Planning a Communications Campaign

When planning a communications campaign, there are some basic things to consider, including: objectives, audience, research, messaging, communication channels, implementation, timing, resources and evaluation. The following information should help with the planning process.

All in the planning

Identifying objectives is a key starting point when planning a communications campaign. Consider objectives in terms of what needs to change: it may be attitudes or behaviours so it is important to describe objectives accurately and specifically, and to identify how effectiveness will be measured. The SMART approach serves as a useful reminder: objectives should always be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed.

Another key area to consider is audience. Think beyond the obvious: for example, the primary audience for an undergraduate recruitment campaign might be potential applicants, but there are many others who influence the decision-making process, including parents, teachers and friends. These will form secondary audiences, who might require a communications plan of their own.

Research creates benchmarks against which you can judge the success of a campaign and helps you understand current attitudes or behaviours. Research will also help to understand the most effective means of communicating with an audience. It may be helpful to test the reactions of a sample of the audience to a communications campaign, checking any assumptions about what might or might not be effective.

Delivering the message

Messages should be clear, succinct and - most importantly - few in number. Try to identify one key message for a campaign with two or three supporting messages that reinforce the central point. Ensure that messages are appropriate for the audience and do not be tempted to “say everything”.

Messages can be delivered using many communications channels including websites, publications, direct mail and media relations.

New media, including the world wide web, should form a central part of any communications campaign. The benefits include close control over message and presentation, ease and speed of updating and widespread acceptance across audiences. The web can also be used to present video and audio materials. The medium is generally passive so the audience needs to be encouraged to visit your site. It is essential, therefore, that your campaign is integrated with other elements such as publications promoting your new media vehicles.

Publications offer a tangible product that can be sent directly to the audience and provide absolute control over the message and its context.

A media relations strategy can support other vehicles of communication by reinforcing messages delivered via direct channels of communication. The “third-party endorsement” of media coverage (including press, radio or television) can add significant weight to a campaign although there are no guarantees about how a message will be used.

Advertising is another communication channel to consider. The high costs of advertising preclude its widespread use, but used tactically it can prove effective, especially in reinforcing messages. Advertising’s primary advantage is full control over message and presentation coupled with wide coverage, but it can be a complex and expensive vehicle to use and is not always appropriate.

Co-ordinating efforts

Messages should be presented in a carefully controlled way. For example, media relations efforts should be co-ordinated with the distribution of publications and a website should be functional and well-promoted across all other communication channels. A project plan is important for effective implementation; it should be reviewed and updated regularly as external factors will arise that may impact on a campaign.

If a campaign objective is to change behaviours, ensure that communications are presented at an appropriate time for the audience to receive, consider and act on the messages. Understand the audience: do not make assumptions about when decisions are made or how attitudes will be influenced over time.

Utilising resources

The biggest resource requirement is likely to be time. Do not underestimate the sustained effort required to plan and implement a communications campaign, even if external advice and support is available.

A committed and competent project leader is an important resource. Other resources will be centred on paying for the services needed to implement the campaign including design, copywriting, editing, photography, printing, advertising, web and media relations management.

Evaluating success

Evaluation is often overlooked but is a critical element of a communications campaign. In an environment where professional communications is not a core activity, justifying the time and expense of a campaign is important if it is to be taken seriously.

Consider campaign evaluation at the earliest stages of planning - objectives can then be set in a measurable way and the evaluation criteria can be defined and agreed in advance. Evaluation may include a repeat of any pre-campaign research to review opinions and attitudes, as well as media analysis to examine the coverage received.