National Partnership for Reinventing Government

Table of Contents

Chapter 4


Chapter Three

"There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full."

- Henry Kissinger

Writing Communication Plans

An effective communication plan includes initiatives that truly reflect your organization's goals. At the same time, a good communication plan must not only target relevant primary and secondary audiences, but it must identify key messages and themes that will likely resonate with these groups.

Writing communication plans that are on target, and likely to be well received, requires a combination of careful planning and a strong understanding of the attitudes and opinions of the stakeholders you plan to reach. As you write, you need to focus your plan on solid, well-thought-out initiatives backed by a strong and compelling rationale, and you've got to hone your writing style to a fine edge. There is no room for writing that doesn't get right to the point.

Tips for writing an effective communication plan:

  • Use a structure that lets you chunk information into main points and key headings. A communication plan can be structured just like other kinds of strategic plans. A typical approach includes:
    • Situation analysis-the current background, history, circumstances and a clear statement of the problem or opportunity involved.
    • Goals and objectives.
    • Target audiences-including primary and secondary; demo and psycho graphics, if relevant.
    • Strategy and rationale for achieving your goals and objectives, as well as your arguments in favor of the approach you plan to take.
    • Tactics-specific executions or elements-the deliverables and products of the plan as well as talking points, budgets, and time lines, if appropriate.
    • Evaluation. How you will measure the effectiveness of your plan, along with the specific outcomes that will represent success or failure.
  • Do some research to make sure you are identifying the right audience-internal and external. Conduct focus groups to evaluate public understanding of your intended messages and the information products you intend to use to communicate with those audiences. In addition to focus groups and opinion polling, check what other agencies or organizations like yours might be doing to find out what their constituencies are thinking and feeling. Maybe they have data from a poll they have run with an audience similar to yours, or know of someone who does.

The Web is a great place to find out what people are thinking. Try being an active surfer and you'll be amazed at how much you can pick up about your constituencies. If you have a Web site, adding an online feedback form is another good way of keeping your hand on the pulse and getting data to support your plan.

If the primary audience is internal, go to meetings, talk to people, set up informal listening sessions. Encourage feedback and input, all of which you can document and draw on as part of your rationale.

Don't rely on instinct or your own reactions. Very often, the audience you need to target will be enough unlike you that your instincts stand a good chance of being incorrect.

  • Spend time developing and defining your goals and objectives for yourself and your readers. What are the outcomes, communication and otherwise, that should result from your plan? Have you articulated them well enough so that your agency understands the importance of what you are proposing?
Thread your goals and objectives through your plan. To keep these foremost in your readers' minds, a good trick is to re-state them as you outline your strategies and tactics ("to achieve the objective of...").
  • Identify key message themes, but don't bog down in the details. Try to get a consensus from key players as to what the major communication points need to be. State these broadly, and make sure you explain the reasoning behind them.

Use visuals where possible to convey conceptual communication ideas involving media. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words.

If the plan entails many tactical executions and/or messages, use flow charts to graphically show how you'll execute it.

Consider presenting your plan as a polished "Power Point" briefing to agency decision-makers.

  • Don't be afraid of using innovative strategic and tactical approaches. As we know, not every communication problem can be solved by mass media. The most effective approaches are usually not one-way communication.

Use a range of elements, both media and non-media, to insure both coverage of and responses from your targeted groups.

Think through the balance of reach and frequency as well as penetration and impact strategies. Is it better to reach more people, or more frequently reach fewer people? Do we want our audience to have more information, or to be more influenced by the information we give them?

Don't overlook the importance of grass roots campaigns and volunteer efforts. All politics may be local, but so is effective communication. Provide your grass roots affiliates with resource materials to help get the message out to the public. Where possible, have them localize the message.

  • Tie your evaluation plans to your goals and objectives. If your goal is to enhance awareness of a new policy or program, use awareness-based measures like recall, exposure, and media impressions. If your goal is attitude/behavior change, then survey analysis may be in order.

Don't overstate what you think will be the outcomes. It's a natural tendency (and sometimes a management directive) to expect big results, but some objectives, such as attitude/behavior change, are complex and hard to achieve or measure.

