Development communications: how to burp well

Published on Thu, 14/10/21 | Perspectives

Communications products are seen as the burps of the development sector – after the project recipe is finalised, some activities are underway, an agreed set of communications products will be defined and burped out, a result of the “main meal” which is the project activities. As burps, there is often less foresight and planning, and the idea amongst the project designers that “anyone” can do it: project staff often having communications added to the list of their other tasks.

I’ve been working in this field in different capacities for around twenty years, as a journalist on the receiving end of these burps, as a communications officer making materials as required by my employer, and as a researcher trying to evaluate the effects of communications on individuals or groups of people’s knowledge, behaviour change, or particular attitudes. The following is my distillation of what I have learnt being surrounded by the many communication burps of the development sector.

The easiest mistake to make doing communications in development sector is to not understand your audience: what their knowledge level is, what they care about, what information sources they trust and what kinds of information they want and need. Some good examples of investing in understanding your audience in Solomon Islands, where I live, include Information in Natural Disasters, a report in which communications materials were tested with disaster affected communities to find out useful information like people did not want to be talked down to, disliked cartoons as a form of communication about serious issues and thought hiding under the table during an earthquake was terrible advice.

What NGO workers assume people know, think and how they communicate can be different from reality, and, in a culturally diverse population like Solomon Islands, it is imperative to check how messages are received. For instance, I was involved in Solomon Islands’ first social marketing study into attitudes and communication on violence against women and girls. We talked to 200 people across different cultures and situations and found that local people had many messages that they thought worked to stop or prevent violence – 324 messages but almost all of them different from those used by iNGOs. We need more organisations to tap into local messages that work, rather than trying to design slogans from head office. Messages identified from that piece of research that were seen as most effective in preventing or stopping violence are now being spread through mass communications to address high rates of family violence.

The second easiest mistake is to forget about the audience and please your boss. If you work for an organisation in which your managers believe you have to explain in each communication the organisation, the project aims, the Sustainable Development Goals and whatever higher-level policy led to the project, you will have little room to actually communicate your message.

The third most common mistake is not to test communications products using research. As a result, what the donor and development management professionals think is great, is often what is least effective and appropriate. For example, individual “success” stories or “faces” of particular issues that “personalise the issue”. Often international NGOs believe that an individual woman talking will inspire women in the audience to achieve, advocate or act on an issue. However, my own internal testing indicates Solomon women will often focus in on following features of the person profiled: their education (particularly if they were schooled overseas, or at a private school), influential people the woman is related to (usually politicians or former politicians) and their ethnicity or tribe’s status. That woman is judged relationally before her message is heard, and often status and relationality can overtake message in what is retained by the audience. Younger women will talk about how young women who speak publicly take the risk of any small “mistake”, like wearing certain clothes or posting something frivolous on Facebook, is amplified and used to shame and humiliate them. “Inspiration” stories can work, but they need to be pitched right and tested properly, to avoid negative flak for the people profiled, who may be unprepared to be the “face” of climate change, or gender equality or whatever topic in the story.

The final mistake in development communications is to be so creative that you are creating another world rather than designing communications for the real world. This often happens when expatriate communications staff are riding the “innovation” and “technology” wave, to get funding for new communication outputs. For instance, some of the more ridiculous pitches I have heard in development meetings the last ten years include “street art” in Pacific villages (until it was pointed out most people live in houses made out of timber and dried leaf panels, with few fences, so there were no public walls to adorn with spray paint). Another idea was to build a computer generated “person” or “bot” that women violence survivors could call for advice (when many women in violent relationships do not have their own personal phones and also have apprehension about using services that needs breaking down through human interaction).

Communications in the development sector will probably always be relegated to the burps, but a good burp (or series of ones) can be deeply satisfying. Communications that release local messages, in the most appropriate format, using pre-existing modes of communication and information sharing can be useful for knowledge and social change.

Dr Anouk Ride is a researcher on aid, development, conflict and social inclusion, and is based in Solomon Islands. She is an Affiliate Researcher with Australian National University and a Social Scientist with WorldFish.

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