Setting out the corporate stall

As a new year approaches, is it time to dust down the communications plan?

On the face of it, communications planning doesn’t seem the most exciting part of an in-house corporate communications function. Perhaps it’s a matter of semantics? Or is it dread of endless meetings, spreadsheets and action points? Maybe communications planning just needs an image makeover?

It certainly seems to be a function that some communications heads don’t spend too much time doing themselves, although they agree it is important.

‘I wouldn’t say that comms planning is something that a director of communications does, certainly in larger organisations,’ muses Andrew Brown, director of communications and public affairs at Belgian insurer Ageas. ‘Do I get involved in communications planning? No. But do I get to see and sign off communications plans? Absolutely.’

Delve deeper into what communications planning actual involves and its central role becomes clearer. Wikipedia defines it as ‘the art and science of reaching target audiences, using marketing communications channels,’ adding: ‘It is concerned with deciding who to target, when, with what message, and how.’ Put that way, communications planning begins to look more like an unglamorous engine room of successful public relations initiatives, messaging strategies and engagement exercises?

Paul Lockstone, managing director of corporate affairs at Barclaycard, rejects that label. ‘I wouldn’t say it’s not glamorous,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing more glamorous that seeing your brand being out there in the marketplace and getting talked about in a positive way.

‘It’s hard work but communicators get a kick from seeing the impact their work has had.’ Communications planning starts, according to Nigel Fairbrass, director of media at security group G4S, with allowing corporate communications departments access to the strategic thinking and objective-setting taking place at the top of businesses. He says: ‘Communications planning should be part of the wider business planning process. Too often, communications is not in the room, either because it doesn’t understand the business enough to make a strategic contribution or its appreciation of the operating environment lacks the authority and scientific rigour to influence decision-making.

‘Without a seat at the table, communications inevitably becomes reactionary and plans become activity-focused rather than outcome driven.’

Fairbrass believes communications planning should be considered as a natural extension of a company’s wider reputation strategy. To serve a business fully, he says it needs to rely on clear answers to simple questions about the current position of the company or a division of it, where it needs to be in order to grow sustainably and what its strategy is for getting there.

Michael Moruzzi, head of corporate affairs at consumer watchdog Which?, unpacks this further, arguing that every communications plan needs to address five important elements. He believes that communications planning is firstly about objectives, or what the plan is trying to achieve? Then it’s about the audience, who is in it and who you need to reach to achieve your stated objective.

After that, communications planners need to have a comprehensive understanding of the business or group strategy and a simple and clear overview of how they are going to implement it. From there, it is about the key messaging that you want to push across your channels and finally a timeline needs to be put together, detailing when things need to happen internally and any external hooks that you want to utilise.

It is Moruzzi’s fifth stage that Brown believes causes a great deal of confusion about communications planning within companies.

‘The difficulty is that quite a lot of organisations don’t have a plan,’ he says. ‘They have a communications calendar. It’s a list of things they are doing at certain times of the year but that’s not a plan and if you haven’t got a plan, how do you know what you’re doing?’

Ed Watson, head of communications at online retail group N Brown, also argues that mere calendar planning, by its very nature, is a restrictive discipline, especially for quoted companies who must obey strict City rules about when they can and cannot communicate.

‘In the City, you have a set calendar detailing when public companies are allowed to communicate, but I think that you also have to really look outside those slots,’ he says. ‘Communication has to be constant. If you’re challenging perceptions of a brand or establishing some new perceptions, it’s very much an approach of drip, drip, drip. You need to stick at it to get traction.’

For campaigns, probably the most common focus of communications planning, Moruzzi says plenty of time should be built in from the start. ‘Give yourself enough time to implement it,’ he advises. ‘The earlier you start to plan the easier it will be to develop any ideas for creative content against deadlines. It’s also important to prioritise, so focus on those moments that are most important to your brand. A communications plan should shape how an organisation or individual wants to communicate on any given bit of planned activity, whether that’s a new story that you’ve created, a big external hook, an event, or anything else important to your brand.’

Which?, for example, has a dedicated communications planning function to guide the overall communications strategy and make sure it speaks with one voice on its big priorities. ‘When we get all channels firing together we can have a much greater impact,’ explains Moruzzi. ‘A good example of this was during our Rail Refunds campaign, when we combined our own editorial research with broadcast and print media coverage, social media, events, email and campaigns to help us reach a much wider audience on our chosen day of impact.

