Communication plans can be simple or complex depending on the requirements of the site or project. Not all situations will require implementing all of the steps at the same level of detail. The tools included in this communication plan template are examples to be considered and used as applicable for different situations. Document users should consider what aspects of the plan template could be useful for their project. A complete and robust plan is more likely to result in effectively communicating a message. Consider the communication plan to be a living document; as situations or projects change, update the plan and share with the project team.
Establishing a communications plan can accomplish the following:
• Develop shared goals and objectives for the issue or problem at hand.
• Clarify the relationships between stakeholders, messages, methods, activities and materials.
• Define staff members, stakeholders and others’ roles and responsibilities in the process.
• Develop effective messages using stakeholder input.
• Promote consistent use of messages by staff and stakeholders.
• Identify applicable engagement methodologies and tools to meet objectives.
• Evaluate the success of your efforts and determine follow-up action items.
This plan template, adapted from the work of NJDEP (2014), facilitates development of project-specific communication plans to be developed at each stakeholder engagement and/or outreach phase of a project. Of note, the NJDEP 2014 document relied on the work of Caron Chess, Billie Jo Hance, and Peter Sandman, Environmental Communication Research Program, Cook College, Rutgers University, as published by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Having a communication plan supports an ongoing stakeholder engagement process, identifies communication methods and tools, and acts as a record keeping form to achieve meaningful and effective risk communication. A communication plan supports the five principles of risk communication: building trust and credibility, explaining risk, interacting with communities, understanding how communities see risk, and understanding when to release information. Communication planning also supports reassessment of communication methods and approaches to improve or help craft better, more effective messages. Figure 4-1 presents the iterative eight step process of risk communication. In addition, the communication plan incorporates ways to ensure effective stakeholder engagement. The success of a risk communication plan depends on building a working relationship between stakeholders and those conducting and overseeing the project. Appendix A provides a risk communication plan template that users may find helpful to download and fill-in as they developed their own risk communication plan. The template includes a brief description of each risk communication planning step.
Figure 4-1. Communication plan process diagram
Source: Modified from (NJDEP 2014)
4.1 Step 1: Identify the Issue/Concern
Communication planning begins when an issue or concern involving an agency or organization and the public emerges. The lead organization’s management identifies a communication coordinator. Subsequently, management and the coordinator discuss the nature of the issue, the roles and responsibilities of the communication team, and identify those people in the organization who may need to be involved in the issue. Internal work groups may consist of people across different programs or functions, press or public relations groups, or in state agencies or organizations, depending on the circumstances.
The first step is to understand the regulatory requirements, relevant policy and science-based perspective on the issue and the community context. Community context can be understood based on the project team’s knowledge and publicly available information, including media sources, community forums, interactions between staff and stakeholders (email, calls) and municipal demographic data.
Follow these steps as the issue is identified:
- Briefly describe why you need to communicate about a specific issue, concern, or about specific information.
- Define the problem you are trying to solve with communication.
- Summarize context, facts, and events surrounding the issue including:
- site characteristics (for example, new release/source, existing source/site, contaminated media, exposure routes, potential acute and chronic exposures, location near residential properties, remote location) and assessment of affected community(s) including exposed sensitive populations (for example, schools, daycare)
- scientific and health information (what is known or not known)
- political/local government information (what is known or not known)
- geographic information system (GIS) information (for example, geospatial data on sources and potential receptors)
Several different tools are available to identify the issue or concern. Document users should consider which tools will be valuable to their specific issue or concern.
188.8.131.52 Issue List Template
It is important to document the information described in the bullets above for a specific site. Throughout the risk communication process, additional issues may be identified. Keeping an ongoing issues list helps to track and prioritize the open issues and concerns for a site. The new issues are added into the risk communication planning process. The issues list should include characterization of the community, environmental issue(s) of concern, and unique challenges of performing risk communication and public outreach due to emerging and/or immediate public health risk(s). The communication plan template, provided in Appendix A, includes a table to summarize the environmental issue/concern.
184.108.40.206 Develop an Issue Profile
The profile should include the characteristics of the community as well as the characteristics of the environmental concern (for example, drinking water contaminant). The lead organization is likely to know this information. It may not be comprehensive. Below is a list of sample questions to assist with creating a comprehensive profile of the environmental issue and developing the risk communication plan. In the case of emerging contaminants, because the risk is typically unknown and uncertain, imposed upon the community, and exotic in nature, the community will likely view this as a greater risk, and the public is likely to be more fearful, outraged, and demanding of immediate solutions. Additional or different questions may be relevant for a particular site or situation. The environmental issue profile can be in any form – narrative, bullets, or table, as in the communication plan template presented in Appendix A.
