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1.1 Communication Strategy Design: A Definition

1.1.1 Communication Strategy Design: Purpose and Rationale

1.1.2 A Map of the Process of Communication Strategy Design

1.2 Transforming Field Findings into Useful Accounts

1.2.1 Using Field Findings to Identify and Analyse Focal Problems

1.2.2 Focussing on Communication Related Problems

1.2.3 From Priority Problems to Creative Solutions

1.2.4 Expected Change and Criteria to Measure It

1.3 Putting Together the Communication Strategy

1.3.1 Using the Priority Interaction Groups Profiles

1.3.2 Setting SMART Communication Objectives

1.3.3 Identifying Rough Core Content and Themes to be Developed

1.4 Selecting Communication Modes and Approaches: The Communication Intervention

1.4.1 Main Communication Modes

1.4.2 Frequently Used Communication Approaches


To illustrate the basis and the process upon which a communication strategy is developed.

At the end of the chapter you should be able to:

  1. Understand the basic concept of communication strategy design;
  2. Transform field findings into useful accounts in order to design a communication strategy; and
  3. Plan the communication intervention of your strategy.

1.1 Communication Strategy Design: A Definition

A strategy can be defined as:

A systematic, well-planned series of actions, combining different methods, techniques and tools, to achieve an intended change or objective utilising the available resources within a specific time frame.

Similarly a communication strategy is a well-planned series of actions aimed at achieving certain objectives through the use of communication methods, techniques and approaches. From this definition it can be inferred that before you even start thinking about the communication strategy you need to have in mind clear objectives. These objectives will assist you to determine how to go about solving the problem. Objectives are the basis of your strategy. Once the objectives are set, you need to assess the available resources to you in order to refine your communication strategy. This is a strategy that should be:

The figure on the next page illustrates in brief the basic steps in the process of communication strategy design. In unit 3 of this section you will be presented with a more detailed Map of the various steps of the sequence of the communication strategy design. Remember that each step of the process needs to be done with the full involvement of the community.

1.1.1 Communication Strategy Design: Purpose and Rationale

The purpose of designing a communication strategy is to address and solve problems at the grassroots level utilising PRCA findings, communication methods, techniques and media. This should be done with the people, not just for the people.

After field work you review your findings. You compare your project perceptions and assessment with the community perceptions and assessment. This should lead to a new view, or at least a different view, of the main problems and their causes, which should always be within the boundaries of your project scope and objectives. At times this can be a sensitive issue, either because the community has a different perception which is imposing solutions on the community. Whatever the case, you might find yourself in the difficult position of having to choose between the views of the people (who should always be your priority concern), and those of management (who are the ones affecting your professional life). Depending on the situation you are in and your past experience, use your best judgement to reconcile the two positions.

Participatory Communication Strategy Design

Figure 2 A brief illustration of the basic steps in the process of communication strategy design.

Participatory Communication Strategy Design

Figure 3 A group of women investigating NOPS.

The critical factor that is going to shape your strategy, is the analysis of the new view of the problem. You should draw a new problem tree. Discuss it. Preferably, do this while still in the field. The identification of the most relevant factors, causing the main problem, become of vital importance for the development of an effective strategy. These factors are referred to as “focal problems”. The identified focal problems should then be subjected to a specific cause-effect analysis in order to identify and assess areas of possible communication intervention. The sequence above illustrates the basis of, and the rationale for, the communication strategy design. It also highlights the importance of the linkage between the field research and the subsequent strategic planning.

Before going into the actual design of the communication strategy you should review the rationale guiding this process. By now you are familiar with most of the Communication for Development terminology used in these training packages. You know that when going to the field, the first thing you should learn and investigate are people's NOPS (Needs, Opportunities, Problems and Solutions). Even if you may have to restrict your field of action only to aspects related to the on-going project framework, it is very important that you have a comprehensive picture of the overall situation from the community's point of view. Community NOPS, baseline results and the problem analysis will assist you in determining the root-problems, better known as focal problems, causing the negative situation. From there the communication strategy will take shape.

Once the focal problems have been identified and analysed, the next step is to address the issue of possible solutions. In order to do this you should determine objectives that are related to solving the problem on hand. Such objectives must be SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, ATTAINABLE, REALISTIC and TIME BOUND (SMART).

