Published: 21 August 2015

Forward planning: the air traffic control of comms

Developing a useful and manageable forward planner for integrated comms is still a challenge to most of us. In fact, it's got a lot in common with air traffic control. 

How do you get all those projects circling, landing safely on the right runway in the right place at the right time, avoiding mid-air collisions or crash-landings, and keeping passengers happy? While at the same time delivering the ROI the airline stakeholders demand in line with organisational strategy.

Sound familiar? 

Every airport (OK, charity) is different; resources range from a dedicated planning manager (really!) to a basic Excel sheet. What's important is to build a planner that works for you, your team and the wider organisation.  

Most comms planners will have a chart format including:

  • Comms objectives – maybe also linked organisational objectives
  • Audiences
  • Key activities for comms: news, events, key projects
  • Key activities for other teams: fundraising, public affairs, marketing, operations etc
  • Channels
  • Timeline
  • Metrics – a target, measurement or evaluation method.

And so on. You may want to add key messages, overarching themes, responsible person etc, but it can get unwieldy.

When building your plan, here are some things to consider:

Build on solid foundations

A communications planner is the tactical view of the comms strategy and objectives that support organisational objectives. This sounds obvious but can be frustratingly difficult without the overarching framework. The CharityComms book Make It Matter  has really useful templates for developing objectives, messages and audience/channel plans to help build the full picture.

Plan the journey

Where are you going from and to? How will you know you’ve arrived? If your planner is to coordinate tactical timings and activities, have you built in any measurement at the beginning, middle and end? You might focus on awareness, reach or engagement, but you need to know you’re on track and add the milestones to the plan.

However simple or sophisticated your template – from a spreadsheet to PRINCE2 – plotting in evaluation keeps you on track, and demonstrates the value and professionalism of the team’s work.

Know the landscape

In order to produce a good, integrated plan you need to ensure that the right people are involved and engaged with the planning or they simply won’t see how it fits together. You can’t know everything, so engage other teams and ask what their team plans are. Explain why comms has a forward planner, what it will include and why it will be so useful to them.

Understanding the fundraising and/or marketing plan is essential as it might have been developed with external agencies well in advance, possibly without comms. But it could have a much stronger impact if amplified with PR and social support (if only you'd known).

The outside world has plans too – are they on your radar? Mark key seasonal or cultural dates. What’s happening in your wider sector, in Parliament or globally – are your competitors planning a launch? Suppliers like Foresight or Year Ahead might be useful.

Be seen and heard

Make sure you walk the talk – be a good internal communicator by employing some of the ideas below.

1. Workshop it and co-create, at least once a year 

Get relevant people together – with their own plans – explain the purpose of the comms planner and actively involve them. They can add to your draft, or draw up flipcharts, but the key is to build the bigger picture and I find one-way presentation just doesn’t get the buy in.

2. Share it

If you have an intranet (and it’s used), it's an ideal place to share your external comms planner – colleagues can then check and contribute to it. Visit Melcrum for useful internal comms advice and resources.

An external calendar can show key activities – your own, or other significant events. Ensure you add links to more detailed information.

Be clear on who the owner is. This should be someone who curates and updates it – they should be the key contact. Keep key stakeholders updated so that they come to see it as an ongoing useful resource. 

If you don't have an intranet, use a shared folder or drive for plans and circulate the link. Always work out who has read/write access beforehand. Systems like Yammer provide a more interactive way to collaborate, and Googledocs is a good way to allow multiple users to collaborate in a realtime environment.

3. Champion and use it constantly
Use the planner for a Monday morning update – experience shows it’s really useful to highlight the priority activities of the week ahead. Gather the wider team/division for a 10 minute ‘stand-up’ on this week’s priorities and check for anything else that’s happening.

Update and use the planner at managers’ meetings, with a monthly longer-term view.

Making it work

Being an air traffic controller is no mean feat so it’s worth the effort to consult, co-create and develop something that actually works for you and the team.

But don’t forget that old favourite, the annual wall chart, complete with sticky dots and coloured pens. When you see everything converge and then discover some big gaps, there’s nothing quite like it to focus the mind!


Katie Randerson, director, KT Consulting

Katie advises charities (and agencies) on integrated communications strategy, PR planning and team development.  She headed up the communications, marketing and brand function at WWF and latterly Combat Stress, bringing a wealth of skills and experience to the third sector after many years in business. Katie is on CharityComms’ brand breakfast steering group.