Communications Plans

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The discipline of communications is highly specialized involving the creation of a strategic plan to convey specific messages to a targeted audience. Communications and outreach plans help natural resource and outdoor recreation organizations communicate to the public, their constituents, and stakeholders in a more compelling manner about issues of importance. A communications and outreach plan can:

1) provide a foundation on which to base decisions and allocate resources for communications,
2) focus an organization on where it wants to be and what communication strategies can help get it there,
3) provide a means of monitoring and evaluating communication efforts, and
4) improve the overall effectiveness and credibility of an organization.

Overall, communications and outreach plans identify the messages that resonate among specific target audiences.
Traditional Communication Plans
The conservation of the nation's natural resources and enhancement of outdoor recreation opportunities ultimately depend upon the positive opinions and attitudes of Americans toward these issues, as well as their commitment to act on their behalf. The key to instilling this commitment is through effectively designed communications plans and programs. Research shows that information and outreach efforts have traditionally not been as successful as biological resource management programs. The following list, based on research conducted by Responsive Management on dozens of studies of natural resource and outdoor recreation agencies and organizations, shows some of the major reasons why information and outreach efforts have not been as successful as have traditional resource management programs:
  1. Appropriate and adequate financial and personnel resources are not allocated to communication efforts. Many communication/outreach programs and efforts are underfunded from the start.
  2. Efforts are not directly linked to the agency or organization's highest biological and/or recreational priorities.
  3. Biologists, other agency scientists, and even administrators are often not directly involved in setting outreach priorities and goals. Acceptance is not secured from the entire organization before the effort is undertaken, and, consequently, the initiative becomes isolated.
  4. Specific outreach goals and program objectives are not specified or committed to in writing.
  5. Target audiences are not identified; programs attempt to be all things to all people.
  6. The target audience's knowledge level, opinions, and attitudes toward the specific outreach effort are not adequately researched; programs begin with little scientific understanding of the target audience.
  7. Messages are not carefully crafted. Messages are not field-tested on the target audience. There are too many messages, and these messages tend to be too complex.
  8. Appropriate media are not selected with the specific target audience in mind.
  9. There is too much emphasis on program outputs as opposed to program outcomes.
  10. Efforts and initiatives are not implemented long enough. Efforts need time to work and sometimes personnel get bored with the implementation phase, which may require repeating the same message over and over.
  11. Efforts are not evaluated quantitatively in terms of outcomes, specified goals, and objectives.
The Importance of Target Marketing
Research shows that how people relate to natural resource management and outdoor recreation issues is affected by a variety of factors - gender, age, ethnic background, income, level of education, place of residence, knowledge of the issues, and a variety of other personality factors. It is clear that information and outreach efforts must target specific groups with specific messages. There is no such thing as a "general public." Varying groups of the public have very different information and outreach needs. Communication strategies that have traditionally worked in rural parts of the country may not work in urban areas. Likewise, programs that will work for 18-24 year-olds may not work for the elderly. By targeting specific groups with specific messages, information and outreach efforts will become more effective, and their outcomes can be more assured. By clearly defining the objectives of targeted information and outreach programs, success can be measured by comparing knowledge levels, perceptions, attitudes, and public opinions before and after implementation of these efforts.
Steps to Develop Good Communication Plans
The key to developing good communications plans is to understand and explore the goals, target audiences, and messages in a step-by-step manner. Following is a general guideline for developing effective communication and outreach efforts:

