Toolkit for researchers: how to become a strategic communicator


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IDRC's Acacia Learning Forum Tutorial on Communicating research results for influencing policy and practice.

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  • Hello and welcome. This session is part of a tool kit that IDRC’s Communications Division is putting together. The goal — to try to turn each and every one of you into a strategic communicator. Geoff Barnard of the UK’s Institute of Development Studies says it’s a “scandal” that so much public money is spent on research that is locked away in reports and academic articles that are only read by a handful of specialists. We want to change that.
  • Today we’ll start by looking at the big picture. Just what is strategic communications? Then we’ll get more practical, roll up our sleeves, and actually look at how to build a dynamic communications strategy.
  • Let’s start with the big picture
  • Yes, communication is all those things. But it is much, much more. It is not just dissemination or public relations or publicity. It can include social marketing, training, or creating spaces for debate. It can be a policy brief or a blog. It can be a cartoon or a conference presentation. It’s a way of trying to share knowledge and change behaviour. Think of it this way. Information is just giving out. But communication is getting through! It’s also about engagement.
  • Communications is increasingly regarded as a highly valuable tool by the public and private sector as well as civil society. Yet communications is too often just an afterthought or put on the back burner rather than being a vital part of the planning process. In addition, some of you may feel that communications is a distraction that is better left to the Communications Division. You may argue that you need the time and resources to feed the academic machine and talk to your peers. But that is a huge missed opportunity. Strategic communications will help you inform, inspire, and maximize the impact of your development research. A good communications strategy brings together and supports everything you do! Ultimately, It will help do what IDRC was set up to do – improve the lives of people in the developing world.
  • Communication is not simply dissemination. It’s about engagement as well. For example, posting a report on the Web is a way of disseminating your research. However, if you are analyzing how people use the material, thinking who you want to reach via the Web, writing and designing material specifically for the Web, linking with other products or organizations, and building in feedback, then you are thinking strategically. Being strategic means thinking through the purpose of communications to try to build understanding about your research as well as engaging your stakeholders. If you want your research projects to make a difference, you have to get the right information to the right people at the right time. If you want to have an impact on contemporaries or fellow citizens, you need to be communicators.
  • Many of the ways to communicate are universal, whether you want people to buy candy bars, or heed some health research. Car makers who want to sell their latest model set goals, identify who they want to reach, and decide how they want to reach them to influence buying behaviour and make sure decision-makers set policies favourable to their industry. However, people working for agencies such as IDRC are also concerned with an additional area called “communication for development” or “knowledge transfer.” This broadly means a discipline where communication initiatives are put in place to enable development activities. It’s aimed at giving stakeholders a voice and creating spaces for debate. It includes such activities as advocacy, social marketing, community participation, and training. You can learn more by reading “Involving the Community, A guide to Participatory Development Communication” by Guy Bessette. You can incorporate the goals and tactics used in “communication for development” into your overall communications strategy as we will see later in the presentation.
  • IDRC’s President and Board of Governors recognize that smart communications should be incorporated into all of your research projects and initiatives to help change policy and practices and make a difference in the lives of those living in the developing world.
  • As you can see, the importance of strategic communications is reflected in the current Corporate Strategy.
  • Communication thinking needs to be built-in at the start of the research planning process, not tacked on at the end. In far too many cases it is still a hasty end-of-project or piecemeal activity rather than being an integral part of the whole research process. But done right, the work put into the front end will actually make it much easier as the project progresses. Better yet, it can actually save you time and money and help you meet your overall objectives. Ideally, each research project must define a minimal communications strategy drawing on the ideas, networks, and skills of all the partners. It must also outline a means to implement that strategy. Begin with the end in mind! Communication must also be part of the overall budget. Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) allots 10% of its total budget to communications. The UK Economic and Social Research Council suggests at least 5% of the total. The UK-based Institute for Development Studies recommends as much as 30%!
  • Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of how to develop a communications strategy, let me remind you about the importance of strategic thinking as a preliminary step in developing your strategy. Thinking strategically is based on analysis, at looking at things in a broad context, and making linkages. It means trying to get ahead of the curve and consider what the project or initiative is likely to achieve in the future. The Vice-President of Programs at IDRC, Rohinton Medhora, says it is similar to playing ice hockey or soccer – you play to where the puck or ball is going. Strategic communications focuses on the big picture and what you want to accomplish. It is looking at the various channels of communication as widely as possible to try to find the right way to inform and influence policy and practices, and to create a buzz – for example, by using the transformative tools on the Internet. It involves all the key stakeholders and it maintains links throughout the life cycle of the project to draw in potential allies or to use networks that may be able to help communicate and apply the results. Let me give you one example - research on chronic mountain sickness and mining in Peru. Researchers had evidence that working in the high-altitude mines caused illness, so there was potential to have the sickness identified as an occupational illness by the government. This could have been a success story about research to policy. However, the effort to communicate results was limited to the health science community and labour unions. There were no seminars with governments, the industry, or community-based organizations. The researchers were not strategic and they failed to change the status quo.
  • Here is the template. You start with context, then weigh strategic considerations, set objectives, identify target audiences, write messages, decide on tactics and tools, and finally do an evaluation. We’ll tackle these one by one. The key here is to never decide on a tactic or tool such as a news release and then work backwards and ask, “Who will we send it to, and why?” You have to be disciplined and do this in the right order to be effective – and if you are, you may find out that you really don’t need that press release in the first place.
  • Many of you do this already under the idea of context mapping. Basically it is a stakeholder analysis based on fact. You want to look at the economic, social, and political influences specific to the project and country. For example, what are the societal trends? What about demography? Is there an aging population, or a problem with apathetic youth? You also need to consider the international context. Is climate change or HIV/AIDS now big on the radar screen? What are other donors doing? Is IDRC the only granting agency that is looking at supporting think tanks around the world, or are there competitors? Look at what the media is saying and assess the trends in public opinion. Be fully aware of what has happened in the past. For example, when working with herders in Mongolia, you need to understand how they had once worked for Soviet collectives and are only now learning about individual ownership. And of course you need to reflect on what IDRC or partner organizations are trying to do. Follow the carpenters’ maxim: always measure twice, cut once. So be sure to understand your context.
  • This is the second step and is based more on possibilities than facts. What change might happen down the road? For example, might there be a new government or an economic recession? You should consider the current sensitivities and expectations of different groups. The Government of Canada, for example, is focusing on the Americas and Afghanistan in its foreign policy. That focus is now part of IDRC’s strategic considerations. What about potential outbreaks of violence or social conflict that could impact the situation? The risk analysis required in communications is not the same as the risk analysis undertaken when you are deciding whether or not to fund a project. For example, if you get a certain opposition political party on side, might that backfire when you try to talk to the governing party? When you target certain reporters or publications, might they actually be critical of your results? Might there be a backlash from certain NGOs? That’s why it’s good to remember the acronym SWOT. It stands for Strengths and Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Always be on the lookout for potential champions or allies, as well as those who might be opposed to your research results.
  • You need to set a firm goal for a performance outcome. In business, the goal is usually profit. For IDRC, it might be a target for a desired level of knowledge to be acquired by the public, a degree of attitude change, an amount of behavioural change, or a degree of citizen engagement. Another good acronym to remember is to be SMART. That means your goals or objectives are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. Be realistic. Reflect back on the context and the strategic considerations and decide what is actually doable. There is always room to be visionary but you need to be pragmatic as well. I mentioned this earlier but it is crucial. Don’t produce something such as a video just because there’s some money left over in your budget and then work backwards and try to figure out whom to show it to or for what reason. Too often those expensive videos might just end up on the shelf.
