Developing Strategic Communications
Communicating and disseminating your findings and recommendations to stakeholders is key to making improvements in the target political process. Effective communication requires developing successful communication strategies and strong messages that can engage key decision-makers as well as other important stakeholders. A communications strategy is rooted in an understanding of the desired change, the roles and incentive structures of key actors you are trying to reach to make this change, and the information environment.
Both your communications of monitoring initiatives and the channels you use to communicate should be targeted to your intended audience and presented in an engaging and accessible format. Important questions to consider include:
- Where do these groups currently go to find this type of information, and under what circumstances? How can you meet them where they are?
- What barriers do they face to accessing or engaging with such information, and how will this communications strategy overcome those?
- What motivations do they have for engaging with your monitoring initiative and findings, and how can you leverage those?
- How can your communications motivate key actors to engage over time in a sustainable way, whether through ongoing awareness, advocacy or implementation of recommended changes?
- How can you build an approach that is inclusive, transparent and accessible?
If you’re not communicating your findings and recommendations effectively, the information you gathered and analyzed likely won’t have a significant impact, and your monitoring initiative likely won’t generate the change you seek.
A critical foundation of an effective communications strategy is trust. Building trust in your initiative and findings among the public and among your target audiences in particular starts with embodying transparency around your process and your goals. Presenting your methodology clearly and communicating it to your audience in an accessible and intelligible way, particularly doing so as early as possible in the process before you have collected your data, will allow the public to trust your intentions and process, so that your monitoring does not become politicized. Particularly in the field of political process monitoring, where various social and political pressures and dynamics are in play, it is important to think through the impact, both intended and unintended, that your findings may have. For example, think through any preexisting social or political tensions that could be exacerbated by the results of the findings. If the findings have the potential to alienate the government further, how can you communicate them in a way that encourages the government to make a change? If the findings have the potential to add to public dissatisfaction with government services, how can you present them in a way that instead inspires the ability to make a change?
One of the best ways to build trust in and engagement with monitoring findings, or any communications goal, is to build relationships with your target audiences. As previously mentioned, an inclusive and human-centered design approach in your communications strategy and tools development enables co-creation and ongoing communication with your target audience from an early stage. Bringing your target audience into the design process not only ensures the end product will be more user friendly and engaging, but also establishes a mutual understanding of your process and goals as well as your audience’s ownership and buy-in for a more impactful uptake, as they have invested time and effort, and have had their voices represented in the development process.
Effective communication depends on focused and persistent messages. Messages are short, straightforward, and easily understood pieces of information that raise an interest for more information. Messaging is the act of communicating your messages. Messages are useful tactics for opening the door to more widespread discussion of your monitoring findings and recommendations. Use the data and evidence produced from your monitoring to develop messages that articulate a call to action. Effective communications should take that data and tailor the messaging to address the interests and perspectives of different audiences, such as the media, government officials and civil society.
There are six attributes to powerful messages. These can be thought of as STRONG messages,45 which must be:
- Simple, because the whole idea must be easy to grasp;
- Touching, so that it can raise interest and/or elicit a reaction;
- Relevant to the monitored process;
- Optimistic, so that it seems like a necessary action;
- Not exaggerated by going beyond what the monitoring evidence shows; and
- Get repeated, because the key to effective messages and messaging is repetition.
There are two types of messages: positive messages and negative messages. Negative messages highlight what is not being done or what is being damaged. Negative messages can often strike strong emotions that garner attention. As such, some organizations choose negative messaging because they believe it will generate a faster response from the government; however, it is more confrontational and may hurt future opportunities for collaboration.
In contrast, positive messages highlight what needs to be done and improved. Because monitoring work can be sensitive and because access to that government process can be crucial to your monitoring, positive messaging is recommended. A communication strategy that uses positive messages seeks to uplift and empower government to use your monitoring as an opportunity to build trust and improve government services.
For example, your monitoring initiative may reveal evidence that the budget is not as transparent as possible, and citizens want more transparency into public finances. A positive message could be “transparent budget brings trust in government.” In another example, you may have monitored appointments in government ministries and found that women are less represented. A positive message could then be “women should have an equal voice in government.” Once you have developed strong messages that align with your key recommendations, you are ready to effectively communicate your monitoring work.
Advocacy can be defined as a set of organized, strategic actions taken over a period of time to influence decision-makers and bring about a specific desired change. However, too often civil society organizations narrow down advocacy to focus primarily on meeting with and persuading decision-makers. To be effective, advocacy should aim to also build support among society for key issues and to mobilize citizens to demand action and change. A citizen’s ability to advocate for change is a fundamental method of holding leaders accountable.
In advocating your recommendations to decision-makers, you should engage other civil society organizations, the media, and citizens, as well as groups with interests and beliefs contrary to yours. Building awareness and support among wide-ranging stakeholders will help generate mass demand for the changes that you are advocating. Mass demand is what ultimately pushes decision-makers to initiate change.
Using existing CSO coalitions or forming new coalitions around principles that are aligned with your goals and your monitoring work is an effective way to build support and mobilization among civil society. Coalitions can help you amplify your voice and can extend your reach through their own relations with public officials, the media and other communities. Engaging the media is another important communications and advocacy strategy. The media has a broad audience that includes diverse citizens and decision-makers. It is important to engage the media by presenting messages that can be easily turned into headlines.
After garnering the attention of civil society, citizens and the media, you can turn your focus to influencing public officials. More information on engaging public officials and institutions can be found below.
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