Monday, March 18, 2013

Communications Planning

By Virgil R. Carter

How many of you have been ambushed in the communications trap?  I have and it’s often not very pretty.  For example, at a meeting of the respected Past President Committee, and esteemed member says, “This organization does a crappy job of communicating.  I never know what’s going on, except for my annual dues invoice!  What should I renew when this organization can’t communicate any better than that?”  Does this ring a bell?

Of course you have a beautiful 4-color monthly magazine, a wide variety of newsletters or a range of subject, you have a web site, a blog and monthly postings.  And you send emailed and snail mailed communications to members on a regular basis.  When you remind the speaker of this, the response is often “well, I never read any of that stuff”!  It would be funny if it wasn’t so true!

Communications are vitally important.  The challenge is that most associations have a wide range of audience segments.  These segments are interested in some messages (and media) and not others.  This is a case of “I want what I want when I want it (the way I want it).”  There is no simple, single solution for communications with diverse members and customers.  We are not all a size 6, living in one geographical area!

What to do?  One useful proactive tool is creation of an annual communications plan.  Conceived at the outset of each fiscal year, and modified as may be necessary during the year, the plan contains a small number of high priority messages for the year.  For example, the messages might focus on new technical information, strategic priorities, and/or association achievements which improve the value proposition for members and customers. 

A communications plan also includes a schedule of key events and appropriate media to reach desired audience segments during the year.  Your public relations staff can use the communications plan and schedule as the guide for creating messages, presentations and articles throughout the year for volunteer and staff leaders.

For an annual communications plan to work, it must have the understanding and support of senior volunteer leaders, senior executives and communications staff.  These are the folks who will be doing most of the communications during the year.  Volunteer and staff leaders must understand that their individual, personal messages are secondary to the consistent presentation of the important messages from the organization each year.   This is what makes for better, more effective communications which reaches more and more of your important members and customers.

Reaching your members and customers effectively is aided by repetition. Yes, I said repetition!  Repetition enables more audiences to become more aware of and understand important communications. Have you ever wondered why commercials are so repetitive?  One-time messages simply don’t have much impact.
If you want to improve your association’s communications, try working with your volunteer and staff leaders to create an annual communications plan, and update it every year.  And to ensure the plan’s effectiveness, consider an annual communications assessment process with members to see which messages are understood, which media may be more effective, and those that are not. 

An annual communications plan and a communications assessment process are some of the surest ways to reach members and customers—even the members who are challenging to reach and may not read! 

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