  • Write your plan in plain language. Like many other kinds of writing, communication plans are often written in a specific style and tone. To be most effective, your writing should be clear and direct - free of jargon. Make sure your readers can follow your line of reasoning with no distractions. Academic or creative writing styles are not nearly as effective as plain language.
To get that lean edge to your writing:
  • Use active, action-oriented verbs and sentences that begin with subjects.
  • Edit out clumsy, compound-complex sentence constructions and sentences that start with subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases.
  • Be goal-directed. Write about your plan's elements in terms of benefits and outcomes. Strike a balance in favor of giving your readers reasons to support your ideas rather than just informing about the details.

Strategic Planning-Preparing to Meet the Future

You've written your communications plan for a fiscal year full of exciting projects. Now your boss needs your communications office input into the agency's strategic plan. Where do you begin?

Nearly the same place, but with a broader view. In the place of the situation analysis substitute one that explores all the external factors that impose long-term limits or provide more than local opportunities. Involve your staff in this analysis, and include an inward look as well, because you need to know, before you begin planning, if your organization is prepared to respond to change. Will your staff need retraining or retooling to keep up with technology?

Next step is writing the vision statement. It describes, concisely, your organization as its members see it operating in the future. Include only important aspects:

The Communications Services Office will be the preferred provider of communication services for all national and field office components within the XYZ Agency.
The Communications Services Group will support the mission of XYZ Agency by using telecommunications and information technologies to make access to public services faster and more convenient and efficient, thus better serving the agency's customers, stakeholders, and the public at large.

Goals, Strategies, and Objectives

A goal describes where you want to wind up; a strategy is a way to get there; and an objective is a specific step you can take to follow the strategy for reaching the goal. It may take more than one strategy to reach a goal, and it may require a number of objectives to implement a strategy.

One goal related to the vision statement above could be:

XYZ Agency public service announcements will be enhanced by the use of multimedia.

Objectives should be specific (describe exactly what is to be accomplished) and measurable:

"90 percent of companies receiving XYZ Agency publications rate them as useful by FY 2003." Note the specific completion date.

An objective under the goal above could be:

- 90 percent of the necessary multimedia technology and a fully-trained staff will be in place by mid-FY 2001.

Another could be:

- Multimedia Public Service Announcement on the research benefits of XYZ Agency's genetic information initiative will be ready for distribution by September 2002.

Action Plans

A plan of action brings an objective down from the lofty realms of the planning world to the hard realities of actually doing something. For each objective, an action plan spells out the who, what, when, where, and how. This phase of planning, which leads directly to implementation, may be done by a team, with team members resolving the various details. Each step of the project should be known at the outset, even though there may be changes along the way. Without an action plan, you won't achieve many objectives. A time line is also usually required, as well as links to the organizational budget request.

Performance Measurement

An important part of the planning process is to determine how you'll measure your performance.

To measure performance that involves public recognition, you can use customer surveys, Web site hit counts, and focus groups. The resources your communications unit can commit to such activities will determine how much you will learn from them. It's a good idea to meet with the officials in your agency who are managing the overall strategic planning effort, probably under the Government Performance and Results Act. Not only will they be able to spell out exactly what is required, but they'll also be able to share examples that are pertinent to your mission.

However, strategic planning should not be thought of as producing a report, but as an ongoing process. It is iterative, dynamic, and above all inclusive. A good strategic plan is the basis for all the important things communicators do each day in supporting their agencies' mission-related outcomes. If your staff is involved, as well as your clients inside and outside the agency, developing a strategic plan will help clarify your priorities and shared goals.

There is a great deal of help available if you need it. Private sector organizations and corporations have been doing strategic planning for years. Try key wording strategic planning in any of the Internet search engines; you'll be surprised at the number of references. The Government Accounting Office ( has many reports and guidelines. There are strategic planning groups that meet periodically in Washington, D. C., some sponsored by the Office of Personnel Management. But better still, seek out your agency's management gurus and ask lots of questions.

"We don't get offered crises, they arrive."

-Elizabeth Janeway

Crisis Communications:
Planning to Attack the Crisis Before it Attacks You

Don't wait until your agency is in a crisis before you come up with a plan to deal with it. Crisis communications is sometimes called damage control. It's about protecting your agency's reputation and credibility when a major problem arises that could lead to public and media scrutiny. You can predict nearly 90 percent of the crises your agency could have. The other 10 percent include such sudden crises as natural disasters or product tampering. Since you can predict the majority of potential crises, you can plan for them.

