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A primer on communications in the social development sector, from The PRactice’s Vivek Pradeep Rana

17th January 2013

Social organisations, both within India and outside it, have extended their roots over the last few decades, pushing into multiple areas dealing with public policy reforms, advocacy, and societal development. And with the advent of micro-enterprise, a new breed of social entrepreneurs worldwide is working to fuel economic progress at this meeting ground of public values and private profits.

However, when it comes to spreading the word on their work, many of these organisations are still struggling to get it right. Communications, in the real and concerted sense of the word, is a function usually relegated to the sidelines in the development sector. There are a number of reasons for this but financial considerations lead the pack. When you're squeezed for resources, splurging on marketing and publicity efforts can seem like a wasteful exercise.

Many developmental organisations also often operate under the assumption that community building efforts don't need active promotion. The underlying thinking is that if you swing hard with your pickaxe, the world is bound to notice. The main flaw in this premise is that if you can't get your target groups to recognise your work, you may be barking up the wrong publicity tree. Even if you are a Goliath in the field such as the International Red Cross, you need to spell out your objectives and explain your actions to your stakeholders or risk falling prey to the slingshot of public misconceptions.

Communications: What it involves and why it's worth it

For an organisation in the social growth arena, the effectiveness of its communications rests on its ability to persuade key stakeholders that its strategy for change is worth adopting or supporting.

A well-defined plan for mobilising support for your cause or service should lead to more ability to scale. If you build it, people will not necessarily come unless they are clearly informed, frequently reminded, and convincingly persuaded that what the organization is doing is of value to them. People are prone to inertia and breaking them out of old habits or ways of thinking calls for sustained and focused communications.

Levels of persuasion in communications

Persuasion is a key element of communications in the social sector since the desired end result is to goad your stakeholders into action.
 Some forms of persuasive communications in this space include:

Maximizing the payoff from communications

For communications to produce results at all of these levels, there needs to be an organisational commitment to making it work. Groups who understand the ingredients for success in this area are more likely than others to reap the benefits.

Real measurement beats intuition

Too often, communications by social entrepreneurs is guided by intuition rather than by research into the beliefs and attitudes of target audiences. While gut instincts may be useful for broad navigation, they should not be the basis of a targeted publicity campaign. Even small-scale surveys, focus groups, and observational studies can be helpful in homing in on the right messages, media, and spokespersons.

'Frame' your message to fit the environment

Many non-profit groups have been stymied in their communications efforts because they have failed to get a handle on the culture and environment in which they are operating. For example, a campaign to encourage cycling to work is not likely to work where commuting distances are large and road conditions are poor. Presenting public transport or car pools as viable commuting options may be a more realistic approach in this scenario. When organizations find the right 'framing', they are often able to scale faster and have greater impact.

Communicate around alternative "scalers" when awareness is already high

"Ceiling effects" come into play when public support for a program is already at its peak. This can happen with causes such as tobacco control or breast cancer prevention. Scaling becomes more difficult in these instances since there is not much room to favorably shift people's views. These organisations may find that progress depends on how successful they are at alliance building, lobbying, and replication. However, effective communication can reinforce the impact of these alternative scalers. For example, using a credible spokesperson in your communications can create synergistic momentum for all your other initiatives.

Stay transparent and true to your message

Stakeholder ties in this sector are based on trust, even more so than in the corporate world. People are more likely to contribute to or support an organisation when they are convinced of its integrity. Thus, financial and operational transparency is a very important element of communications in this area. And since nothing destroys trust more completely than a lack of authenticity, social organisations need to go out of their way to keep their actions in line with their messages.

Clearly, communications in the social development sector cannot be an afterthought. It needs to evolve beyond tired press releases and sporadic publicity campaigns. Organisations should study their target audience and survey the landscape before coming up with a messaging plan that resonates with stakeholders. Beyond that, being noticed in this space involves a simple but effective mantra: say it loudly, clearly, and often.


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