Menu

Communications strategy (long-term): users guide

Communication is a major component of any program, project, initiative or change process.

Developing a communications strategy early (i.e. at the start of a program, project or initiative, not at the end) may identify problems and pitfalls while they can be easily addressed.

Clearly, the complexity of a communications strategy will depend on the issue. While some strategies may only involve a media release for the public and a communiqué to staff, others may require research, detailed marketing strategies, and the production of support materials.

The basic steps in developing a communications strategy are outlined below.

1.  Situation analysis

As a starting point you need to know the background of the program, project or initiative and what its (business/policy) objectives are. An analysis of the current situation, and the desired outcomes from the program, project or initiative, will then assist in setting the communication objectives. 

2.  Objectives

Objectives play a key role in evaluation. An accurate and effective evaluation is not possible unless the communication objectives are relevant and appropriate to the program, project or initiative itself.

Ask yourself why you are doing the communication. Is it:

  • to raise awareness and understanding of a planned or impending issue/initiative/change
  • to change attitudes and behaviours
  • to maximise compliance e.g. with a new law
  • to encourage use of or familiarity with government products or services
  • to gain the support and buy-in of stakeholders
  • to boost morale
  • to encourage social cohesion, civic pride, community spirit, tolerance, or to help achieve a widely supported public policy
  • to provide a mechanism for seeking and acting on feedback, etc?

Are your objectives clear, realistic and measurable?

3.  Target audience(s)

In government communication campaigns there are usually ‘internal’ (e.g. Minister, senior management, staff) and ‘external’ audiences. The latter may also be divided into primary and secondary audiences (e.g. drink drivers and the people who have influence over their behaviour).

Who do you need to reach? Who will be affected or potentially affected by the issue/initiative/change?

How does this affect your communications medium, messages and tone of the campaign and whether you want feedback from affected publics?

4.  Research

The need for research will vary with the complexity, cost and nature of the communications campaign. 

As a minimum you should do some desk research – environmental scanning (finding out what other organisations have done), background reading - and consultation with key players.

Major campaigns, however, should be guided by formal market research and evaluation to ensure they achieve their objectives and to prevent resources being wasted. For example, a major social marketing campaign to achieve attitude change will require pre- and post-campaign research. This may involve qualitative and quantitative research encompassing audits, attitude surveys, face-to-face interviews, focus groups, concept testing, etc.

5.  Key messages

The next step is to determine the key messages that you want stakeholders to understand and act upon.

Consider what outcomes your messages are intended to achieve.

  • Guiding and educating – to be aware of and to do things in a particular way (e.g. when a law or policy is made or changed)
  • Reassuring and informing – about what is being done (e.g. when there is a change in an organisation’s structure or when there has been a change that people need to know about and act upon)
  • Consulting to understand – what people think about a particular action or decision (e.g. when you need people to respond to or participate in something).

You should be able to identify the three or four key messages that will be used constantly and consistently throughout the campaign.

These messages should be framed from the perspective of the receiver, not the sender. They should be brief, in plain English, and relevant to your aim.

6.  Communication strategies

This is all about what you are going to do to get your messages across

i.e.what actions you are going to take, who will be responsible for implementing each action, and when each action must be implemented.

For example, are you going to do a major advertising campaign OR are you going to provide broad information to your target audiences as a starting point for discussion and follow this up with consultation OR are you going to do a series of presentations and public forums supported by information materials and a feedback mechanism?

Generally it is better to focus on three or four strategies and to do them well, rather than trying to do too much and achieving a mediocre result.

Other considerations

Ministerial involvement: Is it appropriate to have a Ministerial announcement or launch for the campaign?  If so, suggest a news angle (people stories work best), appropriate venue/event, background material, backdrops, media release and speech. What Ministerial staff/press secretaries need to be consulted?  Is the Minister available? Should the launch be timed with Parliamentary sittings?  What other major events might clash?  How much planning time is required?  What procurement guidelines need to be followed?

Issues management: Think ahead. What issues may arise after the announcement or campaign launch?  Are there likely critics?  What risk management strategies are in place to deal with them?  Are there people who should be consulted before the announcement?

Support materials: What material is needed to support the campaign?  Is there a contact point for people to get more information?  Is a public inquiry phone number needed?

7.  Communications methods

This is all about how you are going to do to get your messages across.

There is a range of communications methods and tools that can be used to convey information to, and interact with people.

What you decide to use will depend on:

  • the level of engagement required
  • the interest of your audience in your message
  • demographics
  • how your target audience prefers to receive messages, and
  • whether you are simply relaying information or require two-way communication. 

The best communication engages the emotions, so if you are trying to persuade, think about visual and people-oriented channels.

Consider a mix of the following communication methods.

Media releases:  Easy but not always effective - relies on media filters, may not get run, and inaccessible to most audiences.  Sometimes individual interviews are more effective.  Think in pictures when trying to attract media coverage.