220.127.116.11 Form a Communication Team
Communication is best accomplished through a team approach. The team will consist of anyone in the lead organization who would contribute to the development of an outreach plan. This will include technical personnel, communication experts, and project managers who may be familiar with the community or the environmental issue or concern. It is beneficial to also include the following decision makers and impacted parties as part of the communication team: a representative of each regulatory agency, responsible party, property owner, and stakeholder group (for example, a water purveyor and a community liaison).
The team will vary from situation to situation depending on the issues and the community affected. Select a communications lead to coordinate with the technical experts, decision makers, and other key personnel. Identify roles and responsibilities for communication team members and the communication lead. Identify an approval process and chain of command for group actions.
A team list table is provided in the communication plan template in Appendix A.
18.104.22.168 Agenda for First Communication Team Planning Meeting
It is important that when the communication team meets for the first time, there is a clear road map on how the team will work together and what needs to be accomplished. This introductory meeting will likely not address all the issues associated with the problem. As such, be prepared for the items from the first meeting to carry over into subsequent meetings. Assignments on who will be responsible for what tasks should be determined.
4.2 Step 2: Set Goals and Objectives
In establishing a risk communication plan, it is essential to create measurable goals and objectives for the risk communication outreach effort based on what needs to be fulfilled as an agency or organization, as well as the needs of the public. During this step, consider possible methods for how the team will evaluate whether communication was effective.
Working through the issue identification step will help begin goals formulation. Goals are general guidelines that explain what you want to achieve. Goals are brief and clear statements of outcomes to be reached within a measurable and achievable time frame. Examples of goals may include raising awareness, increasing knowledge, and promoting an action or intention. Goals do not state how to do something, but rather what the results will look like.
Objectives are the specific strategies or steps taken to reach your goal. They are specific, measurable, and have a defined completion date; they are the “who, what, when, where, and how” of reaching the goal. Different contexts sometimes use goals and objectives interchangeably, based on a specific project; users may choose to use one or the other, or both.
The communication team uses goals to develop messages and materials. Goals that relate to how stakeholders will be involved in the process should reflect core values for public participation, such as those set by the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2)(https://www.iap2.org/page/corevalues). The IAP2 has established the following core values for the practice of public participation:
- The public should have a say in decisions about actions that could affect their lives.
- Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.
- Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.
- Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
- Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
- Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
Public participation communicates to participants how their input affects the decisions. In scenarios where trust between the community and decision makers is broken, inclusion of a third, neutral party to facilitate and assist with public engagement can help address and potentially overcome distrust. Examples of relevant neutral third parties include academic institutions, public health professionals, and community interest groups. Engagement of community leaders, such as tribal council leaders and local organizations, also assist with building a unified front among stakeholder groups and regulatory agencies to maximize public trust. Additional resources on community engagement include ATSDR Principles of Community Engagement (ATSDR 2011) and the International Association of Public Participation spectrum of public involvement (https://www.iap2.org/page/pillars).
The PFAS Little Hocking Case Study (PFAS Technical and Regulatory Guidance Document, Section 15.4.1) provides an example of general principles set up by the community advisory group.
4.2.1 SMART Goals and Objectives
Types of goals and objectives to consider include the standard communication goals presented in the following bullet list. Goals and objectives should be developed using the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) approach.
22.214.171.124 Universal Goals and Objectives
126.96.36.199 Process Goals and Objectives
188.8.131.52 Information Goals and Objectives
184.108.40.206 Legally Mandated Goals
The communication plan template in Appendix A includes a table to identify SMART goals and possible evaluation methods
4.3 Step 3: Identify Communities & Constraints
Learn who will be most affected by the information and their level of interest, knowledge and concern. Some of this may already be known through the issue profile step. This step will help provide any missing information. Additionally, don’t assume that the communication team knows what people are concerned about; community stakeholders may not be concerned with the actual risk, but the perceived risk. Recognize that people may be skeptical that the lead organization is telling the truth, cares about them, and is willing to work with them. Research the full range of opinions and concerns including general attitude, knowledge and perceptions about the issue, the message and the messenger. This can be accomplished by regularly asking community leaders and the stakeholders you are working with if there are other groups of individuals who are missing from the outreach and who should be involved. For contaminant- or issue-specific information on stakeholders, see the associated section on Stakeholder Perspectives for example:
- PFAS Technical and Regulatory Guidance Document, Section 13, Stakeholder Perspectives.
