Planning for impact: five things we learned

Another month, another WonkComms Breakfast Club. The topic this time? That most intractable of WonkComms challenges: planning.

How do you ensure you know about what researchers are working on early enough to make a difference? How do you embed communications into the strategy and activities of a policy or research organisation? How do you get people to invest efforts (as well as money) in communications from an early stage? How do good internal comms and workflows result in our organisations becoming better communicators? There was certainly plenty to discuss – with prepared contributions from Ishbel Matheson of ODI and Jo Corfield of Centre for London kicking off the discussions.

As always, there was more discussion than can be summed up in one blog. And, as all our Breakfast Clubs are held under the Chatham House rule, we can’t say who said it. But we can sum up the key take-aways from the discussion.


1. Have your carrots ready for researchers who plan and engage early – and some sticks for the others

Planning for communications success means, in many research organisations, changing the culture of that organisation.

You need researchers who are constantly engaging with communications staff – from the beginning of a research idea until well beyond the day of publication. Unfortunately, this does not come naturally to all researchers.

The carrots that communications teams could offer as incentives to reward good engagement and forward planning could simply be more communications staff time and resources. The flip-side of this is that you might need ‘sticks’ for those who don’t engage: saying ‘no’ if they turn up with a finalised publication and ask for it to be communicated.

It was also recommended that communication staff give internal props to the research (and researchers) and encourage others to follow suit.

All this helps to build a culture where engaging the communications team early in a process is understood as a positive to getting communications impact.


2. Content may be king, but good planning processes are queen

A key to changing internal planning cultures is to focus on good old fashioned systems and processes. Grids, forward planning calendars, meetings, and regular internal communications all matter.

Some of the systems and processes discussed included:

  • The research pitch: requiring researchers wanting communications time prepare a one page (no longer!) summary of research – including the top lines and what’s new and important about it. The key is that you have to make sure you understand every word (no jargon!).
  • The researcher merry-go-round: meeting researchers on a regular basis to ask them what they are working on.
  • The all-powerful grid: putting all the research products you’re aware of (based on pitches or meetings) into a grid, potentially with different levels based on potential impact, communications reach, or similar.
  • The internal Trojan horse: building an internal communications product (email newsletter, intranet, notice board or similar) and filling it with content that researchers want or need to read. You can then also share planning calendars (what’s being launched on the website next week) and examples of well-planned pieces of work that had had a good impact.
  • The forward plan: subscribing to a forward planning service such as @ForesightNewsUK and reviewing potential opportunities each week, then communicating them.
  • The opportunity knocks of policy: creating a grid of policy recommendations from previous reports and then checking forward plans or tracking national debates to quickly feed in past research outputs.
  • The timesheet: tracking the spread of the whole team’s time to help plan projects and also arguing for more communications resource and acknowledgement from senior management or researchers writing bids.
  • The project review: ensuring that each project has a review process to learn the lessons from last time and help researchers and communicators work better together next time.


3. The best laid plans are those endorsed by the people at the top table

Successful communications planning is not just about scheduling or processes; it is about strategy and prioritisation. This can mean difficult conversations with researchers where there is competition for limited communications time and resources. Having senior communications staff – or the support of leaders (including, potentially trustees) – is important in getting plans agreed and stuck to. The focus must always be on quality of content, not “who shouts loudest”. Sometimes – perhaps often – you’ll need to say “no”.

That said, it is important not to allow prioritisation to put people off. Be positive, find things you can help with. These may not be high profile but they could still help the researcher in building their professional profile and making the most of the research with a relevant audience.


4. Sometimes the comms tail needs to wag the research dog

For the best communications impact, sometimes the process of research itself has to be collaborative. This could mean working with researchers to identify what findings would have the greatest potential communicability, if the evidence were to back them up. Or it could be talking at regular intervals with researchers to understand what their evidence is saying and identifying a few follow-on research questions that, if answered, will make it more likely the research has media or wider impact. Obviously this all depends on the researcher’s openness to working together, so it may not be possible with all researchers.

This is not a one-way process either: the researcher tail can also wag the communications dog. if researchers see communications outputs they would like to emulate, they can engage with the communications team on ways to do it.


5. Good planning also means planning for failure

Planning is an imperfect art. Improving planning culture is about moving people along a continuum to being better planners. However, you need to plan for the failure of plans: where external factors change plans, or where a researcher delivers something amazing that you are desperate to communicate but you only hear about it at the last minute. Build flexibility into your plans, be prepared to revise them constantly, have pre-prepared tools, standardised communications plans and templates on-hand and ready to use when something comes up at the last minute that you want to make the most of.



What are your tips and tricks for improving planning in research organisations? What processes do you use? Have you tried any systems or tools (intranets, Asana, Google Calendar)? Let us know below the line!


I am Digital Manager at UNISON. My core area of interest is in digital tools and content strategy. As Digital Manager at the Overseas Development Institute, I developed a digital strategy awarded Online Strategy of the Year at the Digital Communications Awards 2012. I have written extensively on digital strategy and monitoring and evaluation, primarily on how they can support research communications with impact. I am also a founder of WonkComms, a popular community of practice for think tank communications staff. In this capacity, I am a member of the blog editorial board, commissioning and editing blogs and regularly formulate, speak at and chair events held at various UK think tank HQs in London and more widely.

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2 comments on “Planning for impact: five things we learned
  1. I would have liked to attend this meeting, but don’t have the budget to go to London. It’s a pity these events cannot be livestreamed for WonkComms member outside London to be able to follow and participate too. Did Ishbel and Jo prepare presentations for the meeting that could be shared?

  2. Nick Scott says:

    Hi Melissa. Unfortunately one of the most important aspects of these meetings are that they are open and everyone feels able to share their own experience and problems – which really requires them to be closed and held under the Chatham House rule. We do try to share all the best insights on this blog as the next best thing we can do.

    In this case there were no presentations as such, just prepared thoughts from the key contributors.

    Don’t worry – we will be doing more public events soon!

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