Guest post: Stefany Wilson on strategic planning (part 1 of 2)

Today’s guest blogger, Stefany Wilson (@stefanyw), has written not one but two entries on strategic planning for communications, and I’m happy to lend her this spot twice. Stefany is the director of communications for the Georgia Tech College of Computing (@gtcomputing on Twitter) and authors BOOM! the blog, where she offers her “perspectives from the person who has to run the circus that is the higher ed communications office.” Stefany’s second post will run in this spot on Wednesday.

* * * * *

Communications is a Big Word – Developing Your Strategic Plan

There sure are some smart people sharing useful information out here, but as a communications director I am not only concerned about best practices for email marketing or interpreting analytics for proper web content development (not to mention a strategy for Twitter), I am also worried about all of that and more, like whose outreach programs get cut in the next budget crunch and what will our back-to-school media plan look like. I have staff responsible for advising me on specifics and I have to decide what and how much to pull together at any given time depending on the shifting communications landscape. I know I can find all the answers, my constant worry is keeping it all together so I (sort of) stay sane, and so do my people.

Do I have a mentor to help guide me? Nope. Do I have a lengthy enough background in the field that I just know everything I have to do and when? No, and I never will. Do I have time to “think strategically” in the thick of spring semester? Definitely not.

You do the best you can, and you ALWAYS have a plan to which to refer. You create this plan in the summer when you have a wee bit more free time than during the year. You revisit the plan half way through (during the holidays) to see how on track you are and where you need to redouble your efforts, call something dead in the water, or congratulate everyone for completing.

You don’t need consultants for this stuff. It’s nice if you have the money to do that and they are often worth it, but you might as well know how to do it on your own. Here are the basic steps for planning, plus snapshots of my own office’s plan from last year.


This is an example of the basic structure of a strategic communications plan.

1. Executive Summary
2. Methodology
3. Situation Analysis (Communications Landscape)

1. External Environment
2. Internal Environment

4. Audiences
5. Key Messages
6. Communications Goals & Objectives
7. Strategies & Tactics (The Work Plan)

1. External Communications
2. Internal Communications

8. Evaluation Methods (The Measurement Dashboard)
9. Appendices

An executive summary comes first in a plan, but it’s the last thing you write. It covers the biggest opportunities and challenges of the landscape and the highlights of the plan. It’s also a chance for you to send a personalized message about the work of your department. I write my summary as if it were a letter in an attempt to engage whoever actually takes the time to read such a document.

A methodology section describes how you approached this whole business. You discuss the research you did and how you did it, optionally explaining both the advantages and limitations of your choices. You do not put lists of interviews or articles here – those go in the appendix.

Research – The Most Important Thing You Do

You must tie what you do back to something important to the organization, or else why even be there? Start with your school’s strategic plan – that tells you something about what takes precedence. If they don’t have a clear plan, talk to your boss about how to go about prioritizing objectives and audiences. Without these basic directives, you will flounder with what to do first.

Primary research is research you conduct yourself. How on earth is one little resource-constrained communications group going to deal with the sheer amount of work this could grow to be? Well, you can’t and you’re won’t. What you’re going to do is a few simple surveys (use SurveyMonkey), maybe a focus group or series of interviews with a few priority audience representatives set by you and your boss (or other high level decision maker who truly has effective communications at heart). Even just a few phone calls to get the gist of something are better than winging it.

My office divided and conquered this part between two people, completing 25 interviews, two focus groups and distributing four surveys (we were unable to distribute seven others due to time constraints). All this took about two months.

