September 11, 2023
Internal Communications Plan: 7-Step Strategy and Template
We hear all the time that internal communication functions are stretched thin.
“There are too many priorities. Everything’s important. We have so many messages to get out to employees. So many vehicles but we’re not sure which work and which don’t. We don’t have the time to get it all done or enough people or enough budget…”
Having a strategic internal communications plan in place for your function is a critical step to getting your time organized, prioritizing, planning, resourcing, and operating at its optimum.
This may sound basic, but all too often we find that internal communications functions don’t have clear plans in place.
And having a clear plan in place is critical to:
- Focus internal communications where the business needs them the most
- Empower internal communication leaders and teams to be more proactive consultants to the business with a focus on delivering value and impact
- Get internal communications teams out of the reactive fire-fighting that causes strain and fatigue
- Advocate for employees and their information needs
- Calibrate a range of business and communication messages and needs so they are connected, relevant, and digestible for your audiences
- Leverage existing and new channels to reach employees where they are
- Measure and demonstrate progress against business and organizational outcomes that matter
What is a Strategic Internal Communications Plan?
A strategic internal communication plan is a tool for leaders to help drive employee behaviors and actions that create desired business outcomes. It should directly support an organization’s key business outcomes. An internal communication plan should be updated every year to support the business strategy, rather than on an ad hoc basis or as an afterthought. When a plan is truly strategic, it is also given the same priority and resources as an external plan that works effectively together to achieve business outcomes for an organization.
Internal Communication Planning Best Practices
A strong internal communication plan is never just a list of tactics. Instead, the tactics should be part of the overall plan and reflect what you’re going to do to achieve your measurable business objectives.
There are many ways to achieve a smart internal communications strategy. Our best advice is to pick a format that works for you and always have a plan in place.
Adjustments are fine and expected, but the fundamental goals and vision for communication need to be woven into the plan and used for guidance to make smart decisions around priorities and areas of focus.
As you dive into your internal communications planning, consider these key components of any strong internal communications strategy:
- A clear explanation of the current business environment and any challenges your business faces
- What you want to accomplish (your business goals and communication goals)
- Who you need to talk with (your audience)
- What you want to say (your core messages)
- How you will communicate (your internal communication strategies, tactics, and channels)
- When you will communicate (your calendar), and
- How you will measure your progress
What a Smart Internal Communication Strategy Achieves
When done well, strategic communication plans can help you achieve strong results for your business. Based on the scores of organizations we've helped to develop and implement strategic plans, we’ve seen significant results:
- Turn a strategy into action and embed new behaviors into an organization, such as reducing safety incidents and engaging employees in diversity and inclusion initiatives
- Help employees with a change
- Address important industry issues
- Inform employees on sensitive topics
- Align and activate organizations around a new strategy
- Improving culture to elevate the employee experience and performance goals
Any time you have a lot to say and do, think about having a communication plan to orchestrate how best to engage teams and drive the narrative with your audiences and outcomes in mind.
How to Create an Internal Communication Plan in 7 Steps
Your communications plan doesn’t need to be long – a few pages is fine or even a one-pager works. Use these seven steps as a framework when you develop your plan.
Step 1: Summarize the Situation
Provide a situation overview and what’s prompting the need for communications. Map the current situation, consider business needs, and talk to key stakeholders to help with this process.
For example, is there a shift in organizational priorities because of the marketplace or industry? Low employee engagement scores? New products or services? Are you starting a new employee initiative and you need to keep them informed and engaged in the process?
This section includes research and analysis, and addresses the variables at play and what’s currently being done to address the issue.
This is also the section that describes the business and communication context and why a communication plan is necessary.
Step 2: Determine Your Desired Outcome
We spend a good amount of time talking with the leaders we work with about “desired outcomes” – the first step in planning any kind of communication. When we ask, “What’s the outcome you seek?” we often hear people say, “We want to produce an email message, or we’re thinking about a newsletter or video.” This isn’t what we mean by outcomes because those are just tactics. They alone cannot solve the business challenge outlined in Step 1.
To get to the real outcome, instead start by answering this question: What do you want to achieve for the business? Once you answer that, you can decide what communication strategies and tactics are best suited to achieve that business outcome.
Here’s the two-step process we suggest to identify your critical outcomes:
- Business and Organizational Outcomes (the business need) – When you define the business need, don’t start with what you need to do, but why you need to do it. Indicate – as best you can – a direct connection between the organization’s objectives or bottom line. Be sure to list specific and measurable desired organizational outcomes in this section. Think: What will be different in the business when we’ve achieved our plans?
- Communication Outcomes / Objectives – Think about the business outcome you want to achieve through communication and what role communications can play to help achieve the business need. For example, is it to increase engagement, so you can benefit from things that come from higher engagement – like less absenteeism or better safety outcomes or higher quality performance? Is it to increase order fill or to create a behavior change among employees?
Use SMART Objectives
- Specific – What are we going to do for whom?
- Measurable – Is it quantifiable and can we measure it?
- Attainable / Achievable – Can we get it done within the time frame and with the resources we have?