The Five Types of Crisis

  1. Facilities Crisis
    Damage such as that caused by an explosion, fire, leakage, or natural disaster.
  2. Community Crisis
    Adverse condition created by the organization or outside organizations hostile to the agency or its mission.
  3. Employee Crisis
    Includes loss of life, sabotage, or a reduction in force.
  4. Consumer Crisis
    Includes defective products, contracts that can't be met or an allegation against your agency.
  5. Image Crisis
    Includes unlawful or ill-perceived activities, such as sexual misconduct, drug use, or the indictment or arrest of a senior agency official. This is the most difficult crisis to counteract.

Pro-active versus Reactive

The best way to be pro-active about a crisis is to plan for it in advance and have a crisis management and communications plan in place and ready to go. It only takes one mishandled crisis to cause your agency to lose the respect and trust that it has been building for decades. There are seven phases that an agency in crisis usually goes through:

•Wishful thinking•Damage Control 
•Anger and aggression• Reconstruction 

With a crisis communications plan in place before the crisis occurs, your agency can skip the first four phases and move immediately to damage control. That makes you a lot closer to recovery when you start. A crisis communications plan gives you time to formulate more comprehensive ideas and explanations. While you're in the midst of a crisis, stress reduces your field of vision, leaving you blind to alternatives that are obvious during a planning session done during a less stressful time.

How to do a Crisis Communications Plan

  • Sell the idea. The hardest job is to sell top managers their need for a plan. Brainstorm with them about the most likely crisis you could have. Ask them to assess how prepared you are to handle such a crisis.
  • Once you've sold the idea, work with management to start mobilizing and training a response team that will be responsible for coordinating communications with each of your various publics in the event of a crisis.
    • Select the top manager who will head the in-house team to communicate with employees. Have workers from across your organization represented on the team.
    • Select the top manager and team to deal with the media. Train several people to be media spokespersons.
    • Select the manager and teams to communicate with customers, shareholders, and the key government and law enforcement agencies in your communities.
    • Select the manager and team to keep your Web site updated throughout the crisis.

  • Arrange a central site and phone number where all team members will check in when a crisis arises. Also select a secondary site and phone number.
  • Plan and tell employees how you will communicate quickly and effectively with each group. Make sure the teams know how to contact one another at all times by having current business and home telephone numbers, fax numbers, and e-mail addresses. Use an intra-net Web site to distribute information to employees.
  • Establish separate points of contact for employees, media, customers, and others to call for information on the situation.
  • Determine who will make final decisions when you are releasing sensitive information.
  • Have each team review previous communications involving their publics. Look for strengths, weaknesses, and ways to improve relations. Begin working on those improvements.
  • Be sure the crisis teams know how to reach their key contacts at all times. Make sure they have day and night telephone numbers for both primary and secondary contacts, and keep those lists up-to-date.
  • Arrange for training and conduct simulations. All crisis team members need media and crisis training and regular refreshers. Keep everybody on their toes and constantly assess new potential problems.
  • In some situations, you may need to rely on wireless communications between teams and law enforcement officers. Do your homework and training; locate equipment.
What to Do When Crisis Occurs
  • Communicate. Don't hide behind "no comment." If you do that, you immediately lose control. Even if all you can say is that you don't know, say so, say why and when you think you will know. Reporters look favorably on people who are trying to be helpful.
  • Never lie or speculate. Provide only factual, confirmed information.
  • Put people first. Help the people most affected by the crisis. In the case of accidents, remember to deal with victims' families before any other group. If they want you to, intercede on their behalf with the news media. Be sensitive to legal restrictions regarding information, such as the Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act. Know what kind of information is public and what must be withheld.
  • Communicate your concern about the victims.
  • Be available at all times to respond to your various publics. Know media deadlines and don't rely only on news conferences.
  • Don't be defensive. Be prepared for aggressive questioning. You might have to answer the same question several times.
  • Provide brief, precise answers to questions. Don't ramble. Use plain language. Short answers also help alleviate nervousness.
  • v
  • Take your time in explaining difficult issues to reporters.
  • Monitor media accounts and quickly correct errors by contacting the reporter or correspondents.
  • Don't attempt legal battles in the media. Express assurances that matters of litigation or potential litigation will be investigated thoroughly.
  • Prepare key points you want to make ahead of time. Make them short and to the point. Try to repeat them several times during the news conference or interview.
  • Stay with the crisis throughout its duration.
  • Follow up with the news media to keep them updated about what preventive actions were taken after the crisis ended.

