OH NO – IT’S NOT TIME TO DO THE ANNUAL PLAN IS IT...
After the chaos of the last 12 months it’s time for communications professionals to reflect on their planning, says Liam FitzPatrick. But he argues that many of us struggle when it comes to this most basic of work disciplines.
Many of us came into communications because it seemed exciting and glamourous. I remember well the thrill of hand to hand media relations back in my early career and I often hanker after the simpler days when an idea formed in the morning would be done and dusted before we headed to the pub after work.
Longer term planning isn’t something which comes naturally to many communicators although we know it's essential, especially for in house teams.
Which might be why as many as four in ten communicators have no strategic plan for their communications function according to research conducted by corporate communication software specialists ICPlan and management advisors Donhead Consultants. Linking the development of communications to the strategic needs of an organisation is not a universal discipline in our profession it seems.
We decided to look at the issue because we were debating what communicators thought about in their plans and we were interested in understanding why some people were naturals whilst others seem to struggle or just give up. So, in the second half of last year we shared the findings of a survey answered by 350 practitioners around the world with senior professionals and asked what they thought of the data.
Their reactions varied from the surprised to the disappointed as we discussed why audience insight and evaluation is actually missing from many plans and why only 51% of their peers integrate plans across their teams. In fact, only a third of our respondents agreed that they followed a consistent process across their comms specialisms.
With planning being so variable, it was probably a relief to many, that only 32% of our respondents said they were recognised or rewarded for their performance against a plan!
Interestingly, large organisations have learnt to be planful and tend to be better in developing coordinated communications strategies. Over 61% of teams bigger than 50 practitioners said they had a clear overall strategy for communication; just 39% of medium sized teams if between 21 and 30 people) could say the same.
Our consultees were quick to suggest an explanation – the experience of internal stakeholders.
In the largest organisations, senior leaders have a better understanding of the role of communications and therefore higher expectation of their professional support. One of our consultees from a global energy giant reflected that senior managers tended to have learnt through crises or by managing complex external stakeholders why communications mattered. And so, she, suggested, they knew to involve their advisors at an early enough stage in an issue to make a difference.
Other consultees pointed out that educated internal stakeholders were more likely to support resourcing the team.
This view of the role of internal customers was confirmed by answers about barriers to planning. In fact, it was the most commonly stated factor by a wide margin – more significant even than the unpredictability of life!
Organisation size seemed also to be the most significant factor in deciding the completeness of plans. Location, specialism and sector seemed to be less significant than scale when it came to what was included in plans.
Naturally it was disappointing to see that only 54% and 55% of comms pros said they included evaluation or audience insight respectively in their plans. However, respondents from larger organisations and teams were more likely to consider a longer list of elements such as resourcing, change control or risk analysis. Smaller teams tend to focus on objectives, messaging, tactics and timing whilst business results came further down their list of priorities.
All this might be simply of academic interest except for one compelling finding.
We asked in our survey, and discussed with our consultees, whether planning made any difference? In the year when Covid surprised us all and the global economy stuttered, you might be forgiven for thinking that reactivity and flexibility are the most useful features of a communications function.
In short, the answer is that communicators who plan report themselves to be more impactful and successful. People who said they had robust processes were also more likely to describe themselves as successful – regardless or team size or specialism.
As many of us have been reminded in the last year, a plan may not protect you from the storms of life but it gives you a course to steer back to when the winds have dropped.
You can download the full report from ICPlan.com - https://links.icplan.com/cpr21_hp
Liam FitzPatrick is a partner of Donhead Consultants and writes extensively on communications effectiveness and processes.