- Relevant – Will this objective have an effect on the desired goal or strategy?
- Time-bound – When will this be accomplished?
Follow this SMART Template to Guide You
To develop SMART objectives, use the SMART Objectives Template and two-page guide by clicking the image below. It covers what SMART objectives are, provides an example, and concludes with the template you see here:
You don’t need to limit yourself to one desired outcome but you should try to cap it at three.
Note: All too often communication plans only focus on communication goals. Remember to take your plan to the next level by linking the communication goals to specific business or organizational goals.
Step 3: Define Your Audience
To help you think through how best to communicate with different groups of employees, it’s important to define who they are. Who are the most relevant groups you need to influence and drive to action?
List different audience groups (sometimes referred to as job families) and their mindsets (where they’re coming from on the topic that you’re communicating), and consider what you want them to know, feel, and do as a result of your communication with them. That will help you focus, find the common ground for your messages, as well as adapt your messages for different audience segments based on their unique information needs.
Audience job families or segments may be a specific business unit, senior executives, geographies, functional roles (such as frontline employees, sales teams, and customer-facing teams), shareholders, employee affiliate groups, or people leaders. Job families also vary by industry – so in healthcare, there are segments such as physicians, nurses, volunteers, environmental services, and the like. Other organizations may have call center or customer service employees or plant/site employees.
Consider using a template like this to outline relevant audience segments and what you want them each to know, feel, and do as a result of your communications. It’s a great way to stay focused on the key audiences and outcomes you want to achieve and to identify what your key messages should be for each.
Example Audience types
What we want them to Know
and Do as a result of the communications
Insert additional audience types as needed
Note: Don’t confuse the audience(s) with stakeholders. Stakeholders are the people and organizations that have an influence on the desired outcome. Audiences are the receivers of messages.
Step 4: Develop Your Messages
Based on your audiences, next outline the most important messages (or points) you need to communicate to your audiences. Keep it to about three messages (that’s usually all that people can retain!). Then consider supporting points to reinforce those key messages. These are the facts, data, anecdotes, and stories that support and bring your points to life.
5 Ws and an H
Want to ensure you don’t forget a critical detail in your messaging? Think 5 Ws and an H to cover all the key points on your audiences’ minds and the all-important context, so you can make it relevant for them.
- Why – Why is it the right decision? Why now? Why is it important?
- What – What’s the decision? What does it mean for us? What should I know? What’s in it for me?
- Where – Where is this decision coming from? Where/what locations will it affect? Where can I get more information?
- When – When is this happening?
- How – How was the decision made? How will it be implemented? How will communications flow internally and externally? How does it impact me?
- Who – Who made the decision? Who’s in charge? Who does it impact?
In communicating your message, the order is important. Adult learners want to know the “why” first and then the “what.” The rest can follow logically.
Here are some additional tips to make your messages stick:
- Keep them simple: People remember things based on simple ideas
- Be unexpected: When you take people by surprise they tend to remember it later – such as a compelling stat or story framed in a stand-out way
- Communicate clearly: Human actions and sensory information, images, and proverbs help people understand an idea
- Be credible: Use facts, figures, and examples, and believable sources
- Inspire and create an emotional connection: People remember things that tap into their emotions – whether it’s something funny that makes them laugh or causes them to reflect
- Tell stories: Narrative can influence feelings and sometimes behavior
No matter how you develop your messages, use a template to keep yourself organized, consistent, and concise. For example, we use our award-winning messagemap methodology to get all the most important messages organized and prioritized on one page. The messagemap is used to develop all the communication tactics (in Step 5) so that messages are consistent and strategic.
Step 5: Decide What Your Strategy Is and What Channels and Tactics You’ll Use
How you deliver your messages is as important as what you say. During this step, you can identify your internal communications strategies – in other words, how you’ll approach communicating your key messages with your audiences. This is the step where you outline specifically which channels and tactics are most effective at reaching each audience, so they understand and connect with the key messages.
Very often communicators are asked to jump right into producing materials and delivering tactics first. This shortcuts the strategic steps to the planning process and risks the tactics not being as effective – so you won’t save any time in the long run. You’ll likely just have more cleanup to do later.
Note: It helps to strategize potential tactics and channels as a communications team. Organize a working session with plenty of post-it notes, flip charts, and pens/markers to generate ideas and stick them on the wall. Vote on the top 6-8 tactics for each objective, repeat, and consolidate. Hold on to this and use it for communication planning during the year for other programs and priorities, too.
The channels you choose will depend on what you want to achieve from your communications and the audience you need to reach. The right channels for raising awareness would probably be the wrong ones for gaining ownership and commitment. Similarly, the needs of desk-based employees will be very different to sales teams or factory workers who aren’t on computers during the day.
A well-coordinated use of multiple voices and channels will be needed for maximum impact.
It’s also important to draw on any employee communication data and insights that already exist in your organization. Look to engagement and communication effectiveness surveys, channel audits and feedback, and employee listening sessions to help you make data-driven decision making around which channels and tactics to use.
