As the new year approaches, our team’s thoughts turn to annual planning – identifying business priorities for the year ahead and developing strategic communications plans to address them.

But at a time when research, audience insights, and Big Data are hot topics among communications and marketing leaders, the surprising fact is that some companies still don’t have strategic communications plans. In some cases, communications plans exist but they fail to connect with business or brand objectives or to specify measurable goals.

Six bad things can happen when you don’t have a plan.

  1. Your most valuable resources – your time, effort and creativity – are expended on tactical activity – tasks, projects, news announcements, etc. – with no connection to over-arching brand or business goals. You and your team may be working hard – but to what end?
  2. Without a strategic plan that includes clear quantifiable, measurable goals – goals that leaders have bought into as part of the planning process – you have no objective measure of success, no way of demonstrating results, value and performance, other than tactical indicators like media impressions.
  3. When you lack a plan connecting your activities with specific business goals, you can make no case for resources – head count, hires, the support of outside consultants and counselors. If your team has demonstrated performance against measurable objectives in the past, it’s easier to make the case for what you need. But without a plan that has earned senior leader support, it will be easy for the Finance Department to say no to your budget request.
  4. Without the discipline of a true strategic planning process, with tools such as SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, customer insights and in-depth looks over the competitive, policy and regulatory horizon, you’re more likely to miss forces that could have a major impact (good or bad) on your business or brand.
  5. Without a thoughtful process that leads to a plan, you won’t be at the table for meaningful engagement with senior leaders about brand or business goals, strategy and direction, making it less likely they will see you as a business partner and more likely you’ll be viewed as a communications tactician.
  6. The communications team will be less prepared, without a plan, to navigate volatile times. The past year has seen extraordinary events – the war in Ukraine, soaring energy costs, record-breaking inflation, supply chain issues, the possible start of recessions in the U.S. and Europe, and tensions with China, to name a few. Smart communications strategists bring foresight to the planning process so that companies and brands are ready for foreseeable events and some that can’t be foreseen.

A strategic communications plan should start with brand or business goals and work backward from there to explain how the function will help to ensure the goals are achieved, with objectives that are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. The plan should detail roles, responsibilities, accountabilities and timeline, and should make the case for the resources required to achieve the goals. The process also should include “what if” scenario planning to address unexpected developments.

What are five important factors for successful strategic communications planning? Great question.