7 principles for doing meaningful research communications

Published on 15 February 2022

Vivienne Benson

Communications and Impact Manager

Annabel Fenton

Communications Coordinator

Ben O’Donovan-Iland

Communications and Impact Officer

Sophie Marsden

Communications and Impact Officer

Samantha Reddin

Communications and Impact Manager

Roxana-Alina Vaduva

Communications Coordinator

Alice Webb

Communications and Impact Officer

Emilie Wilson

Head of Communications and Impact, ICTD

At IDS, we believe that evidence-based research plays a vital role in bringing about a more equitable and sustainable world. And to achieve this, we are committed to communicating research beyond academic audiences and journal articles.

Two people speaking to camera to share the impact of their research

However, we are very aware of the responsibility we have in shaping and delivering meaningful research communications. We are tackling complicated and sensitive issues and the communications process and content should reflect that. That is why we have developed 7 guiding principles to underpin our approach to research communications – throughout the lifetime of a project or programme.

1. Enabling

When it comes to engaging stakeholders and audiences in a targeted and meaningful way, the research team have relationships and networks beyond the reach of communications specialists, which need to be utilised. Researchers and partners share findings and messages at meetings and events, have one-to-one conversations and send direct communications, or engage with social media. These are all key communications tactics. Project support staff are also often heavily involved in engaging stakeholders and organising events. They can be seen as the ‘face’ of the project for partners, as a key point of contact.

Our role as communicators is to enable and facilitate our colleagues, partners, and networks to communicate in a way that fosters these important and individual relationships.

2. Context-specific

Most projects and programmes will set time and resources aside for scoping research questions in different contexts – be this geographical or sectoral. They will also ensure the right partners are on board with relevant local expertise. It is equally important to take this approach for successful research communications and uptake, for example looking at the media and social media landscape, mapping digital inequalities and internet penetration. There can be difficult dynamics to consider in many of the countries and settings in which we conduct our research. This can be a result of aid being increasingly targeted at fragile, violent or conflict-affected settings or the shrinking civic space.

Underpinning our work is a commitment to lead activities and work with partners to understand and remain up to date on “context”. This ultimately means that we create communications (often in partnership) that are sensitive to the different contexts and settings we navigate.

3. Targeted and agile

Understanding the ‘who’ is fundamental for reaching and delivering meaningful communications and engagement. Without that knowledge, we would only create general, or worse, irrelevant communications that don’t mean anything to our key stakeholders. We have connected the ‘targeted’ to keeping our communications ‘agile’ as we are committed to communications that are responsive to the times and to the needs of our stakeholders.

By embedding this approach in projects and programmes, research communications has much more impact and relevance to the context.

4. Creative

Creative communications is as simple as it sounds. It’s about keeping an open mind and identifying the approach, format and content for your communications that engages your target audience most effectively. This involves thinking not only about the content you create (i.e., through visual, digital and written) but also the spaces and ways in which you might share and engage.

Being creative in how we communicate leads to greater clarity in our messaging. It also means we are open to new and relevant opportunities that might be outside our usual approach. It also allows for flexibility and scope to bring in partners and key stakeholders into shaping our communications.

5. Data-driven

Data analysis is a key aspect of successfully communicating impact. It provides an accurate understanding of the outcomes of our communications, which helps the team make informed decisions and accurately shape communications throughout the lifetime of the project.

What can happen if you don’t take the time to analyse the impact of communications? The phrase ‘if you throw enough mud at a wall, some of it will stick’ comes to mind. Imagine that your research paper gets great engagement in Uganda – do you understand why it got engagement, who was reading it, and what they did after reading it? If you understand and document that, can you incorporate more of that into your communications approach going forward?

Data collation can range from social media metrics to engagement at an event, to testimonials. Without the proper tools and processes in place to analyse your data, you can lose on valuable opportunities to target content and drive more engagement.

6. Decolonised

When applied to development, a decolonial lens questions the underlying assumptions: that Western progress is aspirational, and that former colonies are ‘behind’ because they fall short in terms of mainstream socioeconomic indicators.

When it comes to communications, the same power hegemonies and assumed moralities influence how we communicate about (and communicate to) marginalised individuals, communities, countries, and regions. We are working towards decolonised communications by continuously questioning our approach, and ourselves: this includes being more conscious about asking who the right people are to do the communications, questioning what we show (vocabulary, images), how we put it together (our suppliers, who’s doing the talking), and who we are targeting (our audience, translation, and accessibility).

7. Accessible

Accessibility in communications is about inclusivity, making sure that everyone can access and understand research. Accessible communications encompass all media types and takes different forms depending on individual or group needs.

Accessible communication materials must be clear and understandable, easy to access and navigate, and respect people’s different needs. It is at the heart of aesthetics and design, and is included for all video, aural, digital, print and web media. People living with disability should, where possible, be involved in the production and delivery of communications materials, such as writing blogs or speaking at events; they should be heard and not spoken for.

We aim to review our accessibility methods on a regular basis to ensure they are working and improving; this includes getting feedback from people living with disabilities.

While we are not claiming to be ‘there’ yet with our research communications, as communicators we recognise our role in questioning and dismantling practices, systems and processes that exclude our partners from participating fully in research processes and sharing evidence. These principles ultimately serve as a guide for us to ensure we are part of a process that develops creative and impactful communications.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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