Secondary research will be your best friend. It’s research or information by other people from which you can draw conclusions. There is an abundance of it within your own institution (admissions, alumni association, student services, etc.). But don’t forget sources like the research publications of your area or the trade associations of your field. Both often contain data you can use to back up what you decide to do. Here’s a selection of our secondary sources:

1. The College of Computing Strategic Plan
2. Georgia Tech Strategic Plan
3. Georgia Tech Brand Image Study
4. Georgia Tech Federal Relations Strategic Initiative Report
5. Annual Computing Research Association Taulbee Survey
6. Be Careful What You Promise Regarding Your USNWR Ranking, Joe Brennan, Ph.D., APR, Associate VP for University Communications SUNY, PRSA 2008 Monograph Series
7. iCompute Campaign Executive Summary, Jill Ross, Director CRA Image of Computing Task Force
8. Competitiveness Index: Where America Stands, 2007 Report, Council on Competitiveness
9. Curb Appeal: Designing Websites for Prospective Students, Michael Stoner, President and Principal mStoner Inc., PRSA 2008 Monograph Series
10. Is the Thrill Gone?, Viewpoint, ACM 2005, Sanjeev Arora, Bernard Chazelle
11. Who Are We?, The Profession of IT, ACM year, Peter J. Denning
12. Student Perceptions of CS: A Retention Study Comparing Graduating Seniors vs. CS Leavers, Maureen Biggers, Diversity Lab Director, Georgia Tech College of Computing
13. Perceptions Of College Characteristics And College Images, Data From The Office Of Student Affairs

There is also plenty of Google research at your fingertips. There’s generational research on millennials going to school and their search habits, or their “helicopter” parents and the influence they wield. Philanthropy Quarterly might cover high worth donors and alumni and what inspires them to give, or not. There’s really just no excuse for not tying your efforts to real data when it’s this easy to find. The real time drain is in the analysis.

Situation Analysis – A Snapshot of the Landscape

No doubt you are inundated with information and don’t know where to start. You must piece it together into a coherent situation analysis, which includes what you’ve got going on inside your institution, what your external publics are thinking about you, and in many cases what’s going on in your field. For example, my area is computing, which has gone through a massive image crisis since the bubble burst and subsequent media feeding frenzy around outsourcing. I have to worry about that as much as about program image. You may be in a similar boat.

A situation analysis covers the state of your internal and external communications landscape in an informal SWOT format (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). Every bit of it is based on your primary research findings and the added texture gleaned from your secondary research.

Coming on Wednesday: The heart of the plan


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

4 thoughts on “Guest post: Stefany Wilson on strategic planning (part 1 of 2)”

  1. Thanks, Stephany (and Andrew), great post — really well written and very action-oriented.

    In working with colleges and universities, we often find that an equally large challenge to developing the strategic communications plan is allocating and executing the actual work to be done. Toward that end, will you be focusing within Part 2 of the post on the delegation of responsibilities for delivering the plan (it seems that this might fit naturally in part 7. Strategies and Tactics, but maybe not)?

    If not, would you consider writing a third post on this topic? I suspect that readers like me would find it very valuable. Thanks again.

  2. Stephany,
    Next week our communications staff will take the day off for an annual summer retreat. We’ll discuss trends in all of our areas – university web and print design, media relations, magazine, advertising.

    The goal is to determine what shifts (people/budget) we need to make related to digital media. I’d like to hear how other university communications departments are addressing this and what you’re doing .

  3. Thanks for the feedback. I’ve been away and am tardy in this response – my apologies.

    Todd – As you discovered, I did not write about resourcing under Strategies and Tactics, but that’s a great idea. Thanks for the input and look for that post coming out on BOOM! the blog in the near-future.

    Judy – Great question, and one I think I’ll deal with in another BOOM! the blog post because when I got started on here I found I had a lot to say. It may come out too late for your meeting though, so without more info about where you work one bit of advice would be to assess your biggest programs and audiences. Are they still the most important? If so, how old are those people? For example if alumni relations is the bulk of your communications efforts and more than half of them are older than 50ish, then digital communications probably wouldn’t be where you put your efforts. I know this is overly simple and doesn’t even take into account the higher ed phenomenon of tiny initiatives with extremely heavy political importance (and thus resources). Email me at to talk further and in more detail if you can.

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