Crafting a Communications Plan that Works
Tips for Writing a Strategic Communications Plan
The funding is in place, design work is complete and your project is finally on
track. Before you break ground, it’s essential that you think
strategically about how you’re going to communicate about the project,
particularly to the local residents and businesses that construction will
affect. It’s not a one-size-fits-all exercise. Strategies and tactics
that may have worked for other projects may not be appropriate for this
project. Again and again, we see the enormous benefit that comes from taking
the time upfront to develop a strategic communications plan that is tailored to
a specific project before the construction begins.
A good strategic communications plan starts with the thorough identification of
who your audience is and what their issues and concerns are. This helps you
anticipate potential stumbling blocks so you can avoid or minimize them before
they occur. Putting a plan in place means key stakeholders, like elected
officials and staff, are never caught unaware of new activities and
developments. Residents are kept informed and have an outlet for their
complaints. Reporters and bloggers understand the project and help you
communicate about it. Having a plan propels you out of reactive mode and puts
you in control of telling your story.
How to get started? Below are some key considerations that will help you
develop an effective strategic plan for communications before, during and after
Set yourself up for success
- Who is “the public?”
Look for the individuals—especially community leaders—in the sea of
faces and understand their distinct needs, fears, issues and opinions. Before
construction begins, it is important to identify and understand not just the
issues, but the values of your stakeholders. To get an accurate picture, this
may involve meeting with stakeholders to discuss their concerns, such as noise
impacts, traffic congestion or safety issues.
- What do they want to know?
Understanding who you’re talking to will inform development of key
messages, which are the most important things you want people to understand
about the project. Key messages should address the community’s
- How do they want to receive the information?
Once you know who you need to inform and what you want to tell them, identify
the best tools to use to communicate. Do you need to set up a Twitter feed?
Contact the media? Write a fact sheet? Develop a speakers’ bureau or hold
- Determine how your team will work together.
When several partners are involved, the communication protocols can become
obscured. Often, when things get busy on a project, internal communications can
break down, which can affect the timeliness or clarity of your external
communications. Defining roles and responsibilities and establishing a
review/approval process and timeline ahead of time keeps the team working
- Be prepared for a crisis.
Plan for worst-case scenarios. Establish the communications framework for
dealing with a crisis. Designate a communications command center to centralize
information both internally and externally. Hold a few drills to practice and
evaluate if your system will work.
See “Best Practices for
Communicating During a Crisis” for additional crisis communication
Communicate effectively during construction
- Establish and maintain credibility.
You want to be who the public and the media turn to first for information. This
requires that you bend over backwards to be available, respond to issues in a
timely manner, thoroughly understand everything about the project (including
the technical aspects) and always do what you say you’re going to
- Proactively tell your story.
In addition to keeping the media up to date, Web and social media technology
enable you to communicate directly with the public. Ways to further bring the
project to life may include showcasing interesting engineering accomplishments,
innovative equipment, or project history; posting photos, video, real-time data
and blog entries to the project website; or providing real-time updates via
- Balance the benefits with the inconvenience.
While it’s important to acknowledge the inevitable inconveniences,
positioning the project in terms of its ultimate benefits to the community goes
a long way to building project support and trust.
- Stay flexible and try to prepare for the unexpected.
Construction projects are dynamic by their very nature. Reacting to issues like
weather delays and anticipating where problems might occur requires that you
constantly adapt your communications strategy throughout the life of the
- Make the media your ally.
Help reporters help you by educating them about the project through
presentations, site tours, and informational materials. When they accurately
understand the project, they can help the public understand the project.
Celebrate project completion
- Reinforce why it was all worthwhile.
The team put in a lot of hard work. The community put up with a lot of
inconvenience. You’ve completed a great project that improves the
area’s mobility. It’s okay to celebrate a little bit.
- Hold an event.
A press conference/community event can be an appropriate way to celebrate and
thank the public for their patience and cooperation. Provide key messages and
develop talking points to help keep speakers on track to make the
project’s legacy clear.
To learn about how one agency implemented a successful strategic communications
plan, please see the companion case
study that documents the closure of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge during
reconstruction in September of 2009.
About the Author
Ben Strumwasser has more than 22 years of experience developing and managing
strategic communications for infrastructure projects. CirclePoint has managed
communications for infrastructure projects including the San Francisco-Oakland
Bay Bridge Seismic Retrofit, Presidio Parkway, and Caldecott Fourth Bore.