have.

Saskia Jones says: “When I’m coaching people, I encourage them to take their internal comms plan to meetings with their directors – such as the HR director, communications director or CEO. For leadership of that level, it’s best to have a one-page overview, because they don’t want to be overwhelmed by detail. Show them your ideas, the way you are planning your project, and how you’re going to measure success – they’ll be impressed.”

How do I plan for the unplannable?

Answer: You can’t anticipate specific emergencies, but you can cover the basics of who will say what, and the options for communicating, depending on the effect of the crisis on your channels.

Planning for disruption is the best way to limit the impact of a crisis when one happens.

A crisis comms plan is your approach to communicating with employees should something occur that significantly affects operations. That could be something as simple as severe weather, or it could be a major disaster, such as a fire or a terrorist threat. In these circumstances, employees need to know how the event affects them and the organisation, and what the business continuity arrangements are.

Kelly Freeman, intranet strategist at Interact, a market leader in intranet software and intranet strategy advice, says any crisis plan should outline the channels you will use and how you will continue to communicate with your employees. 

“Intranets provide a real-time communication channel that reaches past an employee’s physical location and so are a vital tool in your crisis communication plan. Cloud hosting means that there is a low likelihood of your intranet being unavailable, even if you’re facing an internal tech crisis that affects your ability to communicate in other digital ways – email, for example. However, any well-rounded communication plan should include a variety of channels, appropriate to the situation and audience.”

So what needs to go into a crisis comms plan? 

“The fundamental purpose is for it to provide guidelines for coordinating a response to any crisis that arises at the organisation,” continues Kelly.

“Basically, there are two types of crisis: ‘internal’ problems that predominantly affect a part of the organisation’s operations and all or some of its employees, and an ‘external’ problem that mostly affects customers. For example, an internal system goes down versus the organisation’s transactional website crashing. How you communicate and to who will vary depending on the issue.”

Any decent crisis comms plan should provide an outline of how the organisation will keep employees informed in the event of a problem.

“Your plan should identify a core team of people who have clear roles and responsibilities within any communication effort, listing who they are and what their role is,” says Kelly. “This is about establishing an internal chain of command to include everyone who needs to be involved in managing the crisis. It’s a vital part of ensuring internal communications can be proactive rather than reactive in what may be a very stressful situation.

“You want to identify what your primary and additional communication channels would be and where people would be able to get up-to-date information. Outline how you will push information to them and how they can reach real-time information for themselves, for example via the intranet."  

If the organisation has a business continuity plan, then your communication plan should supplement it and perhaps follow a similar format. Ultimately though, it has to be simple to understand and execute.

Kelly adds: “Each response should be tethered to a particular crisis that’s been identified. So show the potential crises you've identified and what the communication activities are in these scenarios.”

How do you keep the plan on track?

Answer: Flexibility is key. Don’t tie yourself to what’s in your plan at the expense of incoming priorities – and choose carefully which ad hoc requests you accept.

It is true that internal communications plans often go awry and it doesn’t always take a crisis or sharp turn in business direction to throw it off course. The weight and velocity of tactical demands on resources mean that the plan can veer off track very quickly, sometimes to the detriment of the department’s reputation. 

Ross Wigham of Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust says you need a nimble plan: “In every industry, and the NHS particularly, priorities change quickly and they change all the time.

“We’ve been strict about what we could deliver. Through a process of elimination and negotiation, we came up with a list that we felt worked for the annual plan. That’s not to say that the plan is cast in stone, because things happen and you have to be able to adapt to that.”

A very detailed plan covering many sides of paper, may be well thought through, but it is difficult to deliver on or can be too restrictive to accommodate necessary tactical activities. No business sets a straight course year after year, so plan for change and format the plan in a way that makes any amendments quick and easy to implement. 

When significant changes are made, the impact on the original plan should be discussed immediately with leaders so they understand that the latest request will affect the delivery of other priorities.

Taking on some of the “Can you just” requests is an important part of building relationships when you are new in an organisation, but you need to create a balance between being helpful and keeping the bigger picture in focus. It comes back to having and carrying around a succinct plan with you at all times and successfully handling those conversations where an enthusiastic partner wants you to make another – but maybe unnecessary – video or PowerPoint presentation for his or her team.

Internal comms needs to be confident to push back, suggests Saskia Jones.

“Keep asking ‘Why?’ That can be the best way to remain strategic. Having a plan with you almost forces you to do that, because the first point on most plans is ‘What is your objective?’ It makes people step back.”

If people understand your plan and the priorities within it, partners can align their objectives with yours – and the extra activity can end up supporting the plan rather than throwing it off course.

What is life like without a plan?

Answer:  You’ll get by… but might find yourself fire-fighting demands with no idea how they’ll get delivered and no argument to turn them down.

Emma Cooper is internal communications manager at Alliance Healthcare, communicating to around 5,400 employees including head office staff, nurses, service centre staff, and packers and drivers in warehouses across the UK. Emma is currently without a plan, following the internal communications function moving from HR to marketing and communications.

“I need to map out my own communications plan,” she reflects, “otherwise I wouldn’t know where my team was in the bigger picture.” 

Some changes in the organisation have made it difficult to plan, but she adds: “There has been so much focus on the doing and not much time to take stock and think, ‘Is this the right thing to be doing?’ Having a plan is also a good way to demonstrate the value of the function.”

While Emma has a communications calendar and channel matrix as a basic framework to help her keep track of her comms activities, she’s aware that these also need reviewing and that a plan would help focus that.

Andrew Hesselden warns: “If you have no plan or strategy at all, you’re in danger of just being a postbox. You can’t police the requests that come in. How can you say ‘No’ to all the ‘Can you just’s if you’ve got a team of people sitting there and you have no plan?

“Acquiescing to a few of those demands once in a while can help you generate goodwill, but you can only decide you have time to do something if you know what you’re sacrificing from your plan to do it.” 

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