Advertisements:  Can be expensive and hard to measure effectiveness.  Needs to 'break through the clutter'.  Different messages suit different media  (print or electronic).

Internet sites:  Very effective if promoted properly. Allows 24-hour 7-day access and people can browse to the depth that suits their interests.

Pamphlets/brochures:  Are they really needed?  Think of options, such as fact sheets, flyers, letters, the Web. What is the shelf life, and the likely print run? (Always show publications dates).
 
CD-Rom/DVDs: Useful for training purposes or special marketing. CDs and DVDs can be a cost-effective alternative to print publications.

Radio: Highly effective for disseminating information fast. Speech is the dominant element so clarity of message is vital.

Advertising features/supplements:  Can be effective for specific/special campaigns but needs the support of advertisers to cover costs.

Presentations:  Good for internal audiences (e.g. Steering Committee, senior management), particularly at the beginning and end of projects.

Community meetings:  A good way to ensure two-way communication. Can be open or selective depending on the issue.

Letterbox drops:  Most people don't read material in their letterboxes.

Email:  Generally a medium that is good for relaying information, but not for communication. Need to be selective about what you email and avoid 'spamming'. 

Internal communication:  Most effective when face-to-face, but includes staff newsletters and magazines.  Needs to be pitched at what staff are interested in, not what management wants to preach.

Focus groups:  Useful for research and ensures two-way communication.

Direct mail: Letters to affected publics pitched at their specific needs and concerns.

Through opinion makers:  Use of industry associations and community leaders to relay information often adds credibility to the message and makes use of internal communication channels.

Events:  A form of public relations that can engage if effectively managed, but needs to be carefully planned.  Save it for major announcements.

Billboards: Public advertisements.

Word of mouth:  Can be positive and negative (e.g. police breath-testing stations send out a symbolic message).

Public displays:  e.g. shopping centres, the mall, where people can stop to talk.

Piggybacking: Piggybacking on major groups and ‘life’ contacts like community, education, health and leisure, raves and rallies, interest groups and local councils can help carry messages into the community.

Information or Help Lines: Usually necessary for managing an issue affecting target publics.
 
Special needs:  Consider special needs groups, such as the aged, Indigenous people, and hearing or sight impaired.  For example, storytelling and art can be more effective when communicating with Indigenous people.

8.  Budget

What are the costs associated with each action? How much is required and appropriate?

Use the Communications Strategy Budget Template to work out where there will be expenditure and the likely budget required.

9.  Monitoring and evaluation

Evaluation is a critical component of any communications campaign, as it seeks to determine whether strategies worked i.e. whether, and to what extent they achieved their outcomes, and if not, why not. This is important for two main reasons:

Accountability: Government is accountable for its expenditure of public monies, and accountability is not possible unless the results of expenditures are measured and reported.

Continuous Improvement: Evaluation is good management practice. Measuring, considering and improving approaches enables communications practitioners to refine their techniques and track the rapidly changing environments in which they operate.

Evaluation should be planned at the outset of a communications campaign, not left until the end, and must be properly budgeted for. As a rule of thumb, 10 percent of a project’s budget should be allocated to evaluation, though it will depend on the scale of the campaign. Consideration of resource implications is likely to be crucial to the decision whether to conduct evaluation in-house or to outsource.

For major social marketing campaigns to achieve attitude change, it may be appropriate to hire a market research company to do pre- and post-research to determine what has been achieved.

In other cases, it may be possible to measure or collect relevant data more simply and cheaply. For example, customer response might be measured by:

  • putting web site addresses and phone numbers on advertisements or promotional material then measuring requests for information, where they came from and establishing a database of inquiries for later tracking
  • asking callers where they got the number from (e.g. an advertisement or off a brochure);
  • measuring patterns of visits to Internet sites, including who is visiting the site and when.
  • A good test of the usefulness of an evaluation is to ask the following questions:Does it effectively identify the success/failure of the campaign?
  • Does it effectively identify the reasons for success/failure of the campaign?
  • Does it effectively identify the cost-effectiveness of the campaign?

Summary

The key elements of a communications strategy are:

1.  Situation analysis

2.  Objectives

3.  Target audience(s)

4.  Research

5.  Key messages

6.  Communication strategies

7.  Communication methods

8.  Budget

9.  Monitoring and evaluation

Once you have decided on these, you will be in a position to develop your working document – the Communication Strategy and Action Plan – that will contain the detail about objectives, target audiences, key messages, communication methods/tools, implementation and evaluation.

Short-term and long-term communications strategy templates are available.

Useful resources

  • ABC Radio Broadcasting and SBS provide notes for broadcasting information in numerous languages including English.
  • The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has current information about where particular parts of the community can be located.
  • Margaret Gee’s Media Guide (Information Australia) lists all trade magazines and mainstream publications and broadcasters with maps showing press reach for the entire nation. Their Celebrity Guide lists contacts for speakers, performers, photographers and entertainers.