Building a strategy

Developing a communications strategy

By 04/05/2010

March 27, 2009

Evidence for Action is an RPC (DFID-funded research programme consortium) with partners in India, Malawi, Uganda, UK and Zambia. Most of the partners in the consortium are primarily research organisations, and whilst all partners were in regular communication with key stakeholders, developing a communications strategy was a new challenge for many of the partners.

During the inception period of the RPC the lead partner the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and partner the AIDS Alliance worked together to develop a communications strategy for the consortium. This first strategy focused on our principles for communication, but lacked concrete objectives and ‘how to’. It was recognised that more work needed to be done on the strategy, and that all the partners needed to be involved in this process.

Each Evidence for Action partner has a person responsible for communications related to the consortium. In most cases this person is a researcher already employed by the partner, without communications expertise.

The process

We decided to organise a workshop to develop country-level communications strategies, and increase communications capacity in both strategic planning and carrying out communications activities. Before the workshop each partner was asked to complete an Interest – Alignment – Influence matrix of stakeholders in their country. The workshop itself was facilitated by Enrique Mendizabal and Laura Jarque of ODI, who took us through the process of developing a strategy using various tools available in their online toolkits. Participants were split into groups for each country, and there was regular feedback and peer assist between the groups.

The third day of the workshop was devoted to capacity-building activities, with staff from the AIDS Alliance leading sessions on speaking and writing for non-academic audiences, and communities of practice.

Following the workshop, participants returned to their organisations, discussed the draft strategies with their colleagues, then revised and wrote them up. These were then shared with the Community of Practice, and an overall strategy (bringing together the principles from the first version of the strategy and the country-level strategies drawn up following the workshop). This was then shared with the Programme Management Committee, approved by the Community of Practice, and submitted to DFID.

Lessons learned

  • Having external facilitators was very useful – it meant that we could draw on their experience, and everyone from the RPC at the workshop could participate in the group work.
  • Getting communications reps to meet with colleagues before the workshop to work on the interest–alignment–influence matrices was useful to gain a wider input into the process of developing a strategy, and to increase knowledge and ownership.
  • It is important that country-level communications strategies fit in with the priorities and interests of the partner(s) involved. The draft strategy for Malawi drawn up at the workshop did not fit well with Lighthouse’s priorities and interests, and little was done on it following the workshop as it was low priority. Once this was recognised, Lighthouse revised the strategy to make it more useful to them, making communicating strategically a higher priority.
  • Following the workshop it did take more time than anticipated for the country-level strategies to be finalised, as communications reps needed to consult with colleagues and get approval from their organisations.
  • The strategies that have resulted from the workshop are all very different in format and content.
  • If we were doing it again, and had more time, I would consider including more activity planning in the workshop.
  • As no-one from our Indian partners was able to attend the main workshop, a mini-workshop was held to develop the India communications strategy. This had the advantage that more people from that partner were able to take part, but it was unfortunate that they were unable to benefit from input from other partners, or assist other partners with their strategies.
  • The workshop was useful and positive, and resulted in better country-level communications strategies than if we had asked partners to write strategies without the support and training the workshop provided. It also built up other communications skills, and strengthened relationships between the partners.

By Annabelle South, Evidence for Action

What kinds of challenges have you encountered in developing communications strategies?
What kind of capacity-building would have made the process more effective?
What would you do differently the next time around?