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Communications Planning: A Step-By-Step Guide

This news item is the third in a 10-part series on public health communication. This installment focuses on how to develop a communications plan.

This news item is the third in a 10-part series on public health communication. This installment focuses on how to develop a communications plan.

May 20, 2013

You probably spend a lot of time planning for public health programs. This kind of framework allows you to prepare in advance and track successes and failures.

How, when, and where you communicate your public health message requires planning too. Not all situations should be treated equally—a flu epidemic is different from the development of a smoking cessation campaign. Yet, both circumstances benefit from a comprehensive plan that ensures all opportunities are maximized and that your brand standards are not compromised.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation created a communications plan template that can be used in most situations. To better understand what this would look like in practice, let’s consider a scenario:

Current data suggests childhood obesity is a growing problem in your county, and sugar-loaded beverages (sodas, sugary juices) are clearly contributing to the problem.

1. Determine Goal: Outline a specific, tangible goal that will become the framework of your plan. In this case, you may want to reduce sugar-loaded beverage consumption among children, thereby reversing childhood obesity trends. This goal may require reaching children, but also parents and caretakers, schools, and family clinicians.

2. Identify and Profile Audience: Who are the different people in your target audience? How do they like to receive information? What are their beliefs about sugary beverages, and whom do they trust? It is important to understand how perspectives and needs may differ among your audiences. For instance, parents may also consume sugary beverages. Teachers and principals may be uninterested without school board involvement. Family clinicians may not know how to articulate these issues to patients.

3. Develop messages: To help choose a message, identify a few options within your team and then solicit feedback from your audiences about which ones resonate with them. This can be done formally or informally, through key-informant interviews or focus groups. Then, pick one clear directive, and stick to it. You might decide, in this situation, that you want to educate parents about alternate beverage options like milk and water with the tagline “Don’t stop at pop.”

4. Select communications channels: Consider all of the possible venues for outreach, and select the options that make the most sense for this message and its audience. An ad or an article in the school bulletin may be more effective than a similar placement in the local newspaper because it targets parents specifically.

5. Choose activities and materials: Are there existing events in place where you can reach your key audience? Do you want to attend a radio show or hold a press conference? What materials (brochures, fliers, posters) would help support this activity? A small flier might help spread your message at a PTA meeting, and a poster might be more useful at a book fair.

6. Establish partnerships: Partner with people who can help spread your message.You might be able to receive support from diabetes organizations, a group of concerned physicians, a school board, and even grocery vendors.

7. Implement the plan: Once you’ve selected your activities, develop tactical goals. Assign dates, materials, budget, and staff to help achieve those goals. For instance, on May 23, your communications director will attend a school board meeting and give a testimony. You have identified John Doe and Jane Smith from the local newspaper to cover the event. You will bring 100 brochures that cost $.25 each to design and print.

8. Evaluate and make mid-course corrections: How will you know if your plan is working? You want to think of evaluation measures prior to starting your campaign so you have a baseline for outcomes. It might be useful to track soda sales in schools or survey parents before and after implementation.

This method can be used and modified to fit nearly every situation, and it will help your outreach be more robust and organized.

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