Keep in mind these communication best practices:
- Face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) communication is best for making a personal connection and overcoming resistance to change. If you’ve got a sensitive or complex message, this is usually your best bet.
- Meetings are best for communicating more complicated ideas or when you want input from team members.
- Paper (such as handouts at a meeting or a flier on a bulletin board) is best when details are important, or dates need to be referenced.
- Electronic (such as email or an intranet page) works well for those who have frequent access to computers; consider also visual display boards for break rooms, elevators, lobbies, and central meeting locations.
- Video is best to use when you want to appeal to visual and audio senses and to tell a story. More and more companies are using short, grassroots-type videos to get messages across. Consider captions for multiple languages and/or open work environments where noise is a concern.
- Internal social media can help to build a culture of collaboration and rapport among dispersed team members.
- Think about frequency. For example, huddles with your team could happen daily, while town hall meetings might be best quarterly.
Actionable Communication Strategies Make Your Tactics More Impactful
The tactics are how you plan to make the internal communication strategies happen. Make each tactic relate back to at least one strategy (if not multiple). Include key deliverables and how you will monitor execution.
Then plot key activities into a calendar, so you can see how the communications will unfold throughout the year.
In this section, also add in any considerations that might negatively or positively impact the success of the implementation to inform your tactics and timing. For example, employees have noted in engagement surveys that they prefer small-group meetings to receive information from their managers.
Step 6: Populate Your Communications Calendar
It’s helpful to have a full view of the communications channels and tactics you are using to implement your plan (and timing to go along with it). This becomes your project tracker, so you can look at the year ahead and note which communications will be happening and when. That will help ensure you have a consistent cadence of communications that is timed around – and in support of – key business and organizational milestones. The key is enough communications to keep what’s important on people’s radars, but not too much that it becomes noise and people tune out.
Use a template like this to map your action plan (adding as many rows as you need):
Vehicle / Deliverable
Owner / Sender
Step 7: Measure Your Progress
List how you will measure success. This should connect directly back to your outcomes or SMART Objectives (see Step 2). It’s how you’ll know if your internal communication strategies are working or not and informs future planning.
For example, will it be through improved survey scores? Feedback forms from specific communications events? Increased share value or product sales? Increases in employee sign-ups? Better retention rates?
You can use a combination of measurement techniques, but the main thing is to make sure you measure.
Remember – what gets measured, gets done.
Bonus: 8 Internal Communication Best Practices for Remote Employees
One of the most important things we’ve learned from so many people working remotely is the importance of communicating predictably. As you develop your communication plan, keep these tips in mind for better communication, particularly when a good portion of your workforce is remote:
- Be planful and strategic about keeping in touch with your team, especially during times of change when they may be worried and/or need more connection and encouragement.
- Set regular meeting times and encourage dialogue during meetings. Be sure team members understand that out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind.
- Explain the best ways that employees can reach you if they need to. This helps them know their input and questions are welcome and gives them a sense of when to expect feedback.
- Respond quickly. An afternoon can seem like an eternity to someone who is waiting for your input. Even a quick email or text is helpful to acknowledge receipt of a message and say when you can respond.
- Share what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re figuring out. Especially during times of change, employees need to hear from you more often, even when you don’t have everything figured out. Resist the temptation to wait for more answers, more clarification, and more details. Instead, recognize that you probably know a lot more than you think.
- Appreciate frequently. The little things mean a lot to employees who have few interactions with their manager or colleagues. Show appreciation for good work and recognize employees who deliver what you need. “Thank you” and “I appreciate you” go a long way (and don’t cost a thing).
- Schedule more personal touchpoints. Especially when there are fewer in-person touchpoints, you need to plan for more regular personal communication with employees.
- Make sure supervisors know their role to lead through communication and set them up for success. Reinforce the role of the supervisor and their communication expectations. Set them up for success with training and tools, so they have the right communication cadence in place and can deliver messages with confidence and impact.
An internal communications plan is necessary for many reasons and the necessity has only grown with the changing workplace dynamics and employee demands. Some of the benefits include:
- Provides a clear roadmap for consistently communicating with employees, so they feel informed about goals for your organization, or a specific initiative, so they can take action and help achieve those goals;
- Defines what internal communications strategies are important to focus on, how and when they’ll be implemented, and how they’ll be measured to demonstrate value and impact to the business;
- Keeps the internal communications team focused and guides their efforts, so they’re spending their time on the right things that are most important to the business in a most efficient and effective way;
- Enables important conversations and engagement with business leaders and partners about internal communication strategies that can best deliver on key business needs and opportunities; and
- Helps communications team plan and deliver value. Communication teams are stretched thin and planning helps you focus team efforts on what the business needs (and values) most and secure the time, talent, and resources needed to get the job done.
Think of a great internal communications plan as your roadmap for how to take your communications forward, so you can move employees to action, drive value for your organization, and demonstrate strategic impact.
Are you ready to create your own Communication Plan?
Download this free Communication Plan Template, which aligns with the content in this post, to guide you.
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