Creating an effective university communication plan

Loudspeaker

An effective communication plan is essential no matter how small or large the request, be this to create a new department Twitter account, a course promotion poster, a video of student work, a new blog to share teaching and research excellence/student achievements and learning gain, or a website to promote research. Whilst most universities will have a dedicated corporate communications/PR department, the role of communication extends much further.

Time spent planning is
time well spent

Considering this from a higher education perspective, a communication plan may involve internal or external audiences. These could include the following:

Internal

  • Academics
  • Staff
  • Students (undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD)
  • Boards of Governors
  • Student Union

External

  • Alumni
  • Parents
  • Prospective students
  • Prospective academics
  • Prospective staff
  • Professional Bodies
  • Donors and prospective donors
  • Funding agencies (public and private)
  • Other partners or stakeholders
  • Higher education thought leaders
  • Competitors in higher education
  • News media
  • Visitors and the general public

With the increasing use of open social media platforms, for example blogs and Twitter, it is wise to remind ourselves that no matter who the intended audience is, the information shared trough these channels can be found and read by anybody.

Before we start to communicate to any audience it is therefore important to develop a clear plan. David Caveney from Comms2Point0 says that this process will help to clearly outline a concise and compelling need for the communication activity or campaign. He goes on to say that all sections of a communications plan should reference supporting evidence, formal, informal, quantitative and qualitative.

Comms2Point0 have generously shared this free download of a step by step guide to ‘the who, the how, the when and the why of planning an effective and efficient communication campaign’.

Comms planning guide

The ten step plan below is a summary of this poster and presents valuable pointers and useful questions to help you through each of the 10 stages.

Why do we need a plan?

Steps 1-3 of the comms planning process should help you clearly outline a concise and compelling need for the activity or campaign. These look at the importance of setting the context, outlining the aim and overall goal, and creating a set of smart objectives.

1. Context: Set the scene. Include references and links to relevant corporate/business plan priorities. Detail the issue driving the need for dedicated communications activity.
Include headline evidence/data/stats which demonstrate need or issue.
2. Aim: Outline the desired overall goal – the results the planned activity needs to deliver.
Are you imparting knowledge? building an image? shaping attitudes? stimulating a want or desire? or encouraging an action?
3. Objectives: Create a set of SMART (specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time-based) comms objectives – they should clearly set out outcomes and impacts (not the comms inputs).
What internal data supports or informs the objectives? Is it market trends? national/sector reports? good practice examples? or published data?

How

4. Strategy: Scope out the campaign in a single common sense campaign. Use the KISS approach – keep it short and simple. This should function as a useful shorthand tool for explaining the campaign to others.
Revisit and finalise this section once the rest of the plan is completed.
5. Audiences: Who are you trying to reach and what do you want them to do? Think of both your primary target audiences and the people who influence them (secondary audiences).
Prioritise groups – acknowledging available time/resources.

What?

6. Message/content: Be clear – jargon-free, no technical language, be relevant. Be concise – can you deliver these messages in just a few seconds? Be consistent – messages must be repeated if they are to sink in. Create an engaging content plan, tell stories and create material that is memorable and shareworthy.
Remember you calls to action. What do you want people to do?

Where?

7. Channels: Be specific, research your audiences, understand what they’re interested in, ‘where’ you can find them and which platforms they’re engaging with. Understand who or what their influences are.
Start with audience groups and build your channel mix around it, not the other way round. A good mix will successfully blend one to one, one to few, and many to many.

When?

8. Timeline: Set a realistic timeline split into ‘preparation’, ‘implementation’ and ‘review’. Set milestones and factor in a little flexibility.
Breaking complex campaigns into phases will maximise resources and maintain focus on achievable impacts.

With what?

9. Resources: These include people/time/budget. Assign tasks, estimate all likely spend (including a 15% contingency). Be realistic and honest about the likely returns you can achieve with the resources you have.
Don’t start with a set campaign budget and portion out spend. Cost out your plan and build your budget from the bottom up.

How did we do?

10. Evaluation: Evaluate based on communication objectives. Record quantitative and qualitative impacts. Share results. Write case studies. Celebrate success and learn from mistakes. Demonstrating return on investment (ROI) is key.
Prepare simple headline reports for upward communication/share ROI results. Gather quotes, take photos, record video, capture state and share results.

By failing to prepare,
you are preparing to fail

A communication plan is never set in stone. It needs to be reviewed for each initiative, even if the context appears to be the same. The final evaluation stage of any campaign can help highlight any potential issues or areas for improvement. Things you may want to consider:

  • Are you using the right platform/medium?
  • Are you providing the information your audience(s) want?
  • Are you using the right tone in your comms?
  • Are you giving your audience(s) a voice?
  • Are you listening to your audience(s) – what feedback are they giving?

Communication is an integral part of marketing. Successful marketing focuses on the full marketing mix, known as ‘The 7Ps of Marketing’:

  • Product or service – what we are providing?
  • Price – what we are asking for in return?
  • Place – where the product or service is delivered
  • Promotion – how we communicate what we do
  • Physical evidence – helping our customers to see what they are buying
  • Process – effectiveness of our systems and processes
  • People – those of us who come into contact with our customers and stakeholders and what we offer

Whilst these are important considerations, a communication strategy should go beyond marketing what your university offers. An essential part of a communication strategy is storytelling. With the wide range of communication channels including social media at our fingertips we can not only engage our audience(s) but invite them to contribute to a dialogue. If we want our audience to be part of the community then we need to find ways to include them in the conversations – communication as a dialogue rather than simply a monologue or broadcast.

 

References

Caveney, D. (2017) Your essential new comms planning guide. Comms2Point0.
McCarthy, E. J. (1964). Basic Marketing: A Managerial Approach. Richard D. Irwin: Homewood, IL.

About Sue Beckingham

A National Teaching Fellow, Educational Developer and Principal Lecturer in Computing with a research interest in the use of social media in higher education.
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