  • The next step is to decide who you need to talk to in order to reach your objectives. It requires some sophisticated thinking about who you MUST connect with, as well as those groups you’d like to reach. A good way to start is at the community level and then move up from there. Your first target audience may be the group that is directly affected by the research project. If you decide it’s a village, you may have to further segment to village chiefs, heads of households, women, and children. What about the local farmers’ groups or unions or church organizations? And there are the local organizations or individuals with whom your project team is working. Then start thinking more broadly. When it comes to decision-makers, do you want to reach the community leaders or state agents, or national politicians and bureaucrats? Perhaps it’s all of the above. There are NGOs, other research centres, other IDRC researchers working in the area, other development agencies, donor agencies, and other players at the international level. And of course, there is the media. It is also important to do audience research. Ideally that means using focus groups, surveys, or interviews to try to understand the different priorities, motivations, sensitivities, values, degree of understanding, and behaviour of the target audience. Does a targeted bureaucrat have the capacity to take in research findings? Does he or she have unrealistic notions about the speed of delivering research results? Some of your audience research may come from the field work you have already done on the project. For example, in Burkina Faso, people working on a health project wanted to discuss malaria with villagers and they brought along a poster of a huge mosquito. No one showed up apparently because the villagers were afraid of an insect that big!
  • Go back and look at your objectives — they will help you craft your messages. They must be relevant to the issues and stated goals and objectives. You need to boil it down to just three to five messages that can be constantly repeated. Each message should have only one thought. They should be memorable and create a buzz. They should be crafted to show how your research touches people. The sticky message is one that sticks in people’s minds. It usually has to do with the impact on people. For example, treated bed nets save lives or the TEHIP project reduced child mortality by 40%. These messages will provide the reference point for crafting all your communication products, from speeches to news releases to evaluations. Use active verbs. Save lives. Boost incomes. Empower women. Engage youth. The right message for government might relate to saving money. The right message for media might be about a breakthrough. The right message for the villager might be that it will improve income or health. The traditional “Rs of Message Engineering” are the right message, by the right messenger, with the right timing, to the right audience, using the right vehicle.
  • So now let’s talk about the vehicle. Remember, we started by outlining the context, setting the objectives, deciding on the target audiences, and figuring out the appropriate messages. Now you need to decide on the appropriate tools that will deliver your message to your target audiences so that you reach your goals. Each tool or tactic must fit the specific audience. If it’s an academic audience, there are conference presentations and seminars, journal articles or academic books, or incorporating the research findings into teaching programs or textbooks. For members of a community, this is where the area of “communication for development” fits in. Here the appropriate tools might be a participatory video, or training sessions, or citizen debates or dance, music, cartoons, art, or posters. For example, theatre was used to successfully explain a water issue to a village in Burkina Faso. And in a Focus City project in Jakarta, slum dwellers were taught how to use a camera to take part in a photographic competition. You must also think short-term and long-term. You might want to start by finding a champion at the village level. Then in the mid-term, you might want to communicate with unions or churches or farmers’ organizations. In the longer term, you might want to hold town hall meetings to reach the entire community and further reinforce your message using radio or training.
  • IDRC puts a premium on reaching decision-makers and there are many ways to do so. There are policy briefs written in plain language. There are also leaflets or pamphlets that are less neutral in tone and more oriented toward advocacy. You could arrange face-to-face meetings. You can invite officials to participate in advisory panels and workshops. And you should seek out the champions or influencers within a bureaucracy or government. Another key way to reach decision-makers is through the media. You should cultivate reporters, arrange interviews, write a news release, pitch a feature story or op-ed, arrange a news conference, or try to meet with an editorial board. Don’t ignore the power of the new media. Explore blogs, wikis, podcasts and YouTube, though of course access to the Web varies in the developing world. Along with the mass media, you can also target knowledge multipliers such as SciDev.Net or ELDIS or PANOS or GDNet. They will help disseminate your research more widely. Finally, influencing the attitude of the general public can get the media interested, which in turn captures the attention of decision-makers. For example, when it comes to competition policy, governments are always looking at what the media has to say about anticompetitive behaviour or problems in the marketplace. You can reach the public through the mass media, your website, blogs, podcasts, videos and CDs, and public meetings. Advertising is another possibility, but that is an expensive option. My favourite cost-effective and efficient method is using email blasts (but beware of spamming!).
