Why communication matters – and needs to be funded

DFID's civil society partnership review consultation is encouraging us all to think about how we do things differently. Liz Carlile looks at the changing role for communications.

Blog by
8 September 2015

Liz Carlile is IIED's head of Communications

Reacting quickly to events, as these 100m runners are to the starting pistol at the 2012 Olympic Games, is just as essential in communications (Photo: Marc, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

This blog was inspired by the Department for International Development's (DFID's) recent civil society partnership review consultation, so many thanks to DFID for the chance to contribute some thoughts to forward looking ways of working with civil society.

It is both interesting and timely as I am noticing a definite appetite in our sector for doing things differently and for making sure we proactively learn from the experience of the 42 years since the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. Which is great. So what have I learnt?

I have been in development communications throughout my working life (I am now head of comms at IIED and was previously at Panos London) and have seen our understanding change in that time. At the start, communications was seen as linear, something that happened at the end of the pipe, whereas now there is widespread recognition that we are engaging with a much more complex mosaic of stakeholders and that there are different ways to achieve impact.

The following four points are a personal view.

Communications is a vital ingredient in the recipe for change

Behavioural change – locally, globally, anywhere – simply cannot happen without strategic communication and engagement. Our current project-based development model that ties every activity to a specific project outcome makes the necessary investment in communications work very challenging and as a result is unlikely to get the best impact.

In the future I believe organisations in our sector will need to create new partnerships to communicate better about the value of our work to constituencies in the UK and the rest of Europe. 

As well as continuing to focus on our project work, we all need to do a much better job at mobilising a collective understanding about the need for sustainable development and why good development means a better world in the North just as much as the South. This means making the links between what happens on the other side of the world with what happens at home. Development issues are inter-connected.

We will need to work together – outside of the traditional project framework – to bring the stories and perspectives of our Southern partners and work with communications intermediaries (organisations used to presenting complex concepts) to build support and understanding about our connected world and the UK's contribution to a more secure future.

Being based in the global North allows us to build an enabling environment to collaborate and support a universal responsibility for change. We can do this through better communication at home.

Supporting a learning culture

We know that there is no one solution to any of the problems we face, so any progress we make will rely on bringing together different experiential knowledge from communities and the available global scientific evidence.  

We need to support a learning culture. Solutions will need to be tried and tested over and over again at local level with results shared – we will need to prioritise communicating how we can learn together in context, rather than communicating top down solutions – one size will not fit all.

Flexibility and speed

We need to invest in communications skills so that we can react quickly and in context. A recent example for us in IIED was our response to the issue of Cecil the Lion, which was making headlines in the UK press. A timely intervention via our blog fostered discussion and debate – with more responses in four days than our most popular blog over 11 months.

IIED's guest blog on the issues surrounding Cecil the Lion was picked up by The Huffington Post and prompted an essay in Die Welt (Image: IIED)

But funding support rarely covers the ability to communicate in this way – there is not enough to cover extra, spontaneous communication activity that is not already earmarked in very tight budgets for specific outputs.

Supply and demand

This may mean changes to what we are funded to do. Project funding identifies outputs and identifies when they should be produced. But just supplying outputs without responding to a moment of demand achieves less impact – we know we might produce a press release for a project but we don't know when a Cecil the Lion moment will come along and it might not be relevant anyway.

We must be supported to respond to demand, we must be able to use the best communications skills and channels to share the knowledge when the audience is listening and not when the project report dictates.

I could say much more. But in brief, I want to challenge us to be more courageous about using the fantastic communications tools we have to really achieve change.

Corporations do it, so why can't we? Usually because of a lack of workable investment, a fear of failure and genuine inability to say which piece of communication was the one that achieved a change.

Liz Carlile (liz.carlile@iied.org) is IIED's head of Communications.

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