Communication is more than a message

DECI-4 Blog

Communication is more than a message

By Vira Ramelan and Wendy Quarry, DECI-4. 

In recent months, our small team of DECI mentors has been asked to look back and reflect on where we are going, how well we are doing and more importantly, how well the research teams in the institutes we mentor are responding to our discussions on evaluation and communication. This reflection has led to a series of observations and concerns about the role of research to policy communication in DECI and a broader look at the role and meaning of communication itself.

While DECI’s original focus was on utilization focused evaluation, it soon became clear that most research organizations (think tanks) were dependent on developing strategies to get their research known, become respected, and ultimately strong enough to support the development of research-based policies. That meant a strategy had to be found that would put the organization on the map (public relations/branding), build credibility as a respected research centre (focus on the research itself) and develop ways to get the new ideas and findings out into the public domain with the ultimate goal of influencing policy itself.

There are several layers to such a strategy and most people given the task of developing a communication approach will immediately focus on the first need to get an organization known (public relations/branding). In the pre-social media days, that meant a reliance on posters, billboards and mass media, all in the name of getting an organization known and its ideas and research respected. Today any communicator will roll out a social media strategy consisting of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook page and so on (even as we write this observation, it could be dated) and develop their own brand (look and feel) and link these to the website which becomes the home base, the ‘go to’ place for anyone interested enough to find out more about the organization – the who, the what and the how. There is no denying these steps are necessary but they are unidirectional and are more a form of ‘marketing’ and not what we would call ‘communication.’

There is some confusion here. Recently, at least in North America (and by ‘recently’ we mean the past twenty some odd years), the idea of ‘marketing’ and developing a strategy to enhance that ‘ marketing,’ has become increasingly popular. It is somewhat misleading because ‘marketing’ firms now call themselves ‘communication’ companies and hire themselves out to organizations in need of communication support – and they do get that support but solely in the realm of what we used to call, ‘social marketing. ’ Social marketing is a way for organizations that want to promote a product or a program that is ‘good’ for a community, use a marketing approach to promote worthy ideas like the need to wear seat belts or get a flu shot and so on. There is nothing wrong with this approach but it is not what some of us would call ‘communication.’

In our book, Communication for Another Development, Listening before Telling (Zed, 2009), Ricardo Ramirez and I Wendy Quarry devoted pages to explaining that communication is not a message – that it is a two-way process of ‘listening’ and ‘telling’ – it is an exchange of thoughts and ideas and sometimes a meeting of minds. It is not, we would emphasize, one person having a ‘message’ that needs to be told so that you will do what is good for you. Communication is itself a process, a to-ing and fro-ing of ideas, discussions and listening one to another.

So here we have it. A concern about the use of words and their implied meaning and something that is totally reflected in the note that Vira Ramelan, who is based in Indonesia and currently working as a full time consultant to philanthropic organization, sent to the DECI team for discussion. She tells us about a 2013 piece from Caroline Cassidy (ODI) who put forward the idea of ‘banning’ the term ‘dissemination’ which she found, relates to her conversations with partner organizations, especially a group of communication officers involved as a core team of environmental movement. Our Indonesian colleague, Vira continues:

In one of our afternoon discussions I heard one member of the environmental movement group ‘jokingly’ yell – Maybe we should never use the word “communication” ever! This self-reflective critique was a spontaneous response since the group found it difficult to ask and maintain a commitment from the coalition members to keep to a strategic discussion on communication work. Part of it, the core team concluded, comes from the predominant (mis) understanding amongst member organizations that undermines the potential contribution of communication to help achieve the organization’s goal. Some organizations, for instance, assign junior staff or even an intern with limited knowledge of communication (let alone have any authority to make decisions) to join strategic discussions on communications. One of the core team members spontaneously said “… perhaps it is even better if we do not use the word communication at all, as communication is not seen as important!”

