Why Communicate Now?
Developing a Communications Strategy
Uganda’s Minister of Defence, Dr. Crispus Kiyonga, speaking to Ugandan media at a UNDP Uganda event featuring the destruction of 500 tons of ammunition in the country, the largest arms demolition in Africa to date. Photo: UNDP Uganda
There are many examples of outstanding development communications.
Across the development business, however, there has also been a long-standing
tradition of thinking of communications as a secondary activity. Development
issues seem urgent and complex, demanding immediate attention.
Communications initiatives routinely end up being tacked on as an afterthought,
to be carried out by people who may or may not have professional experiences
in the field.
But in communications, as in any other endeavour, this kind of poor planning yields poor results. Poor planning means missed opportunities for communications that could strengthen UNDP and its contributions to human development. It is as simple as that.
Like anything else, the extent of communications activities depends on available capacity and resources. But to maximize both, a communications strategy should be in place. UNDP regional and national offices should develop a general communications plan for advocacy and outreach, with some provisions for emergencies, and specific plans for major events.
Strategies come with varying levels of detail, but they should always be linked to UNDP’s overall corporate goals. How can communications help UNDP achieve its vision and mission, nationally, regionally and/or globally? A plan may include many different levels and types of activities, but all should be part of answering this question.
Effective plans also differentiate between strategy and tactics. Tactics are the individual actions that make up the strategy. An event to launch a report would be a tactic. The strategy might be to provide information to government policy makers and local officials, with the objective of increasing resources allocated to sound human development policies.
Even before drafting a communications plan, it can be useful to reflect on some general factors that may affect it. These include the assets and challenges common to development organizations (specific global/regional/national assets and challenges should be assessed separately). Fenton Communications has summarized some of these in Now Hear This.
- Tremendous public trust
- Work on inspiring issues that by their very nature garner attention
- Strong record
- Going from right to righteous, which can offend supporters
- Wanting to win the battle and the war in one step, when history shows the need for commitment over the long term
- Building communications initiatives based on assumptions, not tested, well-researched strategies
- Thinking that the issues are too complex for simple, concise messages
Which of these apply to your office, and to what degree? How can they help or hinder communications?
Big picture preparation work also involves a clear understanding of UNDP’s corporate strategies and brand, and, for country offices, the objectives of the country programme. Before drafting a communications plan, you also might want to do a general assessment of:
- UNDP’s visibility in a particular country or on a specific
issue. Is UNDP reaching the audiences it needs to speak to? What,
in general, is UNDP’s reputation? In country offices, ask national partners,
investigate local media reports and consult staff who have been in the office
for some time.
- The development context. What legal, political, economic,
social or post-conflict issues affect UNDP’s programming and presence?
- Staff capacities and budget resources. Is the office
budget structured in a way that supports communications work? How much money
is currently available for communications? Do staff have expertise on some
specific aspects of communications and not others?
- Planned programming activities. Which are fresh,
new or potentially powerful in their impact or reach? Knowing about some of
the best activities and prioritizing them in advance will yield a stronger
communications plan, particularly in cases where resources are limited.
- Other partners, including within the UN system. What are they doing for communications work? What has worked/not worked? Are there opportunities for collaboration? Should UNDP in its own communications activities seek to contribute to national capacity development, such as by partnering with local firms or NGOs?
Components of a Communications Strategy:
1. What are you trying to do?
2. What are the potential threats and opportunities?
3. Whom do you need to talk to?
4. What do you want to say?
5. How do you reach your audience?
6. Who does what and when?
7. Paying the bills
8. Evaluating results
The following list comprises the basic components of a strategic
communications plan. In the Tools section of this toolkit, you will find several templates available to help chart a communications
strategy, including the UNDP Communications Strategy Template crafted by the UNDP Office of Communications in New York.
What are you trying to do? The very first thing you need to know is your objective. Everything else follows. Good objectives are ambitious, but realistic and specific. They should be linked to organizational priorities and programmes, so that these drive communications. Otherwise, communications becomes just ‘about communications’ and achieves no clear result.
Inadequate objectives would be ‘to improve human development’ and ‘to foster stronger governance’. Better objectives are ‘to improve human development by raising awareness among policy makers about the need to change policy X, and to provide data and analysis that rationalize that change’, and ‘to encourage voter turnout during an election’.
