Communications Planning For Research Projects - Contributions Program for Non-profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations

Overview

A communications plan is the fundamental document that will guide and shape your public communications activities and your public profile. A good communications plan to announce the results of a project will give you and your team the focus it needs to have clear messages about the project, while at the same time, build both visibility and credibility for your organization. Depending on the scope of the project, the communications plan can be very simple, only a page or two in length.

What is a communications plan?

A communications plan is similar to a roadmap, outlining where you are and where you want to go, from a communications perspective. It will outline the entire process of communicating to your target audience, from identifying objectives to evaluating the outcomes. A good communications plan will also articulate your organization's overall goals with respect to the specific project being undertaken.

Getting Started

There are five steps that go into the development of a successful communications plan:

  • understanding the objectives of the project;
  • understanding the target audiences and how to reach them;
  • determining key messages and key materials to be produced;
  • deciding on tactics, budgeting and timelines ; and
  • establishing an evaluation mechanism to measure success.

The Plan

The key steps to drafting a plan are as follows:

1. Establishing Objectives

Communications objectives are the beginning of any communications effort. They can be quite specific (we want our story on the front page of the Globe and Mail), or very broad (we would like to increase awareness of this issue).

The objectives will state the overall communications objectives for the project. These might include such objectives as:

  • to increase consumer awareness on the issue amongst the general public
  • to alert the research community of your findings
  • to increase public visibility for the organization
  • to positively influence media, customers/clients/donors, and other audiences

Setting your objectives before starting any communications effort is essential because they guide and develop the other elements of your plan. These objectives should be reflective of the project objectives you outlined when you first began work on the overall project . You want to make the results of the project available to the largest possible related audience.

You will also want to consider how your objectives can be measured. You will want to evaluate the success of your project. For example, to measure 'increase public visibility for your organization', a media analysis could measure the amount and type of media pick-up received during the announcement period of your project. High pick-up would indicate success. Also, by thinking about these measurements now you can consider taking baseline measurements or when choosing tactics and materials you can think about how they will help you measure your success.

2. Choosing Target Audiences

It is crucial to understand who you want to reach with your communications efforts. Start by listing all the audiences that your organization might want to contact, attempt to influence, or serve. Included on your list may be:

  • members /donors
  • federal and other levels of governments
  • the media
  • consumers
  • researchers/academics
  • employees

Reaching a small targeted audience may be as simple as sending a letter or email with the project results to all the individuals in the group. However, each audience is different and they require specialized tactics and distribution strategies.

If you intend to reach any audience through the media, which should be one of the goals of the communications plan, you will need some understanding of what they like, what they need, and how to write an effective news release.

Keep your objective in mind when choosing your target audiences, especially if you do not have sufficient resources to reach all of your listed audiences effectively.

3. Key Messages

Key messages are the fundamental points you would want everyone to know about your project. Three to five key messages are usually sufficient.

The first step, therefore, is to determine the key messages while thinking about what tools will be used to share those messages with your target audience. If, for example, your target audience includes researchers, your key messages must be targeted to them, and the tactics and tools you will then select to reach them would be chosen to best deliver those messages. For example, you may want to be included in their newsletters or other communication vehicles they use to reach their target audiences. Designing articles they could include in their publications might, therefore, be one tool you could consider developing. That "multiplier effect" gets your messages out far and wide.

You will want to see the messages in every story about this project or in speeches you may give to interested parties, or every time you meet with a potential "multiplier". You should repeat them frequently in every setting about your project.

4. Tactics, Materials, Timeline and Budget

Once objectives, audiences and key messages have been established you can decide how you will reach the audience –what tactics and materials you will use, what will be the budget and what is the timeline. A tactic could be anything from a news conference, to meeting with politicians.

The tactics to be considered include such ideas as:

  • news conference
  • media releases and advisories
  • media kits for distribution
  • meeting with editorial boards
  • letters to the editor
  • speeches
  • online communications
  • direct mailing the reports to key individuals
  • many others

These tactics are the tools you will undertake to share the news about the results of your project. You have already begun thinking about these while creating your key messages. There are several different ways to undertake this work, and it is as important as the research work for the project itself. Picking the right tactic is important — news conferences, for example, are typically held only for major news events, and your report may not qualify.

