Knowing your audience

Designing research for more strategic communications

By 23 March 2017

I’m a sporadic presence on Twitter, with a pretty low number of followers. Yet the other day I had my biggest engagement yet – and it was entirely unexpected. There’s nothing groundbreaking in this tweet (pictured above). At least I didn’t think so.

It’s obvious that you should link a communications strategy to research design and do that at the start. Thinking about the audience for your research, how and when you’ll engage with them and in what way, through the entire project and not just at the end, makes total sense.

Using communications methods, such as dialogue, as part of the research is as important as thinking ahead about your research dissemination tactics. Deploying messaging tools such as WhatsApp, texting, and Twitter to engage with stakeholders, elicit information, and build understanding can be a valuable part of any project.

So why did this tweet prompt so many retweets and likes?

Was it because the people who engaged thought this was a novel idea and wanted to tell others? Or was it because they wholeheartedly agreed with what I was saying and wanted to endorse the message?

Clearly others engaged because they disagreed:

It made me think again about why any of this mattered, and of course, the answer for me, working at a policy research institute such as IIED, is that you do research to make a difference and promote change.

And this will only happen if people buy into what you find out. To buy in, they need to know about it and – ideally – to be part of arriving at the findings.

There are researchers – mathematicians, for example – who seek a theoretically pure result through constant refinement of strategies and pathways. Their work can be solitary and intense. But for those who are working on issues that affect people there is a need to engage, test, and interact again to validate results. Communicating in the right way and at the right time is core to this process.

I recently spent a week with a team of technical experts to advise on communications for a public–private environmental expenditure review (PPEER). A PPEER goes into the detail of how much cross-government expenditure is being coded as environmental expenditure (including biodiversity and climate adaptation in this case), and how this relates to policy development, international commitments, and finance flows from the private sector.

This team wholeheartedly supported having a communications and engagement strategy prepared right at the start of their review. But I realised that some team members envisaged focusing on the technical work first, and were planning to only undertake communications work after the data had been gathered.

That was the case at the beginning of the week, at least. By the time the visit came to an end, all of them understood that engaging early with the institutions and policymakers whom they wanted to influence with their results was part of the communications strategy and vital for achieving impact.

The team developed a plan for interacting with stakeholders from the start – even before they had gathered the data. They would engage using a variety of means: workshops, one-to-one meetings, training sessions, and by using the media. In doing so, they would involve the stakeholders in the process, hear their concerns, share information, and understand how they might want to use the data.

When it came to presenting the review results, the team would not only have prepared the ground, encouraging ownership of the results, but would also be able to communicate the complex information in a way that resonated and was relevant to their audiences.

They would be able to tell a compelling story using the evidence they had gathered, linking it to implications for policy change and placing it in context, in this case the need to fulfil commitments under the Paris Agreement for climate change and domesticate targets from the Sustainable Development Goals.

Going back to my original tweet, it was largely researchers who engaged (probably explained by the event I was at, a panel discussion exploring the relationship between evidence and decision-making in a complex world). I hope it was because they were enthused by the point I was making.

While this message of considering the communications strategy from the outset shouldn’t be news to anyone, from experience I know that there’s still work to be done to see this happening as a matter of routine.