Remember, the public's immediate assessment of an agency in crisis is based on these four factors of earning trust and credibility:

  • Empathy and/or caring (usually assessed within the first 30 seconds)
  • Competence, expertise, and readiness
  • Honesty and openness
  • Dedication and commitment

Communicating Risk

Gauging how your audience will react to government messages about physical risk is tough. When many people hear the word risk they think danger.

According to risk communication research, people can react to news about danger in one of two ways. They either:

  • think about the justice of the situation or
  • think about the physical hazard itself.

Frequently, people who are managing physical hazards think about the hazard. They focus on making people understand how large or how small the dangers-tire tread separation, low-level radiation, or cooking meat without a thermometer-really are. They ignore the justice of the situation.

People who are getting the messages, on the other hand, may be wondering about how competent the risk managers are and what their motives are. They aren't thinking about the physical hazard. Audiences can be highly skeptical of messages that say, on one hand, that genetically engineered food is safe but, on the other, that cooking meat without a thermometer is dangerous.

What is Your Audience Concerned About? The key to communicating risk is to find out what your target audience is concerned about. Are they mainly concerned about management issues or are they concentrating on trying to understand the physical hazard? When people trust and respect the risk managers, they can start listening to information about physical hazards.

There are a number of risk communication guidelines. Some deal with good listening and some deal with good explaining. Try the good listening techniques before you try to explain. It's tough for an audience to listen to Biotech 101 when they're wondering if the lesson is really an excuse for poor management or unethical practices.

One set of good listening and explaining techniques is presented in Vincent Covello and Fred Allen's Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication (in an Environmental Protection Agency brochure). Here are their seven rules:

  1. Accept and involve the public as a partner. Your goal is to produce an informed public; not to defuse public concerns or replace actions.
  2. Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts. Different goals, audiences, and media require different messages and actions.
  3. Listen to the public's specific concerns. People often care more about trust, credibility, competence, fairness, and empathy than about statistics and details.
  4. Be honest, frank, and open. Trust and credibility are difficult to obtain; once lost, they are almost impossible to regain.
  5. Work with other credible sources. Conflicts and disagreements among organizations make communication with the public much more difficult.
  6. Meet the needs of the media.
  7. Speak clearly and with compassion. Never let your efforts prevent your acknowledging the tragedy of an illness, injury, or death.

Don't Explain Until You've Listened: Listen to your audiences' concerns about the hazard before you try to tell them that their view is right or wrong. One way to gauge potential public reaction to your message is to call a few friends and ask them what they think about your message.

Make Your Message Easy to Understand: Here's a sample message: The Earth is weightless. The words in that statement are familiar. That's a short sentence, so it should be easy to understand, right? It's not the words that make the sentence hard to understand. It's the counter-intuitive idea that something as big as the Earth could somehow be weightless.

Sometimes messages about risk are just as counter-intuitive. Here's one: "The only way to be sure a ground beef patty is cooked thoroughly is to use an accurate instant-read thermometer." That's a tough message to understand. But the words in that sentence, and the sentence's length, aren't the problem.

The problem is that lay theories make this message tough to believe. You might have cooked a hamburger just last night without using a thermometer. And, you feel fine today. So why should you use a thermometer?

When a risk message is hard to believe, acknowledge that. Try presenting your message this way.

  • State the message.
  • State the lay theory.
  • Acknowledge that the lay theory is apparently reasonable.
  • Describe a familiar experience that makes the lay theory questionable.
  • Then explain the scientific account and the way it makes sense of that familiar experience.

Here's what you might say: "New data show that the only safe way to cook a ground beef patty is to use an instant, accurate-read thermometer. Many of you are probably thinking you didn't get sick the last time you cooked a hamburger and didn't use a thermometer. So, it's reasonable to assume you don't need to use a thermometer.