Also, identify and develop solutions to address constraints that may hinder stakeholders or communities from participating in the communication process. Examples of constraints include travel to remote locations, limited access to the internet, and inability to attend community engagement events.
Include people from various groups, such as residents, academia, government, and non-profits. Be sure to consider internal organization/agency stakeholders and external communities. Consider cultural diversity, including language diversity (non-English speakers), socioeconomic diversity, and vulnerable populations. Determine if sensitive populations are present, such as children or pregnant women.
Academic institutions can serve as a liaison to the community and assist with data collection and interpretation to address a community’s immediate needs. This third-party relationship also serves as a platform for the community to participate in citizen science and answer questions encouraged by curiosity and interest (such as fluctuations in well contaminant concentrations and presence in local foods). Academic institutions can also assist with providing data in situations where, for example, the regulatory authority cannot disclose information due to pending litigation.
A technical advisor is another form of third party that can assist with relaying the community’s perspective to decision makers in addition to relaying the technical information to the community. All third parties should attend site information sessions and partake in advisory boards to keep well-informed and facilitate continuous dialogue with decision makers.
4.3.1 Audience/Stakeholder Assessment Tools
220.127.116.11 Questions to Help Identify Target Communities
18.104.22.168 Examples of Stakeholders
22.214.171.124 Stakeholder and Communities Communications Worksheet
The communication plan template, provided in Appendix A, includes a table to identify and track specific messages or anticipated communication activities for each stakeholder group.
4.4 Step 4: Assess Stakeholders/Communities
Stakeholder engagement should not be an afterthought, but rather integrated into the project staff requirements, budgets, and timetables from the beginning of the project. Project managers and their technical and legal teams should communicate with the public early on, and community involvement specialists—for organizations that have them—should be included in internal technical meetings so they are able to provide timely, accurate information about the public to the communication team.
Assess the needs of the targeted groups by learning what information they want, how they are likely to react to the information you share, what their potential interests/concerns are, how they will likely expect to be involved in the decision-making process, and what methods of communication are used in each community. Learn the technical literacy and knowledge of the community, and its cultural traditions and priorities. Focus your assessment for each group to help prioritize concerns relevant to risk exposure and management.
Individual stakeholder groups and individuals themselves process information in a variety of modes and mediums. An effective risk communication strategy takes this factor into consideration and encompasses multiple forms of outreach. In addition to informative materials, such as fact sheets, stakeholder meetings and interactive sessions (such as poster presentations, question and answer sessions) can be held to involve individuals in the learning and understanding process. Prior to selection of method, an audience/stakeholder assessment should be conducted to determine how a community communicates and to learn what tool is the most effective to use.
Agencies and other responsible parties sometimes prematurely conclude that there is minimal stakeholder interest at a site because of low attendance at official public meetings or open houses. Audience/stakeholder assessment can help determine strategies for reaching people who may be unaware of the issue. This assessment may also identify areas where residents have limited English-language capability so that translation needs can be included in the communication plan. Audience/stakeholder assessment can be used to identify where funding may be needed for community relations, advisory boards, and independent technical assistance. Investing in audience assessment pays off in better decisions and smoother progress, and potentially positive public recognition of the project. Finally, audience/stakeholder assessment supports identifying environmental justice communities potentially affected by the site or project.
Community education about the science of the issue or concern may be part of the assessment. The PFAS document includes information about Bennington College’s program to provide community education about PFAS (see PFAS Technical and Regulatory Guidance Document, Section 15.4.1). In addition, the case studies linked in Section 5 provide illustrations of different communication approaches to meet stakeholder needs and concerns.
126.96.36.199 Ways to Identify Community Concerns
188.8.131.52 Questions to Ask Communities
184.108.40.206 Questions Communities May Ask You
4.5 Step 5: Identify Messages
A message is information you want or need to share with stakeholders about the issue or concern, a question that you need them to answer, or both. It is linked to the case- or project-specific SMART goals and objectives to help build trust and facilitate a shared understanding and experience in the risk management strategy (refer to Section 4.2). A message addresses key points about the issue that were learned through the audience/stakeholder assessment. You start with the stakeholders and their concerns. Effective messages reflect what your target group needs are, as well as what you need to communicate.
In the case of emerging contaminants, elements of a message are likely to include what is known and unknown about a contaminant; acknowledgement of uncertainty; commitment to share new information when it is learned; explanation of how decisions will be made with respect to protecting public health and remediating the problem.