‘Our story was running on BBC News, our campaign was trending on Twitter and we had MPs joining our staff at key commuter train stations. This was an important moment in our campaign to get passengers the refunds they deserve for delayed trains.’

Barclaycard’s Lockstone says integration is vital at cross-departmental levels too, within businesses and at operational level between sister companies in large groups. ‘You can’t plan in isolation, whatever your business is and whatever you’re trying to achieve,’ he says. ‘My starting point would be to make sure that you’re aligned to your broader stakeholder base and that whatever you’re planning to do reflects the ambitions, aims of and operational priorities of the business.

‘Then, internally, you need to have a very clear understanding of where the business is going strategically and where its operational short-term focus is in relation to product development, colleague engagement, political and regulatory relationships. ‘It comes down to spending time with your team, understanding what internal resources are available and required and making sure that you’re integrated well not only with your stakeholders but with other parts of your group.

‘Barclaycard is a very important part of Barclays but it’s only one part of the group. Our corporate, investment and retail banks all have their own communications plans so our planning also needs to reflect, wherever possible, what’s happening in those operations.

‘Internal alignment is just as important as external alignment. Barclays has something similar to air traffic control meetings at a group level so that we can keep track of all the activity going on across the business. ‘

We try to ensure that we’re not making major announcements at the same time or communicating something internally in one business at a time when something else is being put out externally by the group.’

This can be much trickier than it sounds and brings with it great potential for internal conflict within company departments and group businesses and for communications planning to turn into office politics.

Fairbrass is firm that there needs to be a defined structure governing the flow of information within companies and clear demarcation lines among functions and roles within businesses.

‘It’s the responsibility of the corporate affairs and communications team to advise the other business leaders on what internal and external reputation issues will have a bearing on strategic goals, which issues can be lived with, which mitigated and which do you need to avoid entirely,’ he states. ‘It’s also the role of the corporate affairs team to determine how best to position the business to support the delivery of commercial and strategic priorities.  ‘

In this respect, corporate affairs and communications should embrace the same strictures that apply to other functions in supporting growth, facilitating efficiencies and showing a return on investment.’ The welter of data that is now available to help track the success of such initiatives is clearly helpful in this regard. There are different ways of going about this. Watson advises starting by looking at perceptions of the company or brand among stakeholders, such as the media, analysts and the City, trade unions and customers.

‘Two-way communications with these stakeholders will help set the agenda in terms of the way you need to go,’ he says. ‘You may have internal perceptions of what success is going to look like but you need to make sure it is aligned with your chief executive’s and chairman’s expectations. Then you can build your key messages.’

Fairbrass disagrees. ‘I like to build communications plans around measurable business objectives,’ he says. ‘Some companies still make the mistake of planning around stakeholder groups and asking themselves what their employee, media and investor communications strategy should be but this fails on two counts. It doesn’t shape planning around outcomes, but around relationships, and it ignores the near complete integration of stakeholders into one interconnected mass.

‘Communications planning should reflect inside the business what’s happened outside, so I find that a campaign format lends itself well to creating teams across different stakeholder disciplines who are working to clearly defined, measurable objectives through an integrated plan.’

Communicators unite, however, on the potential for well-executed planning to aid business transformation. Lockstone cites the way that Barclaycard is messaging its work around contactless payment technology as a way of reinforcing the business’s reputation for innovation, having issued the world’s first credit card in 1966.

N Brown, meanwhile, is using communications planning to try to change perceptions of the group from a catalogue retailer to a digital-first retailer with three fashion power brands – Jacamo, JD Williams and Simply Be. Campaigns include efforts to engage with JD Williams’ over-50 age demographic, while Simply Be focuses on size ranges outside the usual size zero-obsessed catwalks and booked a diverse group of plus-sized models to campaign at London Fashion Week under the banner that fashion should be for everybody.

‘It’s about bringing the brands to life but the planning is separate from the messaging,’ says Watson. ‘The messaging is about strategy but the communications planning is about making it happen.’

Lockstone agrees that execution of the plan is vital. ‘It’s also important not to get so focused on strategy that you lose sight of the necessity to deliver operationally and produce outcomes rather than simply outputs,’ he says. ‘It’s better to have an average plan delivered brilliantly than a brilliant plan delivered only averagely.’

Remember that the next time you’re tempted to think that communications planning is boring.