The key materials are the products and efforts you'll be drafting and undertaking to support your communications activities, for example report covers, or other graphical elements. Plan to support the project with ongoing communications activities over a period of time to a number of stakeholders — it doesn't have to be just one news release.

Some materials to be considered:

  • editorials or articles for periodicals, newsletters
  • online communications such as emails
  • meeting and conference materials
  • communication vehicles with employees and board members
  • annual reports
  • signage
  • speeches
  • posting information on your website

Establishing a timeline for your communications plan is also important, because when you plan to communicate is as important as what you plan to communicate. For example, the pre-Christmas period is always a good time to talk about consumer issues, because of the retail sales focus for many news stories. Try to avoid peak media times when large events or announcements are made, for example Government budget or elections. Your timeline should also include all of the internal steps and approvals you will require before releasing your information publicly.

Finally, budgeting is important for all communications projects. While many assume public relations is free, there will be costs associated with producing materials, with setting up brochures and media kits, and with updating websites, among others. Establishing a budget will help you understand the full range of requirements for announcing your project and underlines to your colleagues in the organization that communications is an important activity that takes resources and the commitment of staff time.

5. Evaluation

With those other elements established, it is important to understand how success will be measured. Your evaluation might take the form of:

  • a media analysis
  • a monthly report on work in progress
  • formalized program reports for presentation at staff meetings
  • periodic briefings of the Board President, Board Members
  • a year-end summary for the annual report

The key is to understand that evaluation helps you know what worked and what did not in your communications activities. While the evaluation stage is often neglected, it will help you report to your board, to your coworkers, and to other stakeholders on your effort. The important thing to remember is that communications efforts are not a one-time effort — instead, your evaluation may help you refocus your story for a second effort or a future project.

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The Executive Summary

Overview

Reports should feature a well-crafted, well-written executive summary.

Executive summaries go by different names. An executive summary may be an abstract, a designation usually used in scientific papers and journal articles.

An executive summary should preview the main points of the document it summarizes. Mainly, it should give non-technical people, or those casually interested in a topic, a good overview of the main report. The executive summary should be drafted with that audience in mind, and should follow some basic rules.

Summarize More Than Four Pages

You should plan to create a summary each time you write a report exceeding four pages. The summary should be the last thing you write, and it should not be more than 1/10 th the length of the main report. Just remember, however, that executive summaries of more than two pages are becoming too long for the non-technical reader, so try to edit with a sharp pen.

Respect the Sequence of the Main Report

You need to follow the same order as the report in the summary, so if your first chapter is "Protecting Consumer Information," and chapter two is "Privacy Laws in Canada," then you can't address the points from Privacy Laws first in the summary.

Simplify

Each of your main points can be written as a simple, declarative sentence. You can add supporting information to the main points, but you should not introduce complicated technical material or jargon.

Have Someone Else Review It to Find Out If It Works

Ask a non-expert to read the document, and provide feedback.

Tips for Writing an Executive Summary

Keep the main points in mind as you write the summary. If there's one main idea in the report, your executive summary should make that point crystal clear for readers, and make it up front.

You should lead with the most compelling statement of why this (report, study, guide, document) matters. This sentence (or two) will set the tone for the rest of the executive summary. It should be direct and specific, not abstract and conceptual.

Keep your language strong and positive. Instead of writing, "Our agency might be in an excellent position to increase the impact of its communications", write "Our agency will increase the impact of its communications … "

The executive summary is short and to the point. This is not the time to add new arguments, new ideas to the report.

Read it aloud. Does it flow or does it sound choppy? Is it clear and succinct?

Tailor the executive summary of your document to your audience. If the purpose of your report is to entice funders, for instance, your executive summary should focus on the results your organization achieves and why investing in your efforts is appropriate.

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Outline for an executive summary

An Executive Summary has several main components. The executive summary answers the questions who, what, when, where, why and how. Keep in mind to follow the order of items in the report as you answer these questions.