A key message may encompass saying “no” to a stakeholder request that may be financially or technically infeasible. Working collaboratively with stakeholders will inform practitioners on information and data needed to support decisions. In addition, if engaged early, stakeholders will be informed of project limitations and likely have a better understanding of constraints.
Various communication tools are described in the following sections.
220.127.116.11 Message Map Tool
18.104.22.168 Message Development Questions
An example, Key Message Mapping for PFAS, can be found in Appendix D. A blank worksheet to assist in constructing mapped messages is presented here.
Message Mapping Worksheet
Message development starts with a question, responds with three key ideas, is no more than 27 words, and takes no longer than 9 seconds to deliver. The goal of a mapped message is to provide focused, targeted information immediately that can then be expanded upon as communication continues.
|Key Message/Fact 1:
|Key Message/Fact 2:
|Key Message/Fact 3:
|Keywords: Supporting Facts 1.1
|Keywords: Supporting Facts 2.1
|Keywords: Supporting Facts 3.1
|Keywords: Supporting Facts 1.2
|Keywords: Supporting Facts 2.2
|Keywords: Supporting Facts 3.2
|Keywords: Supporting Facts 1.3
|Keywords: Supporting Facts 2.3
|Keywords: Supporting Facts 3.3
22.214.171.124 Messaging to Address Rumors and Inaccurate or Misleading Information in the Public Sphere
4.6 Step 6: Select Communication and Engagement Methods
When selecting communication and engagement methods, consider how you will connect your message to your stakeholders or communities. Include who it will go to (community members, neighborhood groups, city officials) and the type of communication (email, print, social media). Choose your communication and engagement tool based on how stakeholders receive information in their community. The best tool depends on what information you need to share, the information needs of the targeted group like formats that are accessible (for example, various languages, braille, audio, large print), and how fast the message needs to get out.
More than one communication and engagement tool may be useful in delivering messages. An assessment of how the stakeholders or communities communicate can help you choose a suitable method to send your message. Use your audience/stakeholder assessment to inform your choice. For example, if the target group is a neighborhood association with a newsletter or regular meetings, an article in their newsletter or a presentation at their meeting might work. If these forums are not available, you may need to set up a special meeting through association leaders, go door to door, or mail a notification (NJDEP 2014).
Once the communication and engagement tools are chosen, the communication team may form a subteam to facilitate the development and implementation of communication and engagement products or projects. This subteam is an optional addition to the communication team that can provide issue-specific technical support and direct contact and collaboration within the community.
The subteam may include public information officers, local government administrators, website managers/owners, graphic designers, a communication facilitator, and other support roles, depending on the tools chosen. If a subteam can’t be formed, a community liaison is another approach to provide connection for ongoing communication between the community and the project team.
It is essential to keep in mind that engagement and communication is collaborative. Stakeholders are informed while simultaneously informing decision makers of their needs and concerns and providing input that contributes to more sustainable risk management. Stakeholder engagement methods, such as surveys, design charrettes, workshops, focus groups, multicriteria decision analysis, and vision boarding, can aid in capturing and evaluating audience input.
It should be noted that although traditional written and mass communication methods are effective for communication information, techniques that include the opportunity for stakeholders to interact in-person and one-on-one are often more effective at building trust and working through outrage and emotion.
Guidance is included in this toolkit for press releases and summary letters:
Appendix E – Guidance for Writing Press Releases
Appendix F – Guidance for Writing Analytical Results Summary Letters
Appendix I Analytical Data Package Public Information Fact Sheet
Appendix J – Tracking Form of Media Correspondence
Vermont Department of Environmental Protection staff complete an email form whenever they are contacted by the media (Appendix J). This form is filled out as soon as possible after responding to reporters and media inquiries, and the form is emailed to agency supervisors, upper management, and anyone else who may be involved with the project. A main goal of the form is to maintain consistent messaging if multiple people are interviewed by the media, so that the same messages are reinforced and not contradicted.
Additional information about communication methods, such as Fact Sheets, Frequently Asked Questions, Active Repositories, and Social Factors Vision Boards are included in this section.
