The ten separate steps research teams should consider in developing a communication strategy are summarized in Figure 3. In the sections below, the ten step are described in more detail.
When developing a communication strategy, it is prudent to begin by looking at what has been done in the past. How did the research team share information in the past? What products were created? Which ones worked? How did particular audiences respond? This can be done as an internal brainstorming exercise, review of relevant documents, or as a survey (formal or informal) with stakeholders who received the team’s communications in the past. Alternatively, a formal audit of previous communication efforts (often conducted by a third party) can assess performance and, more importantly, gauge perceptions among key stakeholders about the team’s research, and of the context surrounding the research, including current or forthcoming opportunities. This type of information can significantly influence the selection of future tools and communication channels.
The research team should brainstorm around what it hopes to achieve by sharing IR results and engaging with key stakeholders and decision-makers. Why does the team wish to communicate specific processes or findings to particular audiences? Is the purpose of the communication to increase awareness, understanding, action, or to support local stakeholder involvement? These may be separated into short- and medium-term priorities.
Determining the appropriate primary and secondary audiences is a critical aspect of the communication strategy. The research team must understand who the audiences are, how they prefer to absorb information (including, but not exclusively, research evidence), their typical timelines, needs, etc. This will greatly increase the likelihood that the communication strategy will achieve its objectives.
Every IR project has multiple audiences with unique abilities and needs. Communication approaches and messages must be appropriately tailored to take these into consideration.
One tested way to ensure your team addresses the needs of all stakeholders in the communication process is to classify them into primary and secondary audiences. Primary audiences are those who need to ultimately make an implementation/policy decision or a related change. Secondary audiences are those in a position to influence the decisions or actions of the primary audience. The level of audience (primary or secondary) determines the communication objectives, and each of these audiences is distinct from IR team members, but may include key stakeholders.
Messages are at the heart of any communication strategy. Messages should be direct, simple and explain the problem the research sets out to address. In addition, the research approach as well as the solution the research may have generated, the particular implications of the research findings, and/or what might be expected of different audiences as a consequence of those findings should be captured in the messages. IR projects often result in multiple key messages. While of course this does not represent the research in its totality, these messages can convey the essence of the research and its implications in agreed, concise words and phrases.
Messages should be audience oriented and written exclusively for one audience, bearing in mind the audience’s needs, literacy capacities with respect to the research and the evidence it generates.
One way of choosing communication approaches is by initiating several stages or layers of ‘conversation’ with each specific audience. The ‘graded-entry’ approach14 offers one such option. As an initial outcome of this approach, the research team develops a short document (i.e. one page or less) for a major audience. The document should focus exclusively on the most important aspects of the research problem and/or findings for that specific audience, and their major implications. Assuming the audience’s positive reaction, a more detailed three-page document could then follow, providing more detail about the research project itself, and positioning the implications against the context and other scientific evidence, etc. This could then be followed by a 25-page document (and/or a peer-reviewed paper) that explains technical matters such as the methodology. This approach can be adapted to achieve a blend of printed and online approaches, social media or face-to-face presentation approaches, depending on the nature of each audience and foreseeable opportunities or strategic moments.
However detailed and considered your communications planning, there are likely to be unanticipated questions, responses or criticisms of the project, and these can detract from – or even undermine – the goals of your communication strategy. It is worth investing some time identifying and analysing what those potential threats might be.
Carry out some discussion/analysis within the IR team to identify any potential risks in targeting specific audiences with certain messages. For example, is there any potential for messages to be misinterpreted as criticisms of decision-makers or current approaches? Could discussion of a current problem or challenge be taken as openly critical of the local or national authorities? Are there opportunities that may have been overlooked to explicitly praise current/past achievements that might be helpful in fostering a constructive relationship with primary audiences? Also think about barriers to success, difficult timescales and other stakeholders’ activities that may make actions on your priority difficult at a given time or change it entirely.
Reconsider these potential threats each time you embark on a new aspect of your communication strategy. Each time you do so, examine the likelihood of a possible threat occurring and the impact that it might have on your communication activities and eventual success.
Based on what you know of the key audiences you are aiming to reach, it may also be possible to identify/predict strategic opportunities for key messages to be positioned or delivered. This might include forthcoming national planning processes or events, high-profile meeting or gatherings of key audience members, or strategic dates on which specific issues are likely to be highlighted and/or discussed.