Introduction

What is the most important point of the project?

Purpose

What does this report mean to the audience? What role is this information/study/etc. filling?

Target Audience

Who does this matter to? Who will benefit? How?

Differentiator

What's the main idea in this report/document? What will the reader read/know after going through the report?

Goals and Objectives

Why did we do this? What were we hoping to accomplish, and did we?

Who Are We

Information about the organization who wrote the report/document, and the organization that commissioned it.

The news release

Overview

Before drafting and issuing a news release, start with some basic information that will help you understand the reasons for a news release, and how this primary external communications vehicle should be used.

What is a news release?

A news release is a way to inform media of a matter of interest that has an impact for their readers and/or listeners. Obviously, it will concern your organization, but the news release should demonstrate to an editor or reporter why the report, event or argument matters to the readers or viewers of the publication or program. It is usually written in third person.

How is a news release used?

News releases are often sent alone, by e-mail or fax to news editors. They can also be part of a full press kit. They should also be posted on your organization's website so that media, and other interested parties, can have easy access to them and can see what kinds of public communication your organization is putting forward. Archiving your old news releases on your website is also a way to keep track of past announcements.

What should be in a news release?

Lead with the important news you may want to announce first: you have undertaken a project, funded with assistance from the Contributions Program for Non-Profit and Voluntary Organizations, and why the results of this project are newsworthy. Thinking about how you can make this announcement interesting for media can be an effective method for deciding on the lead content of your news release.

Start by asking yourself questions you would use to explain this to others outside your organization:

  • what will it change in your organization?
  • what would actually be the direct impact on the marketplace? What contribution does this project make to consumers?
  • do you have a concrete example to give?
  • what is unique about your project or announcement?

Typical topics for a news release include announcements of new funding, results from a research project, the receipt of an award, the publishing of a study or the launch of a new Web site. The tone is neutral and objective. Avoid directly addressing the consumer or you target audience. The use of "I", "we" and "you" outside of a direct quotation is a flag that your copy is an advertisement rather than a news release. The second paragraph usually includes the who, what, when, where and how of the story. The following paragraphs serve to provide detail and back up claims made in the headline and lead. Usually, the final paragraph of a traditional news release contains the least newsworthy material. Each element of the news release is explained in more detail below.

The standard news release is 300 to 800 words and written in a word processing program that checks spelling and grammar before release.

News release headline

The reporter usually is not interested in helping you make money or driving visitors to your site. He's looking for a story that will be interesting to his readers and pleasing to his editor. He wants to know only the information that will help him craft a good story about consumer protection.

Look at your story with a cold, objective eye.

For the news release headline, state the most exciting news, finding or announcement in as few words as possible. Emulate the headlines you see in the newspaper every day.

Bad News Release Headline:
(Your organisation name) Releases a report

Good News Release Headline:
New research on how consumers shop on-line

The News release subhead

Subheads are remarkably useful tools, yet usually overlooked by news release writers. Basically, the news release subhead gives you the opportunity to flesh out your angle and further hook the reporter, without taking away from the news release headline.

Here's a headline/subhead example you may use for a news release:

New research on how consumers shop on-line
Consumers face new barriers to shopping on-line

The news release lead

The lead sentence contains the most important information in 25 words or less. Simply state the news you have to announce. Do not assume that your reader has read your headline or summary paragraph, the lead should stand on its own, just the facts.

The second paragraph

This paragraph should include the who, what, when, where and how of the story. If the reporter were only to read the beginning of a good news release, he would have everything he needed to get started.

The rest of the news release

The balance of the news release serves to back up whatever claims were made in the lead and headline. In this case, you would use some quotes from the key organization members, researchers or government officials. The quote should be strong enough to support what you stated in your lead. It should make a case for your news story.

A quote will help put emphasis on the research:

"This is unique research on the constraints web consumers face, as Canadians shop securely online," Francis Black, CEO of your organization, said.

The news release on your project must include the following statement somewhere in the body of the text:

(Your organization's name) received funding from Industry Canada's Contributions Program for Non-Profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations.  The views expressed in the report are not necessarily those of Industry Canada or the Government of Canada.