What are the potential threats and opportunities? What will help or hinder you from reaching your objectives? These factors may be both internal (staff capacities, resources) and external (cultural patterns, infrastructure or the political environment). Do any of these issues need to be dealt with in advance? Should the plan seek to build on the opportunities, or prepare for the threats?
Whom do you need to talk to? To communicate effectively, especially to maximize the use of resources, it doesn’t make sense just to start talking and hope to be heard. You need to identify which target audiences you must reach. You also need to understand them. What can they do to help you achieve your objectives? What motivates them to take action? What are their concerns and desires? Why should they care about your issues? Who influences them, and whom do they influence? The last factor is especially important if you hope to achieve a multiplier effect by focusing on a few key people with the clout to inform or convince many others. In some cases, this can be more effective than an expensive or drawn-out mass media campaign.
In general, avoid making the media your target audience. Even though you need specific tactics to reach them, they are a communications vehicle, not an end in themselves. Increased media visibility means little unless it advances the overall work of the organization.
Researching target audiences can be an extensive process involving focus groups, surveys and other sophisticated tools for gathering information. Some UNDP offices may have the capacity and the need to use these tools—others may find them out of reach. Sources of information may already exist, however. Try to tap the resources of other UN organizations, international or national NGOs and any national organizations that may conduct market research. You can also learn a lot by listening to individual members of your intended audiences, exercising care not to extrapolate or generalize beyond a reasonable point.
You will find some examples on how to map and prioritise target audiences in the Tools section of this toolkit.
What do you want to say? Once you understand your audience(s), you should have a clearer idea of what you can say to convince them to support your objectives. This may not be as simple as restating the objectives. Different ways of conveying the same information may be needed for different audiences. More technical messages may suit some circles; simple slogans or stories that convey the core of your objectives may be more appropriate in others.
Given the amount of information circulating today, however, simple, clear and concise messages can be effective everywhere, whether you want to grab the attention of a busy policy maker or rouse the interest of a village official. These messages don’t have to explain all the details—they are designed to present a compelling fact or strike an emotional chord that convinces people to find out more themselves. They should have a ‘hook’, such as:
- What’s different?
- What’s new?
- What’s gone wrong?
- What’s controversial?
- What’s of general interest?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you have something important to say, people will want to hear it. How you convey information can be just as important as what you have to say. Pre-testing messages, through focus groups or market research, can help fine-tune them. Pre-testing considers variables such as comprehension, attractiveness, acceptance, involvement and inducement to action.
A less elaborate test is to ask the question: Why should people care? If you can’t answer this easily, in one sentence, you may need to do additional work.
To maximize impact, it can be useful to extract two or three of the most important key messages, especially in short forms of communications—press releases, interviews and executive summaries, for example. Ask yourself: If only one or two messages can get through, what do I most want people to hear? Repetition of a few messages not only extends the number of people you can reach, but makes what you say more convincing for those who hear it multiple times.
How do you reach your audience? Identify the communications vehicles and activities that will most effectively communicate your key messages to your audience. You may want to organize these by types of communications, such as advocacy, outreach, organizational branding and so on, or by communications vehicles, such as the media, publications, special events and the Internet. In looking at different options, make sure to question existing assumptions—you may be surprised by how many configurations are possible. Which one is best? A communications strategy from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) suggests going through a list of questions such as:
- Why a regular newsletter rather than a more occasional briefing?
- Why a large national conference rather than a series of smaller regional seminars
- Why an email bulletin rather than more face-to-face contact?
Some consideration also has to be given to resources. How can you get the most for what you spend? A cost-benefit chart from Cause Communications gives a general sense of the best uses of different media channels, and whom you might reach for how much money.
To build relationships with audiences and establish an evaluation tool, also
consider ways to listen to them. What channels can you have for feedback?
How will you tell them what you did in response to their comments?
Who does what and when? A communications strategy should have short, medium and long-term targets with specific deadlines for achievement. A common mistake in communications work is to underestimate the time and resources required, or to pack in too many activities. Prioritize, allow enough time and build in flexibility for changes along the way. If you need to make choices, the first preference should be for activities that combine high impact with low cost.
Clear lines of accountability should spell out individual responsibilities. This includes determining who will manage the strategy and who will monitor its implementation. What happens if deadlines are missed? In case of a crisis, do you need a point person for rapid response and to carefully manage information in and out of the office?