  • It is also important to work with partners. They also need the discipline of thinking through the process of strategic communications if they want their research results to make a difference in policy and practices. They also need the skills to communicate with their communities, with the media, and with local decision-makers. Help them write a communication strategy using this template we just discussed. You can also encourage or require the researchers to include a more generous allowance for communications work in their project budget. Or you can provide top-up funding when ideas emerge – to hold a workshop for stakeholders, for example. You should stress the importance of communications work and make it part of your mid-term review or part of the funding structure. You can play a supportive role by helping with training events or networking. You can also help communicate the results and champion their research. Why not stimulate the demand by trying to create opportunities for dialogue between journalists and researchers? Make that part of your job.
  • Monitoring and evaluation are an important part of any strategic communications plan. You need to assess the impact of all the work you have put into your communications strategy on an ongoing basis. This is above and beyond the context mapping that is required for any project. It is fair to say that communications is a complex area in which to measure success. But there are ways to do so. They include public opinion research, surveys of demand for publications, user surveys of the website, media analysis, and internal staff surveys. This is expensive and can sometimes be done by getting questions added to existing public surveys. You need to keep track of the contacts you’ve had with government officials or media to constantly appraise how you are doing. Did you build new relationships with influential people? Did you increase your email list? You should build in simple evaluation measures at the start, not as an afterthought. A communications strategy is organic, a living breathing document that constantly evolves. It should evolve as you continue to assess the context in which you are working and the success of your tools and tactics.
  • So there you have it. Step by step. You analyze the context, set objectives, decide on your target audiences to meet those objectives, write messages that will resonate with your target audiences, and then — and only then — decide on the appropriate tactics. And don’t forget evaluation. Do all of this, and it will help get your message out, move markers, and make a world of difference!
  • Toolkit for researchers: how to become a strategic communicator

    1. 1. <ul><li>How to </li></ul><ul><li>Become a </li></ul><ul><li>Strategic </li></ul><ul><li>Communicator </li></ul>
    2. 2. Topics <ul><li>Communications: The Big Picture </li></ul><ul><li>Building a Communications Strategy </li></ul>
    3. 3. Communications: The Big Picture
    4. 4. Communications: The Big Picture <ul><li>What is Communications? </li></ul><ul><li>Press release? </li></ul><ul><li>Face-to-face conversations? </li></ul><ul><li>Video? </li></ul>
    5. 5. Communications: The Big Picture <ul><li>Why is Communications </li></ul><ul><li>Important? </li></ul><ul><li>A valuable and essential tool </li></ul><ul><li>Think strategically </li></ul>
    6. 6. Communications: The Big Picture <ul><li>Strategic Communications </li></ul><ul><li>Beyond dissemination </li></ul><ul><li>Creates engagement </li></ul><ul><li>Makes a difference </li></ul>
    7. 7. Communications: The Big Picture <ul><li>Communications for Development </li></ul><ul><li>Selling research or a Rolex? </li></ul>
    8. 8. Communications: The Big Picture <ul><li>Communications at IDRC </li></ul><ul><li>A corporate imperative </li></ul><ul><li>Communications in the Corporate Strategy and Program Framework 2005-2010 </li></ul>
