A focus on outcomes, adaptability, and engagement.
A communications strategy, at face value, is identifying your target audience, deciding on what messages will resonate with them to create the action you want, and finding the most appropriate and effective channels on which to deliver that message.
In the development sector, calls for tender “Term of References” will often include the need for a communications strategy, and also list a series of outputs expected as part of the communications delivery. This is very definitely putting the cart before the horse. Listing communications outputs as a given before a project has even started, especially when a project has a long timeline, locks communication efforts into tools which may not be the most effective.
It's time to start thinking of communication as a strategic investment. The UN's recent decision to partner with an international communications consultancy to mobilise climate action underscores this shift. This recognition highlights a broader truth: effective communication is not just about transmitting messages; it's about creating the conditions for tangible and lasting change.
Target audience identification - a strategic foundation
A true strategy exercise will break down a target audience to specific stakeholder names where possible, having worked out who the key decision makers are in any policy process, and as such, the question then becomes how to reach them specifically. It could be that the most effective way to reach a key decision maker is to hand them a report and explain it point by point in a face-to-face meeting. This may also require some groundwork before the meeting to make them more responsive so the message lands more firmly. This precision requires flexibility, acknowledging the dynamic nature of communication, media, and policy landscapes.
A strategy that evolves with these changes ensures the right messages reach the right people at the right time. Information leads to awareness, leads to action. We know from our own lives what we respond to, where we get our information from, what we choose to act on, why we do so. It changes, often and for multiple reasons. Translating this to effective policy and programme delivery means finding the sweet spot, and that may mean sometimes trying, failing, and needing to change direction.
This also extends to internal project communications. Everyone involved in a programme, no matter their job title, has some measure of communications responsibility by dint of their engagement with stakeholders or their programme deliverables. A flexible strategy is dictated by those working on it, and as such, ownership of communications falls to everyone. And the ability to adapt and change is driven by those working on it, meaning flexibility must extend to project deliverables too - as well as creating an environment of confidence to change as circumstances change.
Outcomes over outputs
Traditional communication approaches in development often focus on outputs, such as the number of website visitors, social media followers, or publications. While these outputs may be important, they should not be the sole focus of communication efforts. Shifting the focus from outputs to meaningful outcomes and impacts is paramount. A more strategic approach to communication focuses on outcomes, such as raising awareness of a critical issue, changing attitudes and behaviours, or mobilising people to take action.
To echo a point made by Duncan Green on designing development research: "The vast majority of proposals seem to conflate impact with research dissemination".
Adaptability for impact
Communication channels are not static; they evolve. A five-year project will likely witness shifts in how stakeholders consume information due to advancing technology. Social media platforms come and go, and the effectiveness of specific channels may change. A strategy that anticipates and embraces these changes proactively stays ahead of the curve, avoiding the trap of specifying rigid communication channels or setting quantitative targets at the project's outset.
Meaningful metrics - quality over quantity
It is important to measure the impact of communication efforts. However, not all metrics are created equal. Some metrics, such as website visits and social media followers, are relatively easy to track but may not be indicative of real impact. It's not about reaching a million followers; it's about cultivating trust and engagement through content that resonates with the target audience. Visits to a website are valuable only if they contribute to the desired outcome, not just to meet a numerical target.
Other metrics, such as changes in attitudes and behaviours, are more difficult to track but provide a more accurate measure of impact.
The role of social media and websites
Social media undoubtedly plays a role in the communication mix, but it's not a magic wand. Building a meaningful audience takes time and effort. Simply launching a social media channel won't attract a million followers overnight. You need engaging, relevant content and acknowledge that cultivating trust and interest requires a steady flow of the right material. There are algorithms to consider, and in global projects, some channels are more popular in some countries than others. And as projects are being established, content can be in short supply, so launching channels too soon to tick a deliverable box can do more harm than good. It makes it difficult to create, and continue, the reputation needed to hold the audience over the long term.
Similarly, websites are often considered pre-specified deliverables on larger development projects. However, the question arises: are they serving a purpose beyond showcasing final publications and reports? Or, even more cynically, as a space to feature the logos of donors to evidence their attachment to yet another development project? In some cases, it may be more effective to use existing platforms, such as social media, websites or newsletters of partner organisations with an already established audience in the sector rather than starting from scratch. It’s also worth considering if there are alternative, more dynamic ways to reach stakeholders where they already go find information.
Communication is central to the success of every project and programme. However, the budget allocated to communication is often an afterthought. Whether it's showcasing development efforts or presenting groundbreaking research, without adequate resources for communication, the potential for meaningful impact diminishes.
A small, but helpful example of this is ensuring there’s adequate budget not just for the big things – events or a new website, for example – but also for the smaller details that add power to communications. Including costs to cover things like authentic imagery from the project itself - employing local photographers or videographers– can set communications apart by helping tell a story for audiences. This will also help build an audience on social media channels by being able to share original content that’s rooted in context and will feed into almost all other project outputs.
Funders can play a key role in supporting strategic communication in development projects. Funders must be willing to move away from overprescribing communication activities and pointless metrics; embrace adaptability; and focus on clarity of outcomes and impacts. By prioritising strategic communication, development projects can foster the conditions for transformative change.