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We surveyed our newsletter readers back in 2017 and one of the topics you wanted to hear more about was planning communication.

We are currently developing communication strategies for a few clients, including an international university and a commercial consultancy firm, so we thought it was timely to revisit this topic.

Designing communication strategies is an area where we continually learn new approaches and try different ideas. However, there are principles, such as the importance of understanding target groups, that remain constant.

We hope you enjoy this newsletter and welcome your feedback.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam: Jenni MetcalfeToss Gascoigne, Claire Heath, Michelle Riedlinger & Madeleine Stirrat.

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7 common mistakes in developing communication strategies

By Jennifer Metcalfe

I’ve been developing communication strategies for science-based projects and organisations ever since I started as a science communicator for CSIRO back in late 1989. I have certainly made many mistakes along the way, and I’m continually learning new ideas and approaches. Here is a list of my 7 most common mistakes.

  • Making the strategy too long and detailed. People won’t read it or action it if it’s too long. Try for a maximum of 10 pages, but shorter is even better.
  • Trying to include everyone as a target group. Don’t spread your time and resources too thinly. Prioritise your target groups. Who does the research involve and affect the most?
  • Producing a pretty strategy. Communication strategies should always be in draft form and for internal use. The whole strategy, and especially the action plan, should be regularly reviewed and updated.
  • Developing the strategy without a champion in mind. No matter how good a strategy is, it won’t get implemented unless someone drives it.
  • Including too many actions. Everyone has limited resources and time. Choose those activities that will have the most impact with priority target groups.
  • Forgetting to include consultative activities. You probably won’t fully understand the perceptions, concerns and needs of your priority target groups. Include actions to find out more about them.
  • Skimping on evaluation and monitoring. It’s important to build monitoring and evaluation into the strategy, resource it – and do it.

Participants at a science communication master class at Stellenbosch University in South Africa last year learn tips for developing science communication strategies. 

Involving members of target groups in strategic communication

By Michelle Riedlinger

Audience research has always shaped Econnect’s approach to developing communication strategies.

During one memorable job, I interviewed people living in urban areas within a Victorian catchment management area (CMA) to inform a communication strategy. I heard the same story during these interviews:

  • Start small with neighbourhood-specific interactions, local goals, and technical support for local problems.
  • Give out small incentives for local groups to be involved.
  • Build local confidence and understanding with small steps and create a willingness for people to learn more.

Help people’s vision of an issue become broader by involving them first in local activities that are relevant for them. They’ll be able see how several elements can be integrated to produce better results.

Based on this target audience feedback, we convinced the client, a catchment management authority, to move their focus from catchment-wide events and general publications to smaller, locally focused activities.

We developed a communication strategy that incorporated more local meet-ups and workshops run in partnership with groups that included Waterwatch, conservation groups and local council committees.

Members of these groups directed what topics were chosen for CMA field workshops and “usability tested” website content and local signage.

Without research on target audiences, this CMA may not have seen the value of investing resources in local groups. This evidence is powerful.

Working in partnership with local Waterwatch groups can be a powerful way to connect with people in urban communities. Source: http://www.vic.waterwatch.org.au/.

Applying science communication models to strategies
By Jennifer Metcalfe

Science communication strategies are most effective when they include a mix of tactics reflecting the three main science communication models: dissemination (sometimes referred to negatively as the “deficit model”), dialogue, and participation.

If you want to find out more about the theory, I wrote about this in a paper last year: “Comparing science communication theory with practice: An assessment and critique using Australian data”.

A mix of tactics ensures your communication is not just one way (dissemination). You can engage your priority groups more proactively through conversations (dialogue), and the direct involvement of target groups (participation).

I have renamed the three models for ease of use in communication strategies as:

  • informing – disseminating knowledge (e.g. website, publication, presentation)
  • interacting – having a dialogue about science (e.g. interviews, focus groups, discussions, workshops)
  • involving – investigating issues, solving problems, collecting data, creating new knowledge (e.g. workshops, citizen juries, citizen science, specially designed stakeholder-engagement projects)

The diagram shows how these communication activities might be included in a research project designed to investigate and address an issue or solve a problem.

Informing most often happens when there are impacts (or new knowledge or solutions) to disseminate. Interactions are most important when investigating an issue.

Target groups might be particularly involved in implementing research and creating new knowledge. Involving target groups in achieving results from the research is also crucial.

One other thing I’ve learnt: in any activity “involving” target groups, there will also be the need to interact and inform. Similarly, “interacting” often follows or leads to informing. And “informing” target groups works best after they have interacted to say what knowledge they need.

Interacting and informing will be most effective after the target group has developed trusting relationships with researchers, which is usually after being involved with them over time.

Tips from the back of an envelope
By Toss Gascoigne

When I think about planning science communication, the words “back of an envelope” spring to mind.

The essence of planning comes down to three questions:

  • Who do you want to talk to?
  • What do you want to discuss?
  • What’s the best method of reaching these people?

These questions focus on the essence of planning to help workshop participants understand the big picture before delving into the detail. They complement Jenni’s research and practice, and Michelle’s experience in Victoria.

So, who do want to talk to? Other researchers? Policy people? Industry? Funders? The public? Possibly all of the above.

One reason to avoid having too many different target groups is that you’ll probably have subtly different messages for each, and you will need to use different ways of reaching them. Life is complicated enough already without burdening yourself.

One way to avoid too many target groups is to choose your top three.

What ideas do you want to raise? Here you need to think about their priorities (not yours), their interests, what they need to know, what they already know – and what they could get wrong.

It’s important to get the points clear, the terminology at an appropriate level, and the focus on helping them meet their work objectives. At times in our workshops on planning communication, we ask participants to explain their work in three minutes to an audience of peers. Finished? Now explain it to a 6-year-old child.

It gets the idea across that you have to tailor your explanations to the audience.

How are you going to reach this target group? If it’s colleagues, perhaps a website, a workshop, emails and discussions over coffee. If it’s farmers, perhaps an on-the-ground demonstration where the participants can see and experience what you’re doing.

If it’s politicians, request a 20-minute meeting where you go in with three (or fewer) clear points and a single sheet of paper reiterating these in writing. Focus on the implications of your proposal. What effect will it have on the people a politician cares deeply about: their electors?

All this can fit onto the back of an envelope. But this is an important envelope because a lot of thinking needs to go into what you write.

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