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Key steps in designing a communications strategy

Last edited: January 03, 2012

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Effective communication is driven by the purpose of the campaign: what must change and who needs to be reached so as to bring about change? Within the overall campaign strategy, the communication strategy defines how to capture the attention of the target audiences and convey a compelling campaign message.

During the campaign planning process, the problem has been identified, the situation analyzed, the stakeholders and target audiences identified, and the campaign objectives or intended outcomes set. This forms the basis to begin crafting a communications strategy.

The following are the mains steps involved in developing a communications strategy:

  1. Set the communication goal and objectives: In some campaigns for behaviour-change, communication goals and objectives may be identical to the overall campaign goals and objectives (e.g. to “break the silence” on domestic violence). More commonly, communication goals vary according to different target audiences. This is the norm in advocacy campaigns as primary and secondary target audiences need to be reached differently and will likely take different types of action.
For example: campaigns for more effective laws to prevent VAW often include two distinct communication objectives, to: (i) alert law makers (i.e. the primary targets) to gaps and inconsistencies between national laws and ratified international treaties, e.g. CEDAW and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and (ii) stimulate voters to demonstrate their support for a new national law incorporating international standards, e.g. by signing a petition.

2. Develop key messages that effectively speak to target audiences: Messages should be tailored to resonate with the target audience(s) – various versions of the message may need to be prepared to reach different audiences. For example, the message that ‘violence against women is a violation of human rights’ could be understood differently by a parliamentarian, a religious leader, or a village elder. It may need to be adjusted – while maintaining the essence of the meaning – to be better understood.  It is also important to consider who will deliver the messages, i.e. the “messengers”. For example, behaviour-change messages resonate better from peer groups of the target audience, but awareness and advocacy messages might resonate better from celebrities and politicians. See also Crafting the Campaign Message.


Australia: The state-wide public education campaign ‘Violence Against Women: It’s Against All the Rules’ run by the VAW Specialist Unit in New South Wales, Australia in 2000-2001, specifically aimed to build community capacity to confront the issue of VAW by involving high-profile sportsmen to deliver the message to young men that such behavior is unacceptable. One of the key evaluation findings of the campaign was that the use of ‘sports language and terms’ to phrase the campaign message added to the masculine appeal of the campaign, as it stressed the fact that the message was being delivered by men to men (and importantly, ‘iconic/role model’ men to other men). This aided men’s comprehension of the message – ‘violence against women is wrong’. Also, the strong, clear image of sportsmen was the ‘hook’ that captured men’s attention – the majority of men surveyed (89.06%) could recall at least one of the sports personalities featured. Read the campaign case study.

Mauritania – A project started by midwives in Mauritania to assist survivors of sexual violence benefited immensely from the participation of local imams. The Mauritanian Association for Mother and Child Health (AMSME), a local NGO, was funded by UNFPA and others to increase their training and community education activities around sexual violence. AMSME provides a variety of programs for women and girls, but one of their key strategies in working to change public opinion was to bring imams on board with the project. Project founders targeted progressive imams and gained their support. Imams attended local sensitization workshops and justified the project as a humanitarian program that would benefit the suffering and vulnerable. Imams ultimately developed religious rationales for project activities such as counseling and providing medical care to rape victims. Imams gathered evidence from the Koran and took it to police, magistrates, and government officials to garner support for assistance to rape survivors. See: UNFPA, Programming to Address Violence Against Women: 10 Case Studies, 1-10 (2006).

3. Identify effective communication channels, techniques and tools:  One can distinguish between interpersonal channels (one-on-one contact), community-oriented channels that use existing social networks, and media channels (including modern mass media such as radio and TV, “new media” such as the internet and SMS, and “folk media”, e.g. story-telling and traditional cultural performances). What are the techniques and tools that are most likely to effectively reach the audience(s) through these different channels?

Example: WITNESS is a human rights organization that focuses on educating activists and campaigners on the use of video as a tool for change, and using the internet as a powerful channel to disseminate films and images. See digital video for more information and guidance.

Evaluations suggest that behavior change campaigns are most effective when they keep repeating the message (a technique) and combine different channels, including person-to-person contact.

4. Map accessible communication resources: These include for example, media production skills, access to free air-time or pro bono work by experts, and availability of suitable materials from other (e.g. international and national-level) campaigns.
5. Set and monitor time-lines, milestones and indicators in action plans: As described in Action Planning and Monitoring and Evaluation in this module, a communications action plan helps to translate the strategy into specific guidance for its activities, while monitoring helps to verify, at regular intervals, whether the strategy is progressing as planned, and whether context changes call for adjustments, e.g. different tactics.

6. Write up a communication strategy document: This is essential to clearly define, layout and track all the key steps mentioned above. A written document can also be shared easily with all campaigners to ensure that everyone is ‘on the same page’, in terms of messaging and how communications activities will be conducted.

Issues to bear in mind:

  • A communications strategy may need to be adapted during the campaign to respond to new challenges and opportunities. For example, a counter-campaign by actors opposing your goal may prompt you to target new audiences; or sudden, externally imposed restrictions on campaign activism may require adjustments in planned activities. Specific communication activities or materials may turn out to work more effectively than others, which may prompt you to increase successful activities and reduce those that do not seem to work. New partners may emerge with offers of support that may require adjustments in the strategy.
  • For marginalized groups, particularly those experiencing multiple discriminations, mass media may not necessarily be the best way to reach them especially if this is not in a language they understand, or via a channel they have access to. Some rural minority communities for example, may not understand the national, mainstream language, and they may not have proper access to radio, TV or the internet, making print materials more useful in this case (including pictorials for illiterate communities). In some contexts, specialized media that targets marginalized groups may exist – such as print media in Braille; radio or TV stations that broadcast in minority languages. It is useful to research how effectively these can be utilized in campaign activities. In addition, community-level work, e.g. through trained activists who are part of or familiar with the target communities, can be an effective way to reach marginalized groups. Please refer to the section on Community Mobilization for more guidance.