126.96.36.199 Fact Sheets and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
188.8.131.52 Active Centralized Information Repository
184.108.40.206 Social Factors Vision Board
220.127.116.11 Methods to Consider for Communication
The following list of various communication methods is adapted from Hance, Chess, and Sandman (1991):
|Written or audio/visual materials
|● “Open” work meetings
|● Advisory committees
|● Special events
|● Periodic updates
|● Fact sheets
|● Door to door
|● Suggestion boxes
|● Educational materials
|● Telephone/conference calls
|● Open house with experts at the table
|● Question and answer sheets
|● Placards in mass transit
|● News conferences
|● News releases
|● Slide shows
|● Letters to the editor
|● Audio tapes
|● Talk shows
|● Articles in organizations’ Newsletters
|● Call-in shows
|● Inserts in mass mailings
|● Feature articles
|● Press briefings
|Person to person
|● Public service announcements
|● Presentations at meetings
|● Display advertisements in newspapers
|● Drop-in or availability sessions
|● Legal notices
|● Public hearings/meetings
|● Social media
|● Project office open to the public
|● Site visits or site tours
|● 24/7 hotline
18.104.22.168 Communication Method List Template
The communication plan template provided in Appendix A includes a communication and engagement tools table to document the target group, message, type of communication, cost, material development lead person, and evaluation.
4.7 Step 7: Implement Strategies
Plan the tasks needed to develop and disseminate communication products. Arrange the tasks on a timeline and assign responsibility for each task. Communicate the strategy and timeline to the communication team and partners.
Coordinating action for simple and complex strategies can be challenging. The communication plan template in Appendix A provides a framework for organizing all the tasks in the order they are due. This is intended to be a living document that is updated and customized throughout implementation of the risk communication plan for any site-specific situation.
4.8 Step 8: Evaluate, Debrief, and Follow Up
Communication efforts are almost never “done.” There may be periods of time when there is not a need for active communication efforts, depending on community concerns and ongoing site activities. By setting up a long-term communication plan, you have a clear path for follow-up, as needed.
Throughout the risk communication effort, interim evaluation and insights can be gained by confirming messages and methods with internal and external target groups. Outcome evaluation, done at the conclusion of the effort, answers the following questions, adapted from (NJDEP 2014):
- Did the strategy used meet the goals and objectives?
- Were the needs of the communities met?
- Was the intended message received and understood?
- Was the method used appropriate for this case and community?
- Are there questions that require follow-up?
In addition to interim evaluation as the project progresses, the internal communication team should reconvene at the conclusion of the risk communication effort and debrief.
Determining success can be challenging. The following examples give some guidance on how to identify successes.
Plan: Consider how you will know if your communication efforts were successful. Use the SMART goals developed in Step 2 to guide your evaluation plan development.
Follow Up: Gather and review information from evaluations to inform follow-up tasks. Examples of items that may need follow-up include possible policy changes, additional communication needs identified through the evaluation process, or a new audience that has been identified. Assign a leader to each follow-up item.
Long-term Communication Efforts: Determine and communicate to communities and stakeholders how new information and monitoring or remediation site progress will be disseminated to the affected community. Communicate successes and case studies that will help inform improvements to communication activities.
- Identify data you might already be gathering that can be used to evaluate effectiveness (for example, number of phone calls, social media engagement, website traffic, percentage of answered questions, percentage of community subgroups engaged)
- Review process used to develop communication activities—what went well, what did not, how to improve for current and future projects
- Decide how often to evaluate communication efforts
- Assign responsibility for evaluation design, completion, and response/follow-up
- Determine how to use and share results of the evaluation(s)
- Document and maintain engagement with portions of the community that are not benefiting from the risk communication strategy
Evaluate whether trust and capacity building were accomplished and how they will be maintained.
22.214.171.124 Evaluation Plan Template
The communication plan template provided in Appendix A, can be used, along with the information developed throughout the communication planning process, to understand if you were able to reach your communication goals.
126.96.36.199 Evaluation Follow-up Task Template
The communication plan template provided in Appendix A, along with the information developed through the evaluation above, can help determine whether you were able to reach your communication goals and to identify follow-up actions.
188.8.131.52 Long-term Communication Efforts
For some sites it will be important to implement long-term communication efforts. Some examples of those efforts are:
- Community succession training to facilitate knowledge transfer and communication of long-term community needs and identification of future community liaisons.
- Identification of opportunities for community education and empowerment.
Integrate follow-up to stakeholder concerns in the project’s long-term monitoring plan. Examples of applicable concerns to follow up on include property value loss, loss of sense of safe place, and paying homage to historic relics of former industry.
4.9 Training for Practitioners
It is important for the communication and project teams to be informed on the best available information or state of the science on the particular environmental issue or concern so they can properly plan and implement risk communication. ITRC documents, workshops, and webinars are available resources. Current information about training is available on the ITRC website https://www.itrcweb.org/Training.