The Difference Between A Communication Strategy And Plan, And Why You Need Both
Without the right approach to a communication strategy and plan, your efforts might end up in the dustbin, with you back at the drawing board.
While great design, web and writing elements on their own make up the individual building blocks of a communication strategy, at best they give marginal support to the core message, while at worst they take away and distract from the focus.
Developing and deploying an integrated communication strategy and plan, is what gives context and meaning to the physical expressions of your message. It frames every piece of graphic, copy and online interaction into a cohesive whole, sending a singular clear and creative message.
If writing and design are the building blocks, crafting a clear strategy and plan is the foundation of your communications.
You might have noticed that I keep referring to both a communication strategy and a plan. That is because they are two very seperate tools in your communication arsenal. Understanding the similarities, but more importantly, the differences between each, will help you to conceptualise them more effectively, and commission them more efficiently in the world.
Here’s a couple of reasons why its important to differentiate between a strategy and a plan, especially in the context of corporate communications.
Firstly, while I understand that it might come down to mere semantics for some, we work in an industry where words matter. Taking the time to understand the need, nature and niche application for both a strategy and a plan, will make sure you can initially craft a message, and eventually create the mediums for consistent communication success.
Then, increased complexity in the areas of communication, public relations and marketing have forced the categories of a strategy and plan into two similar but seperate directions. Having a firm grasp on each will enable every serious communications architect to seamlessly navigate the nuances of the modern target audience.
Finally, as we grow deeper in our understanding of our craft, we must develop increased capacity for the subtle differences in application. Just like the clichéd story of the Eskimo’s and their 50 words for snow, we need to stretch our vocabularly when it comes to expressing the intricate science of that which takes up so much of our time and attention.
Through our work in communications over the years, we have slowly but surely figured out the differences between a strategy and a plan. Going through the thinking process in putting our learnings to paper, has helped us in understanding it more clearly, and enabled us to develop it with more clarity. With the help of other experts and communication thought leaders, mixed in with our own experiences, here is what we have learned.
A communication strategy is a solution to move from where you are now to where you want to be — or put another way, it is what you want to happen to achieve a specific end. A strategy is a type of solution that deals with uncertainty. It raises the probability that we will reach our destination in good form, and it does so mostly by creating the conditions that favor success.
It includes statements of intent, is purposefully unspecific, and speaks to the overall direction.
A communication plan, on the other hand, deals with the specifics at hand. It is a programme, scheme or arrangement for a very definite purpose. It is concrete in nature and doesn’t allow for deviation. At its most basic, a communication plan is a written account of an intended future course of action, aimed at achieving a specific goal within a predetermined timeframe.
When comparing a strategy and a plan, we see that our strategy helps us understand what it is we want to do, and our plan lays out how we will practically go about doing it.
As you see, in the areas of communication architecture and design, being intentional with both your strategy and plan, is absolutely crucial in making sure your organisation communicates effectively [through a strategy] and efficiently [with a plan].
Now that we’ve talked through the overarching characteristics of a strategy and plan, let’s zoom into some of the main differences, and how they work together to create a complete communication campaign.
- A strategy is about high level thinking; a plan is about ground level execution. For the most part, a communication strategy should not be drafted by the communication team in isolation, but preferably with the close input of the top level management of an organisation. On the other hand, the specific plans for seperate communication projects should be left to the specialists in those areas. Understanding the levels at which each of these tools gets developed and deployed, will make for healthy boundaries and a happy workforce.
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” — General George S Patton.
- A strategy is flexible; a plan is fixed. Whereas a strategy points us in a general direction, a plan acts as a detailed step-by-step guide. Confusing the flexibility of a strategy with the steadfastness of a plan, will most definitely lead to communication confusion and end up derailing the whole process. Good advice would be to remind the team to hold back with the specifics when strategising, and encourage them to focus on the practicalities when planning.
- A strategy answers the question of ‘why’ and ‘what’; a plan answers the question of ‘how’. As mentioned above, understanding the application of each specific action will helps us to manufacture and monitor it at the best level. Constantly remind yourself of the purpose of either the strategy or plan, so as not to get too far of course and muddy the communication waters.
- A strategy is ongoing until review, a plan is based on the timeframe for a specific project or season. Trying to put a deadline to a communication strategy is akin to fitting the proverbial square peg into the round hole. The strategy is how we do everything all of the time, while a plan is what we’re going to do before a certain time. While our strategy might determine that we ‘communicate within the boundaries of our style and tone guides’, our plan might show that we plan to ‘complete the first draft and review of a blog post by next week Friday’. Although a timeframe and deadline makes no sense in the former, it creates direction and urgency in the latter.
- A plan exists exclusively in the context of a strategy, as a process exists exclusively in the context of a plan. Although we haven’t talked about processes yet, they act as yet another level of ‘planning’ your communications output. On a more granular level, the communication plan might need some specific steps or sequences to be laid out, which we then refer to as processes. Without a plan, constant processing will bog down and quickly incapacitate the communication effort, while consistent planning without the broader context of a strategy, will lead to misdirected and reactionary communications. First determine the strategy that serves the business goals, then draft the plan that supports the strategy, then fix the processes that enables the plan.
If we allow our strategies and plans to blur into each other, we run the risk of distracting our audiences with confusing messages, being infinately more busy than productive, while constantly talking to our audiences, but never actually communicating anything of value that can catalyze meaningful change.
Alternatively, as we learn more about the differing applications for communication strategies and plans, we can produce and practice them for the continued benefit of our organisations. Leading up and guiding the visionary, business, financial and administrative expressions of our teams into clearer understanding of strategies, plans and processes, as well as to how they translate in a communication context, will pay huge dividens as we strive to better understand our organisation’s identity and purpose, and consistently communicate it with creativity and clarity.
This article stands on the shoulders of those who have done great research and writing on the subject before. Go and give them a read as well.
If you’re ready to take practical steps towards improving your corporate communications, whether it includes strategies, plans or processes — make sure to subscribe below, or even better, contact us directly for some hands-on guidance. We have also developed a simple but effective communication framework that will enable your organisation to build meaningful [read: profitable!] and sustainable connections with all stakeholders. It is yours for free, if you’re interested.
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