Further education communications: effective planning Why plan? The benefits of effective communications planning – whether you work in a college, private training, adult or community learning organisation – extend far beyond improving effectiveness by being more orderly. Planning also allows marketing and public relations teams to: Manage colleagues’ expectations Give structure to discussions between the team and senior post-holders Increase efficiency through agreed priorities Communicate how a team supports the organisation’s strategic objectives. To misquote a certain shampoo company: there’s more to life than planning, but it’s a good place to start. Analysis It is impossible to plan a journey without knowing your starting point. Effective situation analysis will need to involve: Desktop demographics – from the 2011 Census to the UK Commission’s Employer Skills Survey series, there is a wealth of local and regional information available online about student and business numbers and training needs. The Learning and Skills Improvement Service’s market intelligence guide includes a detailed list of potential sources. Secondary research on student attitudes and behaviours (and of those who influence them) – including Ofcom, CIPR, Association of Colleges, FE Reputation Strategy Group and many more. Knowing the strategic priorities of your organisation or business – whether it’s a well-managed merger or an increase in employers sponsoring apprenticeships – and beginning the conversation about how communications might contribute to them. Understanding the outcomes of your current activities – whether that’s through Google Analytics data, events attendance, recruitment trends or prospectus requests. The difficult but necessary first step of building new analysis tools into existing collateral – new or better feedback forms at all events, for example, or an enrolment form that asks the right questions about reputation, awareness and influencers. A fresh approach to some of the ways in which you have traditionally measured impact through understanding and applying the Barcelona Principals, making measurement transparent and replicable.
Sharing – the market intelligence work at this stage can help inform curriculum planning, HR and other business processes. Start sharing and make new allies. Too few further education institutions are taking these simple initial steps – in a recent study of over 100 colleges and other providers, only 5% of senior managers and 4% of marketing departments thought that they were using market intelligence data effectively. The planning process There are some fundamental elements to every communications planning cycle. Build your plan around objectives – not tasks or tactics. A comms plan is not a ‘to do’ list, it should be based on clear achievable, time-bound goals. Don’t plan in isolation. Getting buy-in from the right curriculum, senior and support staff is essential if any plan is going to work. Support from senior post-holders with the right diplomatic skills is paramount. Build dependencies (what needs to happen elsewhere) into the plan. Put the audience first. Divorcing a communications plan from the awareness, attitudes and behaviours of students, staff or the stakeholders with whom you are communicating will doom it to failure. Start by applying a Mendelow model or similar to help distinguish groups. Consider a campaign model for your planning. Whether it’s internal communications, stakeholder relations or student recruitment; this format often makes it easier for teams to set out a clear goal with easily identifiable start and end points, making it easier to measure outcome. Make it iterative. Some of the best college marketing and PR plans involve termly measurement cycles, which help teams understand what is and isn’t working. They then change the plan accordingly. Prioritise – be clear in your planning about what is essential, important and desirable. Be confident in setting out what channel is being used for what purpose; if you can cogently argue that social media should be exclusively used as a student support and admissions tool, say so. This makes it much easier to manage workloads and identify dependencies. Read up. There are many excellent, easy-to-apply books on marketing, PR and communications planning that will give you more detailed information on the process than we can here.
Resources Be honest in your planning about what you will need in terms of budget, team skills and additional support. Prioritising will help you fit ambitions to budgets.
Build a training plan in parallel. Going cap in hand to management for more staff is unlikely to work in the short term, so where possible focus on developing the team first. Understand emerging skill sets. Conferences, Linked In, PR publication job adverts and peer advice are all good sources of information about what new skills a team will need, whether it’s videography, SEO or social media measurement. Can collaboration help cut spending? Are there unexplored possibilities for shared services or smarter procurement across the business or with other organisations? Does a national agency have funds or materials you can use or adapt? Evaluation Build measurement into your communications plan and spending. Ten per cent is a useful and often-quoted proportion of total budget to put aside for measurement. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Again, there are excellent resources online – including the white papers and reports from AMEC (the international association for the measurement and evaluation of communications). Measuring the outcome of marketing and public relations is not the same as measuring an institution’s reputation (influenced by so many other factors, independent of your team’s work) but they are related and both should be included in your planning cycle. Don’t over-claim in your analysis or reporting as it will undermine your position. Replace AVEs with analysis of audience, circulation, key message placement, tone, credibility and prominence, for instance. Take evaluation into account when looking at job descriptions. Managing focus groups, designing quantitative and qualitative surveys, research data analysis and understanding social media metrics are likely to be on the wishlist for team skills. Talk to other colleges and providers – some of whom have developed intelligent, bespoke metrics for better analysis of prospectus distribution, advertising impact, events outcomes or cross-campus internal communications tools. Online forums are a good place to look for advice. The majority of colleges have never surveyed local partners and stakeholders to better understand awareness and attitude, including propensity to advocate. If you don’t know what someone is saying, it’s very difficult to have a meaningful conversation. In terms of reputation, it is very likely you will need to develop new primary research tools to better understand the familiarity with (and favourability towards) your institution among key groups such as parents and school tutors.
Beyond marcomms Student recruitment dominates marketing and public relations within the further education sector, but the most effective organisations use good communications planning to support a much broader set of business goals. These can include: Crisis communications – as part of the business’ risk assessment process Administrative efficiency – through mystery shopping or customer perception research Employee engagement – through collaboration with the human resources team to best understand staff motivators and communications preferences And much more... Providing positive benefits for the organisation beyond recruitment helps to introduce a virtuous circle of influence, impact and resourcing. By Ben Verinder MCIPR Ben Verinder is a Director of Chalkstream Communications - a specialist communications, reputation management and research consultancy - and the Communications Director at the Association of Colleges. A former newspaper, radio and online journalist, Ben directs a range of national public relations campaigns and research projects, judges a variety of national PR and communications awards and teaches reputation leadership to senior post-holders. He lives in Hertfordshire and his interests include cookery and amateur mycology.