Bear in mind that while these are most likely to include national or sub-national events or other opportunities, access to decision-makers may be easier during meetings taking place in the capital city or even in another country, when key stakeholders are away from the day-to- day pressures of work, and where local or provincial priorities are considered in a national, regional or international context.
The benefits of having a clear timeline for developing and sharing information products may be obvious, but is worth reiterating. The use of the existing channels/structures may highlight specific strategic opportunities and may reduce costs and workload. For instance, an upcoming event may be an opportunity to achieve several communication objectives and/or arrange face-to-face interactions.
Overall, the IR team must pay attention to issues of communication timing. This involves being aware of shifts within an audience (suggesting greater receptivity to your team’s work, for example), strategic opportunities that might emerge suddenly and to which the team must respond quickly. Also, the activities of like-minded researchers and institutions may help in advancing your team’s agenda.
No matter how well messages or information products have been developed and refined, their impact will be compromised if they are not disseminated via the most relevant and effective channels. For example, a well-written paper is unlikely to be read by a high-level decision-maker unless it is succinct and to the point, and unless an adviser has already read and been impressed by it. A beautifully produced video that captures the detail and magnitude of a research project’s impact will not be viewed if members of the intended audience do not have DVD players or unless a suitable viewing opportunity is identified, such as including it on a specific meeting agenda.
Dissemination of messages and information products must be specific, intentional and active, so that the IR team knows, with a good degree of certainty, how and when they will be delivered and presented. In the current context of information overload, relying on any channel as a means of passive dissemination – and simply putting information products ‘out there’ for audiences to see them – will not achieve the desired outcome and engagement.
Similarly, relying solely on single language and/or on-line distribution may incorrectly assume the access and/or connectivity status of specific stakeholders, and may exclude certain audiences.
The consideration of appropriate channels is an essential step as it helps to narrow down, in very realistic ways, the platforms and communications tools that are practical, reach the right audiences and within the available budgets. Above any other consideration, the choice of channel(s) dictates who receives (and therefore who might act upon) messages. Please note, you may need to adopt multiple channels and approaches to suit the needs of even your main target audiences. Furthermore, varying the platform/approach is likely to increase your chances of success.
It is important to consider the resources and capacities available to the IR team for communication activities. What materials are available for this work? Who can do it and what kinds of skills do they have? How much funding is available to create and implement this strategy? Will any of these variables change as we implement the strategy?
One reason why research teams tend not to be adept at sharing their findings is because dissemination can be expensive to carry out. Some communication approaches require significant resources, including time, as well as a high level of capacity. Communication products can also carry hidden costs, such as translation of materials into multiple languages, or costs for specialized skills such as graphic design, etc. The more realistic and precise the team can be about all of these costs at the strategy planning stage, the more realistic the expectations for this work will be. This is best achieved by drawing up detailed budgets for each part of the strategy from the outset.
As with all aspects of the IR process, communication about health service implementation bottlenecks, research priorities, results and their implications requires careful evaluation and feedback. Communication should be carefully planned so that the intended audiences are specifically reached. During implementation of the communications strategy, adjustments will be needed to ensure a maximum return on investment and stakeholder interest and attention. One question that can usefully guide the entire communication approach is: What will change if communications are completely successful? You don’t just want to get your findings into the public domain, you want specific audiences, and possibly even given individuals, to receive them and act upon them. What kind of action then, among key audiences, equates with success?
Assessing budgetary implications is also important. Recognizing the effort that goes into successful communication, you need to be clear that you have used the right messages, struck the right balance across available platforms/channels, and received sufficient end-user feedback. This can be collected via some formal surveying and key informant interviews, and be invaluable for planning future communications approaches. An ‘impact log’ can be another way to accumulate feedback on your communications strategies. Usually done informally, an impact log documents stakeholder reactions, media references, peer review references, etc. The research team can then synthesize all of this information into a ‘lessons learned’ summary or best-practice document. In some cases, the feedback may immediately shift or alter some of the products to ensure they reach the right audiences with the right messages.
It is important that the resulting communications and advocacy plan is regarded as an integral part of the research process itself. Embedding communications and advocacy activities in this way is described in the Planning and conducting an implementation research project module of this Toolkit.