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Analysing How Decision Makers Perceive Communication for Social Change

Most communication planning methods call for an initial research process to understand how a group, or audience, perceives a topic, determine what terminology is used to address the components of the topic, and identify the preferred communication channels. While this research step is clearly a strategic one, it is often overlooked.

This paper reports on one such audience research effort that was carried out in preparation for the design of an advocacy paper entitled "Communication for Development: A Medium for Innovation in Natural Resource Management."¯ [1]. Thirteen policy makers in natural resource management were contacted"”see Annex No. 1 for list of organization"”and interviewed on their perceptions of communication for development.

Their feedback guided us in the design of the publication, which was later peer reviewed and pre-tested with a small number of policy makers before publication.

Introduction and purpose
In 1994, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) financed a survey of decision-makers in multi-lateral and bilateral development agencies, national governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The purpose was to find out about decision-makers' knowledge and opinions about "communication for development"¯ to create a basis for communicating better with them in the future.

Many who have read the survey report have found the results interesting but not surprising. The struggle to institutionalise "development communication"¯ into national and international development programs and projects has been constant. Almost 10 years since the publication of the report, we find decision-makers still do not factor in communication into development planning. Most often, budgets are not set aside to fund communication inputs and, in the words of the original report: "I'ts role and importance still seems to be largely unrecognised at policy and decision-making levels, at least when it comes to providing resources.

Against this backdrop, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) commissioned a paper on development communication in natural resource management. The purpose is to use the paper as a tool with decision-makers to advocate for inclusion of communication in program planning. As in any communication process, we began the process of writing this paper by first assessing our intended audience views on the subject. We used the UNICEF/WHO 1994 survey report as a point of departure.

1. Process

In December 2002 we prepared a list of possible interviewees drawn from a mix of development agencies. Since we are based in Canada, we included three Canadian agencies"”IDRC, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD"”and we tried to spread our interviews across as wide a spectrum as possible of bilateral and multi-lateral donor agencies. We interviewed 14 people from a variety of donor agencies, research institutions and national government (see Annex 1).

We prepared a basic questionnaire for the interview but kept the questions very open-ended. Clearly, we wanted a dialogue in our search of qualitative information. It was also important for us to allow time to "read between the lines,"¯ as Colin Fraser put it in his 1994 report, to help us get a sense of the barriers to acceptance of communication as a key factor in development.

We conducted about half of our interviews in person, which was helpful since we were able to observe facial expressions and body language. It also gave us the opportunity to sketch ideas and show diagrams that helped explain communication.

Other interviews were done by telephone. Fortunately, most of the telephone interviews were knowledgeable and interested in the subject and could give an in-depth interview without benefit of explanation and diagram.

Often, we deliberately began the interview with a question related to the overall role for communication within the organization/work program. The point was to get a sense of a person's first thoughts about communication before probing further. This meant that for some, we had to move beyond corporate communication needs to get to a discussion on development communication. For others it meant pushing past "knowledge management"¯ to a broader definition of communication possibilities.

Since this audience research will help us prepare an advocacy paper, we also asked interviewees for their suggestions on how to approach the paper, overcome barriers and capture audience attention. Many had good ideas on this.

We found, not surprisingly, that it was far easier to interview people who had some knowledge of, or sympathy for, development communication. This opened up the possibility of much deeper interviews. It was also informative to speak with some interviewees who themselves are assisting their donor agency to set up development communication units. Interviewing people who did not accept the idea of development communication, or who professed to not know what we were talking about, was difficult. This reminded us of how easy it is to fall for the temptation of only talking to fellow development communication practitioners.

We did, however, also talk to practitioners especially as we have come to realize that they are likely a major user group for an advocacy paper as a support to conversations with a decision maker. This was not done systematically but did help us assess their ideas on design and content. We have found these interviews to useful and thought provoking. We intend to continue them up until the paper is final.

2. Observations and findings

What did the audience research bring to our attention?