    9. 9. Communications: The Big Picture <ul><li>“ IDRC will direct resources to staff and research partners to develop and use a range of targeted communication tools and strategies so that the research we support can influence policies, practices, and technologies that contribute to sustainable and equitable development and poverty reduction.” </li></ul>
    10. 10. Communications: The Big Picture <ul><li>Communications Begins </li></ul><ul><li>with Project Planning </li></ul><ul><li>At the beginning, not at the end </li></ul><ul><li>Budget </li></ul>
    11. 11. Communications: The Big Picture <ul><li>Strategic Thinking Revisited </li></ul><ul><li>Analysis </li></ul><ul><li>Focus on the big picture </li></ul><ul><li>Channels of communication </li></ul><ul><li>Key stakeholders </li></ul>
    12. 12. Building a Communications Strategy
    13. 13. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>Key Elements of a </li></ul><ul><li>Communications Strategy </li></ul><ul><li>Context </li></ul><ul><li>Strategic considerations </li></ul><ul><li>Objectives </li></ul><ul><li>Target audiences </li></ul><ul><li>Messages </li></ul><ul><li>Tactics and tools </li></ul><ul><li>Evaluation </li></ul>
    14. 14. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>The Context </li></ul><ul><li>Economic, social, and political environment </li></ul><ul><li>Media scan </li></ul><ul><li>Trends in public opinion </li></ul><ul><li>Historical context </li></ul><ul><li>Corporate culture and goals </li></ul>
    15. 15. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>Strategic Considerations </li></ul><ul><li>Anticipate change </li></ul><ul><li>Risk analysis </li></ul><ul><li>SWOT </li></ul>
    16. 16. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>Objectives </li></ul><ul><li>Set your goals </li></ul><ul><li>Make them SMART </li></ul><ul><li>Be realistic </li></ul><ul><li>Never work backwards </li></ul>
    17. 17. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>Target Audiences </li></ul><ul><li>Who do we need to talk to? </li></ul><ul><li>Start local and go global </li></ul><ul><li>Audience research </li></ul>
    18. 18. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>Messages </li></ul><ul><li>Revisit objectives </li></ul><ul><li>Three to five key messages </li></ul><ul><li>Keep them succinct and simple </li></ul><ul><li>The “sticky message” </li></ul>
    19. 19. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>Tactics and Tools </li></ul><ul><li>Fit with the objectives </li></ul><ul><li>Adapt for specific audiences </li></ul><ul><li>Short-term and long-term </li></ul>
    20. 20. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>Reaching Government </li></ul><ul><li>Decision-Makers </li></ul><ul><li>Policy briefs </li></ul><ul><li>Face-to-face </li></ul><ul><li>Through media </li></ul><ul><li>Through knowledge multipliers </li></ul><ul><li>Through the general public </li></ul>
    21. 21. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>Working with Partners </li></ul><ul><li>Why is it important? </li></ul><ul><li>Ways to encourage them </li></ul>
    22. 22. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>Evaluation </li></ul><ul><li>Why </li></ul><ul><li>What </li></ul><ul><li>How </li></ul><ul><li>Build in evaluation at the start </li></ul><ul><li>A communications strategy is organic </li></ul>
    23. 23. Building a Communications Strategy <ul><li>In Brief </li></ul><ul><li>Analyze the context </li></ul><ul><li>Set objectives </li></ul><ul><li>Think of your target audience </li></ul><ul><li>Write succinct messages </li></ul><ul><li>Determine tactics </li></ul><ul><li>Evaluate </li></ul>
    24. 24. How to Become a Strategic Communicator <ul><li>And if you do that… </li></ul><ul><li>Congratulations! </li></ul><ul><li>You are a strategic communicator. </li></ul>
    25. 25. <ul><li>Communication Strategy Template </li></ul><ul><li>Context </li></ul><ul><li>Strategic Communications </li></ul><ul><li>Objectives </li></ul><ul><li>Target Audiences </li></ul><ul><li>Messages </li></ul><ul><li>Tools and Tactics </li></ul><ul><li>Evaluation </li></ul>How to Become a Strategic Communicator
    26. 26. In Summary