"But, some people-such as the young and the elderly-are more likely to get sick from harmful bacteria than others. And, it is possible to develop a resistance to harmful bacteria. People assume meat color is the key to its doneness and safety. But, meat color is a result of other factors such as oxygen exposure. At 160 degrees Fahrenheit, a ground beef patty can look either brown or pink. It's the cooking temperature that kills harmful bacteria. How can you know if your ground beef is hot enough to kill harmful bacteria? Use a thermometer to make sure your ground beef is safe - and tasty."

By listening and putting some thought into your messages, you can better gauge what kinds of messages your audiences want to hear about potential hazards.

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Too often, we measure our effectiveness only by counting the number of products produced in a given amount of time. But, measuring that way, we're really only evaluating productivity, not effectiveness.

If we don't measure our effectiveness in creating and delivering communications products, we'll never be able to let go of some of the routine tasks we've been performing for years. We need to demonstrate the added value of putting our energy into new, more meaningful projects. As resources become tighter, communicators are being asked, along with everyone else, to prove their worth.

Here are some ideas that you can use to measure your effectiveness:

  • Accept that measuring effectiveness is your responsibility, just as you accept responsibility for creating products that are within budget and on deadline.
  • Make planning and evaluation integral parts of your projects. Effective communication begins with effective planning and continues throughout the life of the project. Meet periodically with subject-matter specialists and your internal customers. That way you'll be aware of upcoming projects. Let them know that you are willing to help in the planning process so you can help identify communications objectives and shape the effort, including the products and the evaluation.
  • At first, select only a few projects to measure for effectiveness. This won't make the task seem so overwhelming. Once you've successfully planned and produced an effective product that you can prove accomplished your objectives, the process will become easier. Eventually you'll want to evaluate all your projects.
  • Identify your communications objectives. Make sure everything you produce meets those objectives. These steps are the same as for program development. You'll need to answer these questions:
    • What problems are you addressing?
    • Who is your target audience?
    • What are your objectives? List the types and degree of behavioral or attitudinal change you want to see happen by a certain time; the effectiveness of the delivery method, or both.
    • What methods will you use? Fact sheets, phone contacts, or personal visits?
    • How will you evaluate your effectiveness? Will you measure changes in attitudes or behavior or measure impact on budget?

  • Ask evaluation specialists within your organization to help develop a first-rate evaluation process. You don't have to do it alone.
  • Track the use of your products. This measures whether your delivery techniques are effective, but not necessarily if your messages are effective. Here are some ways you can track use:
    • News clipping services. However, research shows that clipping services often find only half of the stories that actually make it into print.
    • Nielsen ratings or other broadcast monitoring services. These ratings let you know how many households are being reached with your program or video news releases, but not necessarily how many people are hearing your message or being moved to action.
    • Quantity counts. Counting how many of a product you create-or better yet, how many you reprint or reproduce-might tell you something valuable. The question, however, is whether your product is really effective or whether it is the only thing available.
    • Web tracking. A simple though not necessarily reliable measure of effectiveness is simply to count the number of hits on your Web site. Some counting programs are better than others at tracking real users; they exclude multiple hits from the same person or hits from your staff.
    • Readership surveys to measure reaction to periodicals you are producing.

  • Explore more sophisticated ways to measure product effectiveness, such as:
    • User surveys and questionnaires can be effective for publications, videos, video news releases, Web sites-virtually everything you produce. Be sure to make them simple and easy to complete and return to you. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for mailed surveys. For audiences who have access to the Internet and are comfortable using the technology, you can use e-mail surveys.
    • Telephone surveys, if short and well crafted, can provide you with rich information on your customers' use of and feelings about your products and services.
    • Interviews and focus groups can also provide you with personalized information about your products and services.
    • User observation is an effective evaluation tool for such things as Web site navigation and Internet educational modules.
    • Participant evaluations are useful tools for evaluating workshops and programs. This is especially true if you also use a follow-up survey to evaluate whether participants have truly demonstrated the knowledge, attitude, or behavior changes you were targeting.
    • Business reply cards, or bounce-back cards are good tools for getting feedback on mailed materials. If you don't get a sufficient response this way, however, you may need to make follow-up phone calls.
  • Learn from others. Many organizations have extensive experience in measuring effectiveness. Check Chapter 6 for some useful Web sites.
Once you've started, you'll find that measuring your products' effectiveness won't take nearly as much time as you thought it might. You'll find the rewards can be gratifying, not only in terms of recognition and increased support for your organization, but also in increased recognition of your expertise as a communicator.

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