For the strategy as a whole, top management support is critical.
Paying the bills. Good communications costs money. Communications work should be supported by its own budget, tied to achieving the objectives of a communications strategy (which in turn is rooted in programme and organizational goals). Trying to squeeze a communications initiative out of a programme budget at the last minute is a recipe for poorly focused communication with little chance of an impact.
Some UNDP offices have modeled a way forward by reserving a set percentage of overall resources for communications work—the Regional Bureau for Europe and the CIS’s one per cent pledge is an example.
Evaluating results. There is a perception that communications work is a gamble because it cannot be evaluated. That notion is not true. Communications can be assessed just like UNDP programmes. Evaluation mechanisms should be built into the communications strategy to check it as it unfolds—reducing the risk of making mistakes or continuing in wrong directions.
Some common forms of evaluating communications include:
- Before and after research to measure awareness of the messages you have conveyed to target audiences
- Translation of research findings into policy or practice
- Feedback from events
- Tracking the volume and nature of media coverage
- Monitoring website hits
- Demand for information
- Increased parliamentary discussion of issues advocated by UNDP
- Donor commitments
- Budget reallocations
For more on evaluation at UNDP, see the handbook put out by the Evaluation Office.
“Hope, as in ‘here’s hoping it works,’ is not a sound communications strategy.”
Maggie Williams, Communications Consultant
Misconceptions about communications can—and do—derail effective planning if they go unrecognized. The myths and facts below were drawn from the research in Bridging the Gap, a study based on strategic communications in US foundations, and Communicating Sustainability, a UNEP booklet on public campaigns.
Myth: Any communication is good communication.
Reality: The world is full of bad communications. Think of the last time you struggled to stay awake during a speech, gave up trying to decipher a policy paper or had a misunderstanding with a friend. The most successful communications initiatives craft compelling messages for people identified as willing to hear them and respond.
Myth: Communications is too expensive and doesn’t
Reality: Poorly planned communications wastes resources and has no impact. Public and private sector organizations have proven the value of communicating well. Private businesses, which are tied to the bottom line, invest money in strategic communications because they can measure its return in increased sales and revenues. Public and not-for-profit organizations have used strategic communications to give issues such as the environment and women’s rights a global prominence beyond what has ever been achieved in the past.
Communications problems can be easily exacerbated by a lack of knowledge. A common mistake, for example, is to automatically pour resources into media coverage, based on the assumption that that is what communications is about. This is true in some countries. But perhaps in your country, the best way of reaching the people you need to talk to would be through face-to-face meetings in three provinces. If you choose the first alternative, your message may not be heard.
Myth: Human beings are rational.
Reality: Development communications at large too often makes the mistake of assuming that people will respond primarily to technical information. While highly complex and detailed communications may be appropriate in some circumstances, there are many situations where you will reach people—even highly intellectual people—through their hearts and their emotions, not their heads. Private sector advertising has long been aware of this ‘secret’, which is why an ad for a new car will generally not explain all the wonderful technical aspects of the engine, but will make people feel prosperous, happy, safe and fulfilled if they drive it.
One global truth is that people love stories about other people’s lives—every culture has a history of narrative story telling. And people are inspired by messages of hope, optimism and possibility. Development is about people improving their lives and can be translated in this way. An election, for example, is not just about better governance and capacity development, but about people having an opportunity to make choices and express their points of view on the issues that matter to them.
Myth: Telling people about how awful a situation
is will compel them to take action.
Reality: As the 2004 tsunami showed, people do respond to the suffering of others. But messages that convey too much of a sense of fear and horror, especially about big problems such as poverty, can lead to feelings of apathy. Problems begin to seem so huge they cannot be solved anyway. Research also shows that people have problems imagining the consequences of issues that appear to be far off—such as climate change—because human beings are not programmed to respond to threats that appear too vague or unconnected to their immediate daily lives. For these reasons, effective advocacy often stresses positive messages, and gives people a concrete sense of what they can do to take action.
Myth: Our issues are too complex.
Reality: No issue is too complex. Einstein was able to describe the theory of relativity in ways that can be presented in an introductory physics class. Complicated theories or situations may need to have their core messages distilled, depending on which audience you are trying to reach. This may require extra effort or creativity, or thinking outside the box. But it can be done.