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The essentials of strategic planning: A Q&A with Mary Ann McCauley

success strategy cloudWhen your to-do list seems endless, your day-to-day work can easily slip into merely checking off tasks as you receive them, without any strategic direction. However, taking the time to create a plan for your communication initiatives will allow you to better support the organization’s goals (and get the attention of your peers). To help you set a strategic course for your communication initiatives,  we talked with Mary Ann McCauley, ABC, IABC Fellow, president and principal of Catalyst Communications.

Caroline Cornell: What does an effective communication plan look like? What are the key elements?

Mary Ann McCauley: An effective communication plan has practical, measurable objectives that will tell you if your communication initiatives have changed behaviors among your primary audiences. Your objectives will be realistic in terms of the resources, both human and financial, available. Plus, they will align with the organization’s business objectives and strategies. In addition to measurable objectives, a plan needs a solid research foundation and a well thought-out budget.

CC: Are there any planning steps that are often overlooked?

MAM: Research is probably the most overlooked step in planning. Reasons range from not enough funding to not enough time. However, there are ways in which to collect information that do not require large budgets. The time spent on this front end will pay off in more effective communication and better results. For example, there are numerous free or low-cost web-based survey tools. Communicators also will find data already exists within their organizations in places such as human resources, product development and the C-suite. You just have to ask.

CC: Do you have two to three tips for making the planning phase as painless as possible?

MAM: You can take some of the stress out of planning by planning ahead. Start collecting information that may be relevant as you find it. Put segments of the planning process on your “to-do” list weeks in advance of the “planning season” to be make it easier to absorb into your workload. Delegate portions of the research phase if you have a communication team. Even the most inexperienced on your team can help and will learn in the process. If you are a one-person team, spread out the tasks on a longer timeline. Use a simple planning model (such as the one I will be presenting).

CC: Has social media affected planning at all? If so, how?

MAM: Social media affects planning from the standpoint that it presents more tactical choices which can affect your implementation timeline. It also presents another source of information as you collect data in the early stages of the process.

CC: How can communicators make their plans flexible enough to account for change, yet ensure they are still concrete enough that they provide clear direction for their campaigns?

“A plan that serves only as a PowerPoint presentation has no value.”—Mary Ann McCauley

MAM: Measurable objectives aligned with your organization’s business objectives will be your anchor. By reviewing your progress on a regular basis, you can adjust tactical initiatives according to results and environmental changes. When someone approaches you with a “must have” tactic, your plan will enable you to assess if and how this request fits into the larger purpose. If it is a fit, you can delay or delete another tactic of potentially lesser impact. If it doesn’t, it provides a professional way to say “no.”

CC: How can an effective communication plan set a campaign up for success?

MAM: Good upfront research and measurable objectives. Finally, working the plan. A plan that serves only as a PowerPoint presentation has no value. The model I’ll be presenting is meant to be reviewed, adjusted and worked throughout its life cycle.

Caroline Cornell

Caroline Cornell is associate editor for IABC’s content department.

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