Finally, your news release should end with a short paragraph that describes your organization, what it does and a short statement of its history. If you are filing a joint news release, include a boilerplate for both organizations.

Note: The – 30 – sign marks the end of the news release.

Place your boilerplate right above the – 30 –.

Below the – 30 –, add a line that indicates which person the media should contact if they need more information about your release. It could be written as below:

Contact:

Name, Title
Your Organization

Phone Number
Email Address

URL of Your Organization

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Tips for writing a news release

The following information will assist you when writing a news release. A well crafted news release captures the attention of journalists and is optimized for distribution over the Internet, through e-mail and over specialized network feeds.

Is your news "newsworthy?" The purpose of a news release is to inform the world of your news item. Do not use your news release to seek donations or make a sale. A good news release answers all of the "W" questions (who, what, where, when and why), providing the media with useful information about your organization, research field, announcement or event.

Start strong. Your headline and lead should tell the story. The rest of your news release should provide the detail. You have a matter of seconds to grab your readers' attention.

Write for the media. On occasion, media outlets, especially online media, will pick up your news release and run it in their publications with little or no modification. More commonly, journalists will use your news release as a base for a larger feature story. In either case, try to develop a story as you would like to have it told. Even if your news is not reprinted verbatim, it may provide an acceptable amount of exposure.

Not everything is news. Your excitement about something does not necessarily mean that you have a newsworthy story. Think about your audience. Will someone else find your story interesting? Make sure your announcement has some news value, such as timeliness, uniqueness or something truly unusual. Focus on the aspects of your news item that truly set you apart from everyone else.

Does your news release illustrate? Use real life examples about how your organization research has an impact on Canadian consumers. Give examples of how it will impact their daily activities. What benefits can be expected? Use real life examples to powerfully communicate the benefits of your research.

Stick to the facts. Avoid embellishments and exaggerations. Journalists are naturally sceptical. If your story sounds too good to be true, you are probably hurting your own credibility.

Pick an angle. Try to make your news release timely. Tie your news to current events or social issues if possible. Make sure that your story has a good news "hook".

Use active, not passive, voice. Verbs in the active voice bring your news release to life. Rather than writing "entered into a partnership" use "partnered" instead.

Economy of words . Use only enough words to tell your story. Avoid using unnecessary adjectives, flowery language, or redundant expressions such as "added bonus" or "first time ever". Wordiness distracts from your story. Keep it concise. Make each word count.

Beware of jargon. While a limited amount of jargon will be required if your goal is to optimize your news release for online search engines, the best way to communicate your news is to speak plainly, using ordinary language. Jargon is language specific to certain professions or groups and is not appropriate for general readership.

Avoid the hype. The exclamation point (!) is your enemy. If you must use an exclamation point, use one.

Get permission. Governments and companies are very protective about their reputation. Be sure that you have written permission before including information or quotes from employees or affiliates of other companies or organizations.

Outline for a news release

News Release

NEW RESEARCH REVEALS HOW CONSUMERS SHOP ON-LINE

Consumers face new barriers to shopping on-line

CITY, PROVINCE, DATE OF RELEASE – [Your organization's name] today released "XXXXXXXX," new research on how consumers shop on-line.

The research, a direct result of funding received from the Office of Consumer Affairs of Industry Canada, presents a portrait of the Canadian online shopping experience and outlines the efforts online consumers must undertake to protect themselves and their information.

"This research has been the focus of our work for the past (time period)," declared [NAME, TITLE].

Among the key findings in the report are the following:

  • Bullet one
  • Bullet two
  • Bullet three

The research is available online at _______________.

About [Your organization's name]

Your boilerplate here

(Your organization's name) received funding from Industry Canada's Contributions Program for Non-Profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations. The views expressed in the report are not necessarily those of Industry Canada or the Government of Canada.

– 30 –

Contact:

[NAME, TITLE]
[Organization name] [Phone number]
[ EMAIL ADDRESS ]

URL of your Organization ]