Many companies put great time and expense into creating a communications plan. But all too often these plans end up languishing out of sight and mind.

Few times have cried out for good communications more than during the events of the COVID-19 pandemic. So whether the past year-plus caught you without a crisis communications plan (or with one woefully out of date), now is the time to revisit this important document. Now is the time to take stock of all the lessons learned in the past year and incorporate those into your plan.

What is a communications plan?

In short, a communications plan helps you clarify messaging and deliver information to your stakeholders. These plans identify your audience and appropriate communication channels. They also help companies during times of crisis.

As all too many found during 2020, no one wants to be unprepared when disaster strikes.

Most communications plans, at the very least, contain the following five components:

• Audience: Identifying the audience, the people to whom you will communicate your messages, is an important initial step in the plan.

• Goals and Objectives: It may seem obvious, but your communications should be aligned with your corporate strategy. So it is important to express why you are communicating and what you want to achieve.

• Messages: Clear, simple messages are the heart of the plan. The simplest, most effective messages, however, can be the most difficult to create.

• Tactics: Here communicators lay out strategies and schedules for communications. Strategy should always be aligned with goals.

• Metrics of Success: This is where organizations determine the success of their tactics. Metrics are a key part of the plan and should be used to adjust ongoing strategy.

Does your plan include risk communication?

One of the founding principles of risk communication is that the rules of communication change during times of high stress.

With this in mind, the tools of risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can improve the effectiveness of your communications plan.

As detailed in Dr. Vincent Covello’s video-based course, the following items can be considered when determining the best messaging for your audience:

• Trust determination

• Mental noise

• Negative dominance

• Risk perceptions

• Cultural diversity

• Visual and nonverbal clues

Dr. Covello works week in and week out with risk communicators around the world. Examples of his work include “Effective Media Communication during Public Health Emergencies: A WHO Field Guide” (for the World Health Organization) and “Risk Communication: Principles, Tools & Techniques” (for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission).

Have you created message maps?

The message map (see Six Steps to Message Mapping) is one of the most powerful tools for crafting messages. As such, message maps deserve serious consideration for inclusion in your communications plan.

Message maps …

• Organize information hierarchically.

• Help communicators respond to anticipated questions or concerns.

• Provide a visual aid for quickly answering questions during periods of stress and high emotion.

• Tell communicators what questions to expect and provide the recommended answers.

Pathway Prompt: Do you have a communications plan? If so, how could it have better served you over the last year? What lessons did you learn over the past year that could help you move forward?

Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide

More information about risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can be found in Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication.

This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.

The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice. More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing

Dr. Vincent Covello

Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books.