May 2005

ICTD Project Newsletter

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Communication for development: Creating a communication strategy

Eight years after Frances Cairncross wrote the book 'Death of Distance: How the Communication Revolution will change our Lives' (Harvard Business School Press, 1997), much of the 30 points stated under what communication will change and cause, already hold true. Many impacts in those stated 30 points like irrelevance of location, horizontal bonds among people internationally with same interests, deluge of information, proliferation of ideas, increased mobility, etc, can already be observed in a developing nation like India.

Communication has shortened the distance between two individuals. But if not used to its true potential and in the right spirit, communication and communication technologies can also widen the gulf between individuals, communities and nations. Communication as a concept and practice is dynamic. The popular perception of communication and how it was an essential part of development has evolved considerably since the 1950's when it started to be accepted as a necessary means to transform the social development process in developing nations. 

Since then, the perception of communication and how it can help development process has changed. Though widely contested, the role of communication has been accepted far and wide by most. Communication has moved from being solely a media linked activity to a tool embedded in every development project process. Communication has stopped being a support activity and is recognised as process that can encourage community involvement in their life transformation.

Communication theories and practices
Traditional development worldwide in mid twenty first century saw development as a process which would raise the political, social and economic levels of the developing countries to that attained by developed countries. Development communication, as it was first called, was the medium used to transfer the developed world's successes to the third world countries by using communication theories and strategies conceived by the developed nations.

With passage of time, however, the very meaning of the term development was challenged and development communication continued to change and redefine itself. Numerous theories and models for development communication were proposed.

There were primarily two schools of thought that rose from the divergent views about development communication: the Dominant Paradigm that focused on behaviour change promoted by the diffusion of innovations theory, and the participatory theory which redefined development communication.

The Dominant Paradigm theories of social marketing and entertainment-education, attempted to change behaviours of citizens by using techniques such as public information campaigns and media to change practices and also disseminate information through media. This was criticised as a top-down practice which was only about transmission of information and emphasised only on attaining outcomes without focusing on the real information and social needs of the people for whom this whole exercise was undertaken. This resulted in the evolution of participatory theories such as advocacy and social mobilisation. This theory adopts rights based approach and is aimed at informing and empowering people through mobilising resources and groups to create change in public policy and influence decisions makers and citizens. Participatory theories were promoted as a bottom-up approach which aimed at involving the very people for whom development was taking place and emphasised on the whole process of communication.

More recently, the use of communication for development has seen the integration of the polar schools of thoughts where projects implement what they think apt, rather than sticking to one predominant view.

The past six decades have thus not only seen the evolution of communication but have also witnessed the creation of terminologies which attempted to best capture the whole process. The process of using communication for development has given rise to various sub-groups/schools of thought such as Development Communication, Development Support Communication, Alternative Communication for Democratic Communication, Communicating for Social Change and the recently Communications for Development – which seeks to combine varied theories under one head, integrating the best of all.

Need for a structured communication strategyThe confluence of the information society and development sector, that has resulted in what we refer to as using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for development, has once again cast a new light on the role communication can play in project planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Theories of communication can be combined to arrive at communication strategies that can change project implementation process.Strategic communication as it is known, involves the creation of strategies using best practices most suited to the project being conceived and implemented. Communication strategies use varied tools and techniques in every process and phase of project. Devising strategies for individual projects has been seen to provide numerous benefits in relation to understanding the stakeholders, enhancing relationships with them, ensuring that they are a part of the process and in turn even affect sustainability. Communication strategy must be conceptualised during the project inception stage to ensure that optimum benefits are attained from the strategy.

Benefits and impact
Communication strategies can positively impact the project in numerous ways, some of which are stated below:

  • Create curiosity in people to know more;
  • Enable effective communication to the stakeholders, about each phase of the project and what it entails in terms of internal as well as external activities; 
  • Help ascertain what the needs of the people are early on, and thus manage people's expectations;
  • Create awareness about the project/cause/intervention, etc., among various social and political groups;
  • Mobilise public opinion for the cause;
  • Allow for sociological evaluation of the project in terms of project impacts on people and their lives;
  • Media can be used to effectively inform and evaluate the project, as media often plays the role of a non-partisan third party that gives unbiased feedback;
  • Documentation management: Documentation is an integral component of communication management and a proper documenting each process helps to increase transparency and promotes accountability.

Outline for communication strategy
Arriving at a communication strategy may often seem like a laborious task. But its implementation enables the project to be conducted in a streamlined manner and encourages participation and involvement of all stakeholders. Communication in itself implies the transfer of ideas, knowledge and information and a well defined strategy ensures the project is accountable as well as transparent.

The strategy should be created keeping in mind the priorities. There are various stages and components of a communication strategy. The following is the sequence of steps to arrive at a communication strategy for a development project:

1) Assessing communication needs
At first, dialogue should be established with the people for whom the project is being implemented. The needs assessment study conducted as part of the project could provide a suitable occasion to understand and determine what the information needs of the people are, the social structures through which information flows and gets distributed, which media is commonly appreciated, etc. This also serves as a good way to inform the people about the project and understand their expectations from the project. Group discussions, public meetings, etc. are good ways to mobilise the community, as well as for collection and dissemination of information.  

2) Setting objectives
It is very essential to arrive at a set of objectives on which the communication strategy must be based before embarking upon any communication initiatives. The communication objectives decided upon must be socially driven, but based on what the organisation can deliver. It must hence be aligned with the goal and vision of the project but must be flexible to accommodate minor changes in the organisation's aims and operations. The objectives could be anything from awareness building to information dissemination, from influencing policy makers to brand positioning, but must state clearly why the organisation is undertaking the project. For example, the goal of a project could be to aid farmers in sowing. The objectives will then be activity and task driven such as changing the political leaders stand on free seeds for farmers (advocacy), enrolling 500 farmers in the project (social mobilisation), providing them with weekly inputs from agriculture scientists (transmission of information), understanding techniques currently used, improvising on the same (exchange of information) and suggesting a particular sowing method through use of media (social marketing).

3) Understanding audiences
Before undertaking any communication activity, it is essential to know who the target audience is. A list of audience and partners who should know about the project should be prepared. The focus must not be on the number of audiences targeted but on the value each will add to the project. The audiences could be categorised on age, income, social groups, occupation etc., depending on the project being implemented.   

4) Messages
Each target audience must have a message. The ability of a message is to not only stimulate the audience mentally but also evoke an emotional response. The secret of creating messages is actively involving the groups for whom the messages are being created. The message must be conceptualised in the language of the target audience. Messages created in English and translated into the local language for a non-English speaking people will never create much impact. Alternatively, the important facts that the audience must know about the project and its objectives must be condensed into three points. For increasing the impact, these points must be repeatedly used in all communication activities. Different aspects of the messages must be highlighted for varied audiences, with respect to their areas of interest.

Media relations
Most organisations are at a loss about how to ensure that they receive media attention for their project/cause. After a few attempts most write off interactions with media as a waste of time and efforts. Involving media or gaining their attention requires immense patience. There are no fool-proof measures to ensure that one will receive the due attention and that too when wanted. Listed below are some tips to encourage better collaborations that can produce results:
  1. Build bridges

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