Many important health promotion campaigns are not as effective as they could be because health professionals and educators are unfamiliar with the communications strategies that will help them get their message out to their intended audiences, according to health communications experts at EDC. To help organizations communicate more effectively with the public, funders, and other key audiences, EDC has developed a new online toolkit, “Creating and Implementing a Communications Plan: A Step-by-Step Approach”.
“Our main audiences for the toolkit are social workers, educators, health professionals, and others in the nonprofit field who may not be familiar with the impact a well-planned communication can have,” says Kim Netter, who helped develop the toolkit for the Web site of EDC’s National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention. “Many professionals need to learn these skills in order to reach audiences and maintain their funding. Having knowledge of communication and marketing principles helps make sure they get their message out.”
The toolkit provides a comprehensive six-step communications strategy. Users can move through at their own pace, using worksheets, PowerPoint presentations, documents, examples, and other resources. The six steps are:
- Plan Overview: outlines the various components of a communications plan
- Situation Analysis: examines the communication goal, the target audience, and the assets of a program
- Creating Messages: guidelines for crafting a powerful message
- Communication Strategies: selecting the right tools
- Selecting Channels: how the message will get to the audience
- Evaluating your Communication Efforts: guidelines for measuring the success of a communications campaign
“Working through the steps outlined in this online tool helps organizations think differently about communicating. Once they use it, they get excited about what communications can do to help them reach their program goals,” says Diane Barry, Director of Communications for EDC’s Health and Human Development Programs (HHD)
The most problematic issues for nonprofits are selecting a target audience and developing the message itself, say Barry and Netter. “Organizations often make the mistake of trying to reach out to everybody with a single message. We help nonprofits to prioritize their audiences and specifically identify groups or individuals who have the power to make a change and reach out to them first,” says Barry. Such is the case in the Caribbean, where HHD staff are using the toolkit as part of an HIV/AIDS prevention effort targeting the education sector. The project works with key decision makers, who are in a position to influence adoption of a comprehensive strategy to combat HIV and AIDS.
Just as important as identifying the key audience, is understanding it. “It is important that organizations know as much as possible about their audience and what matters most to them. Once they know what issues or ideas their audiences are tuned into, they can craft a message that resonates,” says Netter.
Part of the skill of crafting the message is choosing words that will be interesting and inspiring for the intended audience. “We work with nonprofits to communicate using language that their audiences will understand rather than jargon,” says Barry. The toolkit’s method for creating powerful, yet simple messages is the three-point message triangle. The triangle breaks messages into three key components. One commonly-used template asks: 1) what is the problem being addressed? 2) what is the strategy for addressing the problem? 3) what are the expected results of an initiative? Messages that use these three points, simply put, are more likely to reach their audience and have an impact.
Determining whether a communications campaign has been effective is the final step in the toolkit. According to Netter, “it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of a campaign. Did it accomplish the original goals—reach the intended audience, change attitudes or behaviors, etc? They need measurable results so they can know what works and what does not work.” For instance, an HHD-guided substance abuse prevention campaign aimed at parents of middle school youth in Revere, Massachusetts used pledge cards as part of its outreach strategy and project staff were able to measure the effectiveness of the effort based on the number of pledge cards returned. Other ways to measure success include feedback from participants, receiving funding, and the amount of media coverage.
The National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention provides technical assistance and training to 118 school districts and communities that receive grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In addition to the communications toolkit, the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention previously released “Leaving a Legacy,” a tool designed for nonprofits to sustain their work after their funding ends.
Originally published on January 1, 2006