Impact through communications

People in a workshop

Effective communications is a commonly overlooked component of many technical or academic projects. Too often, project managers submit to the default position of producing a report (as this is what the client believes they want) without carefully thinking about whether this really contributes to the outcomes the project is trying to support.

Towards the end of the project someone inevitably starts thinking about what can be done differently this time, only to find out there's no budget, no footage, and no time.

Simply tacking a communications strategy on to the end of project timeline when budgets are already allocated and opportunities to capture data or footage is lost. At best, this leaves little room for creativity and at worst, this closes-off options for deploying more innovative approaches and formats.

Every project should be designed to effect change. That is why - after all - why it was commissioned. Nobody wants to produce a report that simply gathers dust on a shelf. (Or its modern day equivalent of being posted to a website and having zero downloads.)

To ensure your project outputs actually drive change, a more embedded and integrated approach to communications is required. One method, also used by Altus Impact to help our clients, draws on a Theory of Change (ToC) approach in combination with more traditional marking and communications planning.

Marketing plans generally stop short of articulating the broader social or environmental outcome required; focusing instead on the technical and design elements of the materials and ensuring these materials are distributed to the right audience.

However, taking a ToC approach to communications planning encourages project managers to look beyond outputs and challenges them to think about not only whom they are targeting, but what kinds of emotional responses they should try to elicit or business or administrative change is required to help move the community towards improved, pre-determined social, economic or environmental outcomes.

A ToC communications plan starts with first articulating your desired outcome(s), then working backwards through a process towards the actions you should be taking now in planning your communications. At each stage, logical links should be drawn, with clear explanations of how you expect the changes to happen. These links can also include qualifiable measures to corroborate the linkages.

ToC logical process mapping can involve several intermediate steps of your choosing, but to keep things manageable and specifically targeted at communications needs, Altus Impact worlds through the following high-level steps:

  1. Define outcome(s) – what social or environmental change is desired?
  2. Tangible change – what are you try to get someone to do or feel?
  3. Target audience(s) – who is required to act?
  4. Audience persona – what are the attributes / habits of your target audience(s)?
  5. Communications outputs – what communications products are appropriate for the audience persona(s)? What should be the key messages of the outputs?
  6. Communications planning – what planning or budget is required?

Economics or environmental projects represent significant investments on behalf of donors or businesses, often costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries, professional services, and logistics. If communications planning is not done to support the project, or budgets are not spent wisely, the whole effort is wasted, as change will not occur; merely because a few extra thousand dollars for communications was not included in the project planning process.

Using this technique offers many benefits:

  • Communications outputs are planned in advance, budgeted for and targeted at the appropriate or most influential stakeholders. Creativity in communicating is better supported.
  • Communications activities are ‘baked-in’ to the entire process, engaging stakeholders early and continuously; well before the launch of any results.
  • Communications outputs and activities become testable against the project’s desired outcomes, rather than simply against marketing targets.
  • The process is necessarily collaborative and engages all project stakeholders in achieving the outcomes.

This approach can encourage project managers to break the mindset that a ‘report’ is the default, the only or even the desired output and to think in terms of what impacts they are hoping to make through the project. Communications outputs—and there’s likely to be a suite of them—then become explicitly linked to achieving a change in favour of your overall outcomes.

It can work well in even the driest of academic disciplines. All researchers or project managers want their work to have impact, even if that impact is constrained within the realm of their immediate peers. However, most often business, government and the not-for-profit sector often have grander ambitions: to promulgate a social, economic or environmental transformation.

To help you start your Theory of Change communications plan, you can download a free information sheet and template to guide your thought processes.

The ToC approach to marketing and communications draws on the three Altus Impact business streams in which we have expertise:

If you would like to know more about how Altus Impact can help your organisation with its complex communication for change needs, please contact us.

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