Designing your strategy involves various people

Good communication strategy is all about planning ahead. Anticipating what is likely to happen, not just what would like to happen. Request your project lead to make proper time for the planning. 

As you might have realized, development cooperation people are planners. So they'll love this exercise. Only problem is, development people often don't give enough thought to the fundamentals of communications strategy. It's not the core professional expertise they are bringing to the table.

What am getting at? For example, it doesn't make sense to conceive a strategy from the end. Which is a typical thing to happen in development cooperation. Projects often start their thinking with the kind of tools they have available to them, that are common or that someone in the team knows how to use, - or that they want to use. If it's a social media tool, the incoming intern will know how to operate it. -- You don't know that! Not all young people know a lot about social media. It's an assumption. And assumptions and clich├ęs are killers for any strategy implementation.


When should you begin working on a communication strategy? 

Communications strategies are usually predetermined when the entire project is thought up at a ministry on the basis of a proposal by an implementing agency. 

Why do I say predetermined? Because these documents usually mention the use of certain communications tools without further consideration or elaboration - and this clearly affects your strategic choices. As I said, this puts the cart in front of the horse. In an ideal world, a communications specialist would be consulted to provide input during this first phase, in order to avoid for that to happen. This however is usually not the case and it is the reason for project concepts tending to be full of non-conducive communications objectives and tools. Causing a problem for you downstream as the project leaders at the implementing agencies, take the project documentation as legally binding blueprints, with not much leeway for substantial alterations. This is something you need to accept or find some nifty ways to work your strategy around it.

That being said, it's obvious that it's best to have your strategy meeting as early as possible. 

You want to make sure that you lay the foundation at the beginning of the project. Maybe you have a chance to convince your team to not print brochures as laid out in the project documents because your target group could be functionally illiterate - as it happened to me once.

And then also remember that you want to measure impact. To do that you want to capture the baselines of the indicators at the beginning of the project intervention. If you have a three-year project and you only start looking at your communication strategy after half a year, then the opportunity to take before-and-after pictures of a construction site for example is likely to have passed. Not just for taking pictures. The chance to record many types of baselines will have disappeared by then as well.

Anyway, let's just assume you're hired as a junior communications officer and you're starting your assignment at the same time as the project - which is not common though. To get into gear with your strategy process, you'll have to begin by thinking about the six components of the strategy. Who do you need to help bring those components together and which resources are necessary.


Let's have a look at who you need to talk to from the steering side of your project?

Each element of your strategy is going to require feedback, information or approval of someone within the project, a higher-up in your agency or from the client's side. If your project facilitates a network platform, it's likely that some of its stakeholders form a so-called steering committee that must be consulted. 

Early planning ahead who should be involved in the creation or sign-off of which parts is going to make the implementation process smoother. 

Remember, you are starting your communications strategy with your project's overall goals. Make sure you fully understand these goals. Maybe ask your project lead to give you some insights on them. 

You'll be the one drafting the strategy. It's essential that you comprehend what your project is set up to do and what a successful implementation is supposed to look like. 


Also think a bit farther ahead. The question of who to consult with also applies to other components of your strategy and later stages of implementation. For example, does the organization that you work for, that runs the project, have a Monitoring and Evaluation unit? If so, is it common practice to consult with them for standard metrics? Do they have electronic data collection systems under contract that projects are expected to use to gain a deeper understanding of audiences and engagement levels? 

Another point is whether your organization has a corporate communications department that sets rules of engagement or brand guidelines in terms of which logos are to be used or which social media can be installed on your computers. In my experience, internal processes in development organizations tend to be bureaucratic and politicized, which can cause major frustrations, especially for newbies. However, if you understand the rules and be appreciative of different departments, it gets much easier. 

For instance, project clients often have the expectation that they can freely determine what logos and websites will look like and which online conferencing tool they want to use, while the head of your IT gives you very limiting instructions. You think you'll start sourcing outside but then the head of procurement disallows this because the rules of efficient use of funding say you must use approved vendors or the IT systems installed. The haggling around these issues can easily take six months. So once you have the pronounced wish to use certain systems immediately start investigating on how feasible your ideas will be.


What about external communication consultants and designers? 

It can be important to engage them at the beginning of the strategy process because you're going to need their help creating many of the activity you plan to include in your strategy. Often they are seniors in their fields of work and it's good idea to ask for their perspectives before you move too far with your strategy ideas.

The point here is to consider early who of the service providers should be part of the strategic thinking and who can be hired as implementers later. 

Remember, bringing people in from the beginning to consult, inform and brainstorm, makes it more likely that your strategy will be inclusive and that you get what you need from those who hold information and who have to approve your strategy. And often they also can very easily keep you from making rookie mistakes.


What about the project stakeholders?

When not specially set up for it, development projects often keep away from the political situation around them, addressing technical aspects of developmental challenges. Being immersed in implementing the detailed plans of a project together with your colleagues can make you easily forget that development projects are always political, on various levels. Projects bring substantial amounts of money into a societal setting impacting the political economy, and their communications activity always carries values. Plus, donors want taxpayers on their end to be informed about the positive impacts of the project.

In other words, while your project might only roll out technical activity, its communication can never ignore the political sphere.

Often it will be a good idea for you to meet with the various stakeholders of the project to discuss your communications strategy draft. I promise you'll hear objections that you would've never thought of yourself. Speak with your supervisors and local advisors about which stakeholders to talk to and how to meet. There might be some that you have not thought of being affected by the project intervention and your communications activity or those who need to be included because of their socio-political position. 

If you are young in comparison to those stakeholders, you probably want to have a senior colleague to moderate the meeting with you. 

If your supervisor has concerns that a stakeholder meeting might cause major discussions, way beyond communications strategy, tell him that's what a good communications strategy needs to stand a chance for successful implementation. Good communications drives feedback and it starts already with the meta-discussion about the overall communications strategy.