Step 1: Identify and prioritize natural resource or outdoor recreation issues concerning the agency/organization.
Step 2: Identify and prioritize information and outreach issues that address the prioritized issues in Step 1.
Step 3: Define goals and set measurable objectives.
Step 4: Develop, define, and target specific groups within the general population.
Step 5: Understand the audience.
Step 6: Identify, define, and test the message.
Step 7: Consider demographic, social, economic, and political trends.
Step 8: Get the message across using a marketing and advertising approach.
Step 9: Address internal considerations.
Step 10: Evaluate the efforts quantitatively.
Responsive Management Methodology
The general strategy employed by Responsive Management to develop effective communications plans is to couple both internal assessments, an "inside-out" approach, with external assessments, an "outside-in" approach. Assessment from the "inside-out" means an organization takes a detailed look at where it wants to go as an organization, sets realistic goals and measurable objectives, defines its target audiences, and undertakes the job of better understanding the organization's messages to be conveyed. Assessment from the "outside-in" means an organization gains a better understanding of and working relationship with its various constituents and the general public by learning the opinions, attitudes, and priorities of those external constituents toward natural resources and outdoor recreation. A thorough understanding of an organization's internal workings placed within the proper context of its external environment makes for the most informed approach to creating outreach and education efforts for the future.
There are various methodologies used to conduct communications plans that target both "inside-out" assessments and "outside-in" assessments. An "inside-out" assessment may include employee focus groups and/or quantitative mail or telephone surveys of employees. Employee focus groups and quantitative surveys garner feedback from the "inside-out" about employees' attitudes toward agency and organization strengths and weaknesses and needed future directions. By learning the perceptions and attitudes of employees, natural resource and outdoor recreation organizations identify areas of high effectiveness as well as gain insight into those program areas that should be improved. Through an "inside-out" assessment, employees are given valuable input into their own task evaluations and are allowed to become active participants in the direction of the organization.
An "outside-in" assessment may include focus groups with stakeholders and/or the general population and/or quantitative mail or telephone surveys of stakeholders and/or the general population. For the general population survey, telephones are the preferred sampling medium because nearly all persons have access to a telephone, and telephone surveys elicit higher response rates and produce a more representative sample than do general population mail surveys. The goal of the "outside-in" assessment is to gain an understanding of the attitudes of external constituents toward the natural resource or outdoor recreation organization and the values they place on natural resources and outdoor recreation. By learning the attitudes and values that external constituents hold toward natural resources and outdoor recreation, natural resource and outdoor recreation organizations can successfully design and implement programs, resource management plans, and conservation efforts that will enjoy broad public support. This type of evaluation is also very useful in determining the types of messages that will and will not resonate with the public or other constituents. In today's tight budget constraints the need for broad public support for natural resource and outdoor recreation efforts is critical. Guided by the knowledge of the program priorities that the public values along with the knowledge of the type of messages that resonate with the public, natural resource and outdoor recreation organizations can build more effective communications programs.
The knowledge gained from a thorough assessment of both internal and external constituents provides natural resource and outdoor recreation organizations with valuable knowledge to improve communications programs and to build strong partnerships. Awareness of the program priorities of employees and target audiences produces long-term benefits to natural resource and outdoor recreation organizations and facilitates the development of communications plans that address important program priorities.
Responsive Management has extensive experience in developing communications plans for natural resource and outdoor recreation organizations. Responsive Management has conducted almost 1,000 quantitative and qualitative projects over the past 18 years. Clients include the federal natural resource and land management agencies, most state fish and wildlife agencies, state departments of natural resources, environmental protection agencies, state park agencies, tourism boards, as well as most of the major conservation and sportsmen's organizations. Many of the nation's top universities use Responsive Management for data collection because they recognize the quality of Responsive Management's data services. Because Responsive Management specializes in researching only natural resource and outdoor recreation issues, our senior research staff and research associates conduct research only on these topics and understand the nuances involved in conducting such research.

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RM Conducts:
Telephone Surveys
Mail Surveys
Focus Groups
Personal Interviews
Park/Outdoor Recreation Intercepts
Web-Based Surveys
Needs Assessments
Programmatic Evaluations
Literature Reviews
Data Collection for Universities and Researchers
RM Develops:
Marketing Plans
Communications Plans
Business Plans
Policy Analysis
Public Relations Plans

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