Group typology:

It became clear that interviewees fell into three main groups:
  • Group No. 1: Those who professed not to understand development communication and resisted explanation;
  • Group No. 2: Those who truly believed they understood communication and stressed a somewhat narrow role for it within their organisation; and
  • Group No. 3: Those who understood the importance of development communication and were advocating for its inclusion in their organizations.
As Fraser observed, without exception, all interviewees professed strong support for the importance of communication within their organizations. One stated that, without communication, "development is not there."¯

Interpretations for the definition of that role is what distinguishes the three groups:
  • Group No. 1 was very supportive of the role for corporate communications. To them this meant the need for communication within the organisation and the external need to reach out to the organisation's constituents. Some acknowledged the importance of knowledge management and communication technologies but did not mention the role for communication within the implementation of their programs.
  • Group No. 2 was more knowledgeable about a broader role for communication but strongly supported the importance of knowledge management within their organisation and the use of communication technologies for outreach. Some in this group were from research organizations. They stressed the need to get research results out to their public through publications, Internet and so on. They did not mention the need for communication to assist in their programming.
  • Group No. 3 understood the broadest possible role for communication. They also understood the importance of institutionalising the process. They were working within their organisation to help develop units and guidelines to assist their organisations use communication strategies for program implementation.
Communication by any other name

Some interviewees in Group No. 1 acknowledged that their organisation did see the need for some of the activities described in an explanation of development communication. For them, however they do these things but call them by another name, such as management practices; empowerment approaches; participation; advocacy; public education and so on. They see neither the need nor the rationale to bring these elements together under one roof, let alone under the term communication for development.

Entry points for the discussion

While there was widespread comfort with the notion of one-way communication, there was less comfort with the idea of dialogue or the role for people's voices in setting their own development agenda. Most interviewees would probably acknowledge the role of participation but would not necessarily work out how participation could be brought about. Many people pointed out that the entry point needed to be the chief topic the decision-maker is concerned with.

Communication technologies and knowledge management

Almost every organisation now has a unit focused on information technologies and another unit focused on knowledge management. While this certainly opens up the discussion on the importance of communication, it also seems to present a barrier to a broader understanding of the role that communication can play in implementation. Once they get information technologies and knowledge management "right"¯ so to speak, they feel they have done their job. Many also acknowledge the potential pitfalls around communication technologies. They acknowledge the digital divide and are concerned that information technology may be great for information exchange but not for imparting knowledge. They also note that often people mistake the medium"”communication technology"”as the message.

Communication as a discipline

Even though all interviewees stressed the importance of communication to their organizations, there were few with plans for communication training. Many acknowledged that the ability to communicate was part of their staff selection criteria but there was no acknowledgement that communication is a discipline in its own right and does require a degree of experience and expertise. As one person put it, we hire people who are good managers but they know little about communication. "If we hire people who know about communication, they are not necessarily good managers. Besides, there is a dearth of trained communication people out there."

Communication as an "add-on"

There was very little acknowledgement of the importance of building communication right into the project design. One organisation actually has institutionalised this to the point that there is a box to tick marked "communication,"¯ but there is very little real attention paid to this part of the project design. The same person also acknowledged that, given that communication is seen as something of an add-on, it is usually the first to go if there are cost over-runs or time problems. In any case the communication "add-on" is mainly to inform headquarters and donors of lessons learned in project implementation. It is not seen as integral to the project.

The importance of "institutionalising"¯' communication

To avoid the idea of communication being an add-on that gets dropped at the first opportunity, it is critical that the need for communication gets institutionalised within an organization. One way of approaching this is to help an institution clearly define exactly what it is it is trying to achieve, whether it's poverty alleviation; empowerment; co-management of natural resources and so on. Once this is clarified, the next step is to ask how this might be achieved.