The team understood that communication often implies an understanding of practical and routine activities of information dissemination, such as website updates, press conference, and press release distribution, and is thus less likely to be considered as a strategic component within the organization. That said, engaging key leaders in the different organizations to meet and discuss communication-related matters is critical but at the same time challenging for some key partner organizations. It is different when talking about advocacy. Advocacy is seen as important and strategic work, while those with a communication background know that ‘advocacy’ is essentially a communication function. Again, in some organizations, communication is also under resource pressure with lack of senior staff and limited budget . A study by Silvio Waisbord[1](2008), suggests that this kind of simplification and reduction of communication to practical and routine activities is driven by a predominant understanding of the informational model of communication

Observations and discussions with some key Indonesian environmental partner organizations show that their institutionalized communication practices have yet explore the use of different conceptions of communication. Some advocacy organizations do use communication, which among others focus on media advocacy to promote their position about a certain bill or regulation, for instance. In many cases, however, the ‘hoped for’ trickle-down effect from media advocacy to public political participation and engagement remains low[2]. Other partner organizations have been focusing on campaign activities with raising awareness set as the communication objective for years, and yet the public’s low awareness and political participation capacity on the environment and climate change issue has been the challenge of Indonesia’s environmental movement. The recent study by YouGov in collaboration with Cambridge University revealed that Indonesians are amongst the highest population of climate deniers, which posed a reflective question on what went wrong with public campaign activities aimed to increase awareness on climate change issues that have been done for years. There are other organizations who simply gear their communication towards information dissemination, such as letting people know about events they are about to conduct, or releasing their research findings through press conferences.

As authors, we are not trying to negate such functions since providing information, media advocacy, and campaign are relevant and important for a certain contexts and needs. Promoting an organization’s profile is also important to show visibility position of the organization, as is raising public awareness through campaigns. What is problematic is when the thinking and practice of communication is simplified and reduced to merely a one-way informational model. Ironically, there is heavy investment in this model. It becomes even worse if the proponents of this model believe that this is the best way to bring about change. In most cases, change does not occur in a linear manner. Change occurs through complex, and at the same time complicated processes. Thus, if simplified into a one-way linear message transmission, communication practitioners, and even leads of organizations will be trapped into practical communication events and will not see the broader strategic advantages/functions communication has to offer. More importantly, if oriented only towards the simplistic and instrumentalist approach of ‘message transmission,’ it will weaken an organization’s capacity and skill to ‘listen’, which is, at root, the essence of communication. As Ramirez and Quarry[3] wrote, we understand ‘listening’ to mean – comprehending, researching, learning. Communication is not linear. It values dialogue and two- way interactions. Dialogue can only happen if there is a “capacity to listen[4]” (Hamelink, 2002: 8). Communication is also about understanding context. This means that we need to be able to analyse a situation, understand the power structure, the actors involved and the windows of opportunities to meet with the actors

There is quite a bit of similarity with the work now underway on the importance of a gender perspective. Just as Communication should be considered as a perspective, or framework, it should not merely be seen as a production of materials or an organization of events. In reality, the latter tends to dominate such that the idea of communication itself has lost its meaning. In its essence, the word ‘communication’ comes from the Latin word, ‘communicare,’ which means ‘to share – this could convey the sharing of ideas, methodologies, information, concepts – the possibilities are endless. The idea then, of ‘sharing,’ does not mean a ‘one way’ delivery of messages – or messaging – a word so prevalent in the ‘communication’ dialogue of the day. Many of us have found it hard to fight against this dominant understanding hence the suggestion that we do not use the term communication, but rather treat communication as a perspective or framework that is embedded in something else – perhaps something we could call an ‘advocacy strategy’, ‘strategic partnerships strategy’, or ‘community outreach and empowerment strategy’ – the list can go on. We stress, however, that no matter the name, we still need to uncover and appreciate the communication process in order to identify some program outcomes. This means drawing up an explicit communication strategy that aligns itself with a program’s Theory of Change. Such a strategy will lead us in the right direction for our actions and make it possible for us to ‘hit the target’ and bring about the greatest impact. Last but not least, a well-planned communication strategy, showing the purpose, the audience, audience research and the methods and media plus expected outcomes, provides a map from which we can measure our efforts and will, in turn, inform us of the need to revisit, adjust, adopt, or change the strategy.


References and suggested readings

[1] Waisbord, S (2008), The Institutional Challenges of Participatory Communication in International Aid, Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation, and Culture, 14 (4) pp 505-522.

[2] As reported by the latest World Value Survey, civic engagement activities in Indonesia is low

[3] Ramirez, R., & Quarry, W., (2009). Communication for another development: Listening before telling. London: Zed Book.

[4] Please see this important article from Cees Hamelink (2002) ‘Social Development, Information and Knowledge: Whatever Happened to Communication?’, Development, Journal of the Society for International Development 45(4): 5–9.