Develop your communications strategy
With your final objective clear, now is the point at which you can identify specific actions to facilitate change. We believe communications-based activities are some of the most important types of actions you can take. In fact, your communications strategy will be integral to your overall policy engagement strategy.
For this reason, this section focuses on different aspects of communications and on writing your communications strategy.
Communication is fundamental to almost all approaches you will take to engaging with your stakeholders: it is an ongoing process that forms the backbone of your day-to-day work throughout the life of your project or programme. Relationships with stakeholders take time to develop, and the sooner they can be involved in some action the better.
When we talk about ‘communication’ we use the word in its broadest sense. Communication can take many forms, including online engagement and social media, field visits, public events or private meetings.
In this part, we discuss two broad communication approaches to achieve your objectives: first, how to encourage specific stakeholders (e.g. government decision-makers) to adopt a certain policy position; second, a set of functions/actions for problems with a higher degree of complexity. There is a degree of overlap between these two approaches, and your policy-influencing objective will help you decide your primary focus.
Communications approach 1: encouraging a particular policy position
You may want to encourage policy-makers to adopt a specific position. An essential first step is to assess the extent to which different stakeholders are predisposed to move towards that position. Some may already have commissioned research or begun activities relevant to it. But not all the stakeholders involved will agree with proposals or activities already under way.
There are several ways to engage with stakeholders in order for them to adopt a particular position. We distinguish these as:
These methods are generally collaborative. They may feature direct interactions with decision-makers, allies and other key actors. They include participation in negotiations, meetings, direct communications with government ministers or informal, face-to-face discussions with close collaborators and other contacts.
These methods are sometimes more confrontational. They may target large numbers of individuals, or the political debate on an issue, through public messaging and campaigning.
They aim to build public support for a new policy, use public meetings and speeches to communicate the rationale for a proposed reform and/or use television and radio to raise public awareness of an issue.
There is also a distinction between approaches that work through formal and informal channels. Working on the formal side might involve inputting to structured consultation processes, giving formal submissions to a committee or providing advisory services to feed into specific decisions.
Working through informal channels might involve trying to persuade key individuals through face-to-face discussions that occur outside work events, or claiming new spaces for expressing opinions through protest or activism. In total, this creates four possible communications methods to influence policy (see Figure 7).
Figure 7: Four communications methods for influencing policy
Communications approach 2: knowledge-brokering
Getting others to adopt a specific position may not always be appropriate. There may also be several other voices and stakeholder groups asking the government to take different policy positions. Who prevails will depend on many factors.
Instead of achieving measurable impacts on policy, in these situations your intervention or action may be more about developing capacities, improving and broadening the quality of debate through furthering dialogue and sharing ideas. This is often referred to as a ‘brokering’ approach.
Brokering knowledge and relationships among and between specific stakeholder groups offers an approach to achieving this.
At different stages, projects or programmes may need to undertake activities that are more interactive and multi-directional. Here is a set of knowledge-brokering activities, functions or strategies you may want to pursue.
This means disseminating or sharing content in a form that is appropriate to a specific audience.
Key requirements in this are: understanding the targeted stakeholder and their needs; translating where necessary, particularly for non-specialist audiences; and packaging and communicating what has been produced in appropriate ways without compromising its objectivity.
Rather than expecting key audiences to come to you, you push information to them, through the existing channels that they already use. Shaping your proposals to fit how the issue is framed may help make your ideas, or at least the way they are perceived by policy-makers, more relevant. ‘Informing’ and ‘translating’ might be appropriate when there is an existing demand for the information, where information can easily be understood and acted on and/or when it is important to reach as many people as possible.
This means seeking out known experts to advise on a particular problem, which the policy-maker has outlined through briefings and roundtables, for instance.
The person or organisation gives tailored advice in response to a clear remit, rather than simply providing information. Linking is appropriate when there is a clear policy question (and a formal written consultation is under way); where technical advice is required in response to specific questions; or where it is important to consult with specific groups of people local to a problem or issue.
It can be informal, through interaction and discussions created through social networking and online forums.
This means introducing people to others they usually would not meet. This enriches the perspectives a policy-maker can draw on, possibly changing the framing of the policy question. This may be appropriate when there is a need to broaden policy-makers’ horizons or to spot potential synergies with other issues to create a more strategic overview. Where issues are complex, involving multiple perspectives, it will be important to help decision-makers recognise that credible voices are not limited to technocrats or elites. Matchmaking is particularly appropriate in the case of strategic or complex policy issues that cannot be dealt with by a single organisation or where it is important to learn from experiences in other systems or countries.
Examples of these actions are summarised in Table 3.
Complexity and knowledge brokering
The more complex the context in which you are working, the more likely you are to need to pursue a brokering rather than an influencing approach.
- With distributed capacties, it may be more effective to strengthen communication within networks rather than aiming for a particular policy position.
- With divergent goals, a collaborative problem-solving approach may work better than attempting to drive change towards a single, pre-specificed goal.
- With uncertain change pathways, use single rather than multiple entry points for communication.
Develop and refine your communications strategy
A communications strategy will underpin your overall policy engagement strategy. It does not have to be complicated, but should be something that has support from the team, programme or organisation, and ideally should be as practical as possible. It should not be too rigid and will need regular review to ensure it aligns with overall policy engagement activities. Most of all, it needs to be relevant to your context.
As you consider each stage, you can document key issues/notes in the template in Table 4. See Hovland (2005) and Economic and Social Research Council Impact Toolkit (2012).
Table 4: Communications strategy template