If you check some thesauruses, you’ll find that ‘strategy’ and ‘plan’ are synonymous. This might explain why so many consultants and organizations assume a communications strategy and communications plan are one and the same, misusing and misappropriating these terms quite frequently.
Communications strategies and plans are inextricably linked and can have similar components, but in order to deliver effective communications, they should be distinguished.
At its highest level, a communications strategy (e.g. a corporate communications strategy) sets out your organization’s communications mission and vision, which must be in line with your organization’s overall mission and vision. In this sense it is a high-level strategy to guide all of your organization’s communications initiatives and activities. Communications strategies for specific initiatives and projects, content strategies, media strategies and other communications-related strategies should all fall under and be in line with your organization’s high-level communications strategy.
A communications plan is a tangible plan for how a communications strategy will be taken forward. It highlights key communications activities and milestones, timelines, budgets, and resources allocated to delivering the strategy. On the one hand, one can speak of a communications plan for the high-level communciations strategy mentioned above. Or one can speak of communications plans for specific projects or initiatives, which may or may not have specific communications strategies. If they don’t, then such communications plans should be guided by the high-level communications strategy. Such plans should outline how the high-level strategy will be implemented in those specific contexts.
So there you have it, the key differences between the two, based on my analysis and experience as a communications practitioner. Lastly, allow me to conclude with a few parting points:
To enhance the effectiveness of your communications, you need to have a communications strategy as well as relevant/associated communications plans: Developing these interlinked products will ensure that all key communications factors, components and needs are addressed for your organization.
A communications strategy can incorporate a communications plan, and vice versa, but this is not a given: It is therefore important to understand the difference between the two. This will help you ensure that the information required for both products is available, be it in standalone documents or in one document.
Keep your strategies and plans concise, especially if they will be shared with multiple stakeholders: Though comprehensive analysis should go into developing a communications strategy, it does not need to be hundreds of pages. A concise presentation that is easily accessible to all stakeholders is advised. This will ensure that it can be much more effectively referred back to, understood and updated, and that all stakeholders can effectively rally around it without getting bogged down in too many details. For these same reasons I also advise making your communications plan brief, focusing on key information.
Non-profits: Click here for an excellent resource for developing a communications strategy and workplan