February 21, 2022
Internal Communications Plan: 7-Step Strategy and Template
Written by: David Grossman
One of the biggest lessons organizations learned during the pandemic crisis, and now as we navigate the “Great Resignation,” is the importance of having authenticity, empathy and humanity as we lead and communicate in the workplace. It’s one of the lessons I often try to reinforce with organizations, but there’s nothing like a crisis within an organization – and throughout the world – to drive the point home.
One of the bright spots, especially in the early days of the pandemic and surrounding events of social unrest, was that we saw leaders and communication professionals step up to the plate like never before. We saw the kind of focus and prioritization that most often happens in a crisis – ensuring that communication was timely, focused and clearly addressed the needs and top questions on the minds of employees. Likewise, we saw much more authenticity and humanity from leaders that really resonated with employees.
And while a crisis often forces organizations to adjust their communications plans, it also reinforces the need to have a plan in the first place. That may sound basic but all too often, we find that internal communications departments don’t have clear plans in place.
Now, as we face the new realities of workplaces that will be different and continue to change as well as employees whose expectations for organizations have ratcheted up, trying to navigate without a thoughtful internal communications plan is more ill-advised than ever.
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 together then work effectively with one voice for an organization.
Internal Communication Planning Best Practices
Keep in mind that a strong internal communication plan is never just a list of tactics. Instead, the tactics should be part of the overall plan and should reflect what you’re going to do to achieve your 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, but the fundamental goals and vision for communication needs to be weaved into the plan.
As you dive into your internal communications planning, consider the 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. As we’ve learned in helping scores of organizations develop plans, here’s what we’ve seen as the most obvious results from a great plan:
- Turn a strategy into action, such as helping to reduce safety incidents, engaging employees around diversity and inclusion initiatives, or healthcare and well-being concerns
- Help employees with a change
- Address important industry issues
- Inform employees on sensitive topics
Any time you have a lot to say, think about having a communication plan to orchestrate how best to say it with your audience 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. However, whatever your communication need, these seven steps can serve as a framework as you develop your plan.
Step 1: Summarize the Situation
Provide a situation overview and what’s prompting the need for communications. Mapping the current situation, considering business needs and talking to key stakeholders can 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 what’s currently being done to address the issue.
It’s situations like this that signal when a communication plan is necessary.
Step 2: Determine Your Desired Outcome
We spend a good amount of time talking with our clients and 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 have people say, “We want to produce an email message, or we’re thinking about a newsletter or video.” We always caution teams when they answer this way because those are just the tactics. What they really need to start with is the answer to this simple question: What do you want to achieve for the business? Once you know that, you can then decide what communication tactic is best suited to achieve that business goal.
Here’s the two-step process we suggest you walk through to identify your critical outcomes:
- 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 and better safety and quality performance? Is it to increase order fill or to create a behavior change among employees?
Ensure You 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), their mindsets (where they’re coming from on the topic you’re communicating) and consider what you want them to think, feel and do as a result of your communication with them. That will help you focus and, when necessary, adapt your message for different audience segments.
Audience types may be a specific business unit, senior executives, sales teams (national/regional or local) shareholders, employee affiliate groups or people leaders. Depending on your organization and industry, additional audience types may range from physicians and nurses if you’re in the medical field, and call center employees if you have a large customer service department to plant employees if you’re in manufacturing.
Consider using a template like this to outline relevant audience types and what you what them each to think, 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.
Example Audience types
What I want them to Think
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. Remember to keep it to about three messages (that’s usually all that people can retain!). Then consider supporting points to reinforce those key messages. Are there 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 communications? Think 5 Ws and an H to ensure you’re not missing an important detail, sharing the all-important context, and making it relevant for your audience.
- What - What’s the decision? What does it mean? What should I know? What’s in it for me?
- Why - Why is it the right decision? Why now? Why is it important?
- 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 “what” first and then the “why.” 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
- 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, be sure to 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.
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. Now’s the time to identify your internal communications strategies – in other words, how you’ll approach communicating with your audiences. In this step, you’ll also outline specifically which channels and tactics to use to reach your audience and connect with the key messages.
Very often communicators are asked to jump right into producing materials and delivering tactics first. After you have defined the business need and set out clear objectives to show how communication can meet this need, you first need to outline what internal communication strategies to use and then which tactics are the most likely to be effective to support those strategies.
Note: It helps to strategize potential tactics and channels as a communications team. Organize a 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.
The channels you choose will depend on what you want to achieve from your communication 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 force or factory workers.
A well-coordinated use of multiple voices and channels will be needed to ensure maximum impact. How much time you have will often dictate which channels you choose.
It’s also important to draw on any employee communication data and insights that already exist in your organization. Look to engagement surveys, channel feedback, and more to help you determine which channels and tactics to use.
Keep in mind these communication best practices:
- Face-to-face communication is best for making a personal connection and overcoming resistance to change.
- 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 needs to be referenced
- Electronic (such as email or an intranet page) works well for those who have frequent access to computers
- 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
- Internal social media is most effective to build a culture of collaboration and rapport among dispersed team members
Think about how frequently you’ll use different channels. 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 will help you explain how you plan to make the internal communication strategies happen. Make each tactic relate back to at least one (if not multiple) strategies. Include key deliverables and prepare to monitor execution.
It’ll be helpful to put them all down onto paper to ensure you aren’t missing any.
Then plot key activities into a high-level calendar so you can see how the communications will unfold throughout the year.
In this section, too, add in any considerations that might negatively or positively impact the success of the implementation, for example: employees have noted in engagement surveys that they prefer small-group meetings to receive information from their managers.
Step 6: 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.
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.
Step 7: Populate Your Communications Calendar
Having a full view of the variety of communications channels and tactics used to implement your plan (and timing to go along with it) will be most effective when you have a project tracker to work from. Look at the year ahead and note which communications will be happening when. That will help ensure you have a consistent cadence of communications, which will contribute to a more informed, engaged workforce.
Use a template like this to map out your action plan (adding as many rows as you need):
Vehicle / Deliverable
Owner / Sender
Bonus: 8 Internal Communication Best Practices for Remote Workers
One of the most important things we’ve learned now that so many people are working remotely is the importance of communicating predictably. As you develop your communication plan, here’s some key things to keep in mind to achieve better communication, particularly when a good portion of your workforce is remote:
- Be planful and strategic about keeping in touch with your team, especially in uncertain times when they may be worried and need 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 and uncertainty, 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, more details. Instead, recognize that there’s a lot more
- 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.
- Schedule more personal touchpoints. Especially when they have fewer in-person touchpoints, you need to plan for more regular personal communication with employees.
- Train supervisors to improve their communication with production teams and remote workers. Planning for this and making it part of your communications plan will go a long way to ensuring that messages get delivered in the right way, through the person with the greatest opportunity to deliver the messages in a personal, effective manner.
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; and
- Enables important conversations and engagement with business leaders and partners about internal communication strategies that can best deliver on key business needs and opportunities.
Think of a great internal communications plan like your roadmap for how to take your communications forward so you can move employees to action.
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.
Tag(s): Internal Communication
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