A Complete Guide to Building a Communications Plan

We are all familiar with the game of “Telephone”. Although a fun game you might have played as a child (or an adult, I won’t judge), the premise of the game remains true: Without proper communication, the initial message from the original sender isn’t always the same message when it reaches the end of the line of receivers.

Many organizations overlook the importance of communications plans when implementing changes and managing projects. Ensuring effective communication in any area of business is incredibly important for numerous reasons. The best way to ensure a successful project and to also keep people informed of changes, expectations, and decisions is with a communications plan.

So, what exactly is a communications plan? What does it look like? What should it include? How do you create one? In this article, we will dive in and answer all these questions and more.

What is a Communications Plan?

By definition, a communications plan defines exactly how specific information should be communicated throughout an organization or project. Not only does the plan outline who should receive information and correspondence, but also how and when they receive it.

10 Things to Include in a Communications Plan

Communications plans can differ for each organization. Ideally, the communications plan should be developed based on the organization’s needs and the stakeholders involved. However, a solid communications plan includes the following elements:

1. Organizational process assets (OPAs) – OPAs are essentially a fancy acronym for any document or asset related to communication that might already exist within an organization. This can include organizational charts, policies and procedures for handling and communicating sensitive or confidential information, and even data management. OPAs can consist of communications plans and survey data from previous projects, and any legal requirements (if necessary).

2. A stakeholder register – This is a list of stakeholders involved in or who have a level of interest in the project or the project’s outcome in some way. This list should also include their roles, their preferred communication methods and styles, and even their relationships with other stakeholders.

3. Communication technology – Many established organizations will have specific standards for which communication platforms and applications to use and how (again, this would be documented in OPAs).

Communication technology can include:

  • Email
  • Instant messaging and/or chat (Slack, Google, Microsoft Teams)
  • Video conferencing applications (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet)

If an organization does not have specific standards for communication technologies, and it is up to you to determine which to use for your project, then be sure to choose the technologies that will be suitable and sufficient for project participants and all stakeholders. If needed, be prepared to plan and deliver proper training to ensure that project participants and stakeholders use the communication technology properly.

4. Communication models – In its most basic form, a communication model is the process of distributing a message. There are two primary models:

  • Sender and receiver
  • Sender, receiver, and feedback

Depending on your project’s complexity and nature, you may need to communicate with one particular stakeholder or the entire group to communicate a status update, decision, or report. This particular case follows the primary “sender and receiver” model.

In another instance, you might need to request feedback from stakeholders. This gets slightly more complicated. When asking stakeholders for feedback, you need to provide them with the following:

  • Instructions on how to provide feedback
  • Instructions on where to provide feedback (such as in a file or document or using a particular application or system)
  • A due date as to when stakeholders need to provide feedback by
  • Periodic reminders to stakeholders leading up to the feedback due date

Remember that not every stakeholder will acknowledge receipt, even in the most basic communication models. If you require acknowledgment, explicitly state that in your communications.

Keep in mind that even if stakeholders acknowledge receipt, that doesn’t necessarily mean they agree or fully comprehend the message.

5. Communication methods – Communication methods are how stakeholders will communicate. For example, this can include:

  • Individual, interpersonal discussions
  • Small group discussions or “break out” sessions
  • Public or mass communications
  • Networks and social media

6. Communications frequency and urgency – This details how often communication will be distributed to the group of stakeholders, specific key stakeholders, or project participants.

7. Communications formats and artifacts – This also ties into the communication how. It includes:

  • Meeting frameworks
  • Email templates
  • Memos
  • Status reports

8. Communications logistics – This is important for organizations or projects with more complex stakeholder groups. Even in our digitally-driven era where teams meet virtually, there is still the need for in-person events. Logistics involve planning which participants and stakeholders must be involved at which locations. This can include scheduling conference rooms, planning travel arrangements, coordinating time zones, and so on.

9. Communication flowcharts – Again, when planning communications for more complex stakeholder groups, it may be necessary to visually map out the flow and exchange of information and include that in your communications plan.

10. Conflict management approach – In the event of an issue or conflict, what is the best way to diffuse and resolve conflict? Of course, this can depend on the different stakeholders and their individual communication styles; however, it is important to include any escalation policies and procedures.

How to Perform a Stakeholder Analysis

As mentioned above, communications planning must be tailored to project and stakeholder needs. Therefore, regardless of project complexity, your communications plan will only be as effective as your stakeholders. During most projects, planning and organizing communications are performed very early, during stakeholder identification and project management plan development.

Involving all stakeholders in defining appropriate communication strategies is essential for developing and maintaining stakeholder relationships. This can help you identify the team’s different communication styles, allowing you to tailor project communications accordingly and ensuring the effectiveness of communication and your overall strategy.

In order to do this, you first must conduct a stakeholder analysis. You can do this by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are stakeholders internal or external, or both?
  • Where are all stakeholders located? What are their time zones?
  • What are stakeholders’ preferred methods of communication?
  • What do they already know?
  • What do they NOT know?
  • What are their communication styles?
  • What communications technologies are being considered for use? Which are the most appropriate to use?
  • How many languages are used?

Key Communications Plan Takeaways

This can feel like an overwhelming list—and you wouldn’t be wrong. However, as mentioned above, every organization’s needs are different. So does that mean your particular organization or project would need all those elements? Maybe, maybe not. Typically, the more complex the project, and the more stakeholders who need to be involved, the more in-depth the communications plan needs to be.

To help simplify, let’s break it down a bit. In essence, there are two parts to building an effective communications plan:

1. Communications Strategy (The WHAT): Building a communications strategy involves organizing what types of communications are most important for the particular project or initiative. The strategy ensures the right message and information reaches the right stakeholders at the right time and in the right format.

2. Communications Plan and Artifacts (The HOW): This is the plan on how communications will be executed, monitored, and what supporting documentation—or artifacts—will be used in the process.

Although a relatively simplistic version, here is a copy of a communications plan I frequently follow, especially when I need to communicate an essential message, address a conflict, or a change:

Human Resource Skills for the Project Manager by Vijay K. Verma

The “5 C’s of Communication”

Miscommunications are a common risk in organizations and projects. The good news is you can help prevent them. How? By following the “5 C’s of Communication”:

  1. Correct spelling and grammar
  2. Concise communication (avoid using excess words)
  3. Clear purpose and expression
  4. Coherent flow of ideas and messages
  5. Control the flow of ideas

Think of this like a “preflight checklist” when crafting a message.

Managing and Monitoring Your Communications Plan

A communications plan isn’t about sending out rules for engagement to an organization or a project team and expecting everyone to follow it to a “T”. After communicating the communications plan, you then have to manage and measure it. One way to do this is by sending out periodic surveys to stakeholders.

Additionally, assumptions, individual personalities, and biases are common communication “gotchas” to watch out for when monitoring communications.

“It’s Up to You to Clarify”

– Chinese Fortune Cookie

We discussed a lot of information in this article. But, all in all, when you break it down and simplify it, planning and organizing effective communications is really about knowing your stakeholder audience and being proactive. If all else fails, keeping these two things in mind will lead you to success.