The World Bank has instituted a chapter on communication in its source book for poverty reduction strategy programmes (PRSP). This came about through a consultative process. Donors got together with the Bank to critique the PRSP approach. The Bank had written about the need for "empowerment"¯ and "ownership"¯ of the process. Donors were able to point out that without communication these things would not happen. Now that communication is written into the source book, there is far less chance of communication being jettisoned by Bank Task Managers (we have ample evidence to show where this has happened in other instances).

The problem with project design

While it is important that communication is institutionalised and accepted at the policy level, it is still difficult to operationalise it at the technical or project level. Many people pointed out that most donor agencies still have technicians"”scientists and engineers"”at the staff level and that project design comes from engineering, which is not conducive to the time and space required for constructive communication initiatives or true participation. Lip service may be given to the concepts but actual application is more difficult to achieve. The time is not there. The rewards are not there. The will is not there.

The term 'development communication'

Fraser noted that the term "communication for development"¯ was considered to be a somewhat vague and untidy way of describing the discipline. Things have not improved.

Sometimes we noted a certain unease or even hostility to the use of the term "development communication."¯ Interviewees felt it was too vague, alluded to too broad an area of intervention and did not really mean much to the listener. We were advised to stay away from the use of the term. Two or three times the advice that was given was to address the mission statement of the organisation or to lead off with a description of what an organisation was trying to achieve rather than address the need for communication. Only one interviewee used the term without prompting and, as it turned out, he had had previous exposure to a successful communication campaign and had become an advocate.

Advice on how to reach decision-makers

We asked each person for advice on how best to reach decision-makers. There was as surprising uniformity in the answers:
  • Do not lead with trying to convince people about communication.
  • Try to find a hook, the hot topic that matters to decision makers to spark their interest.
  • Focus on mission statements and results.
  • Provide case studies showing how communication has salvaged a project
  • Keep explanations simple and to-the-point.
  • Be sophisticated in your explanation: Show that there is a discipline behind communication. Show that an approach to communication takes into account the environment of a project.
  • Keep things short and punchy
3. Practitioner interviews

As a supplement to the audience research interviews, we also contacted a few practitioners to get their advice on paper design. It was interesting to see that the practitioners often corroborated some of the findings from the audience research interviews :
  • Practitioners were clear about not trying to push the idea of communication. For example: "I am not a proselytiser for good communication. I am an advocate for more effective development strategies"”sooner or later that gets to communication."¯
  • There was agreement that often communication goes as any other name, but most do not feel this to be important unless it leads to an ad hoc approach to various pieces of the development puzzle.
  • Most emphasized the need to provide a hook, that is, to lead off with a description of development challenges and provide case studies where communication has had an impact.
  • Practitioners were very clear that previous experience with communication and active engagement with communication activities were the key events that changed decision makers' attitudes.
  • Many echoed the need to look at the universe of stakeholders that make up the enabling environment around a project. There is a concern with the narrow, sectoral approach to development and a feeling that communication strategies must provide the platform to avoid that.
Many have faced the same issues that face people focused on communication for social change: Our audience needs to be convinced.

4. Conclusions and next steps

We feel strongly that the audience research has helped us draw some conclusions about how to approach the advocacy paper. The findings suggest that we need to pay special attention to decision makers who need to have a first, convincing experience with successful communication.

We also have a sense about what not to do, especially avoiding the communication label. We do need to be more sophisticated, make good use of documented stories and demonstrate that the intent is to do better development, something with which our target audience can identify.

Annex 1

The policy makers contacted worked with the following organizations

Canadian International Development Agency, Hull, Quebec, Canada (2)

International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR), The Hague, The Netherlands (ISNAR is now part of IFPRI)

Advisor to the Prime Minister, Kingston, Jamaica

DFID, London United Kingdom

International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD), Manitoba, Canada

International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada (2)

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Gland, Switzerland (2)

Swiss Development Corporation (SDC)

United Nations Development Program (UNDP), New York, USA

DANIDA, Copenhagen, Denmark

National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), Entebbe, Uganda

[1] Available at:

In this paper, we refer to "communication for development."¯ Mazi uses the term "communication for social change."¯

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