The next step is to combine and review all of the available information and field findings to decide which approaches, messages, media methods and techniques should be used to achieve the objectives. A Situation Analysis Framework (SAF) (see Figure 2 on page 9 and Box 2 on this page) will assist you in organising all these factors into a workable plan that entails outputs, activities and inputs and all of these within a specific time frame.

1.1.2 A Map of the Process of Communication Strategy Design

The three different communication modes briefly presented above are by no means mutually exclusive. You can have, for instance, an educational approach for a campaign aimed at reducing the incidence of AIDS. You may decide to use a combination of posters to raise awareness (hence message design mode), train nurses to provide advice to the youth coming to the clinic (hence instructional design mode) and encourage community mobilisation to give more visibility to this issue (hence group promotion mode). This brief introduction to the process of communication strategy design serves to give you a preview of what this handbook will concentrate on. It is supposed to focus your expectations while at the same time provide you with a sketch map of where you are going. All the work done during participatory rural communication appraisal (PRCA) and the baseline survey is now used to design the strategy. If the findings and analysis of the field research are not sound and relevant it is impossible to draw up an effective strategy. That is why the correct identification, formulation and assessment of focal problems are vital for the success of the overall strategy.

To summarise, the box below reflects the basic sequence of the main steps you will go through in the process of developing a communication strategy. As the message design is by far the most common mode to be used in communication campaigns, this sequence has been developed considering message design as the main approach. If other approaches/modes will be used, they will be added following a similar sequence.

Box 2

Basic Sequence of Communication Strategy Design (in Discussion Themes/Message Design Mode).

  1. Review the Project Framework (secondary data review, on-going project rationale and purpose, main problem/s to be addressed);
  2. Carry out the Participatory Research in the Field (PRCA + Baseline);
  3. Analyse the Field Research Findings and Identify the Focal Problems;
  4. Identify and Draw the Profiles of Priority Interaction Groups;
  5. Define SMART Communication Objectives and Solutions (how to);
  6. State the Rough Content of the Issues Related to the Focal Problems and SMART Objectives;
  7. Select the Design Mode (for the purpose of this handbook Discussion Themes/Message Design);
  8. Define the Communication Approaches and Methods;
  9. Preliminary Identification of the Required Outputs, Activities and Inputs;
  10. Develop the Creative Design of Discussion Themes and Messages;
  11. Select the Media and Finalise the Message Design;
  12. Revise and Define the Overall Communication Approaches, Outputs (Instructional Design, Discussion Themes/Message Design, Group Mobilisation Activities Design);
  13. Revise and Finalise the Activities Needed to Achieve the Intended Outputs;
  14. Revise and Finalise the Inputs Required to Carry out the Planned Activities;
  15. Assemble and Review the Wok plan for the Implementation Phase;
  16. Develop the Communication Materials;
  17. Carry out the Pre-testing and Subsequent Review of the Materials;
  18. Supervise the Mass Production;
  19. Training of Trainers on Relevant Issues and Materials;
  20. Supervise the Implementation of Activities; and
  21. Supervise the Monitoring and Evaluation.

1.2 Transforming Field Findings into Useful Accounts

At the end of the PRCA in the field you will be facing a large, at times extra large, amount of data. Your challenge is to organise and transform the data into something that can be used to design an effective communication strategy.

The process of communication strategy design starts in the field with collecting data, knowing the community and exchanging information. An effective strategy originates from these field findings. That is why it is important that during the field exercise you discuss and reflect upon the daily findings with the community. Analysing the data is an on-going process. Nevertheless, once you are back from the field you should go through all the data in an exhaustive manner, so as to review in depth the validity of your findings. Ideally this should be done within the community with the community. It is important to collect all information on the community from the community itself in order to have their opinions and their perceptions clearly and properly represented. Comparing the qualitative data from the PRCA to that from the baseline survey assists in validating the findings. You should also compare the original problem tree of the project with the new one derived from the field, reflecting the community point of view. The two perceptions should be compared and analysed in order to confirm or redefine the main problems. For each main problem being defined you should closely assess and investigate the cause-effect implications, thus reviewing the problem tree or drawing a new one if needed. The purpose of doing this is to identify and analyse the focal causes (remember the 80/20 law in chapter 2 of the PRCA Handbook), which are at the root of the main problem.

After assessing the situation with the community, use the field findings, and the related analysis, to define what you want to achieve. As you do this also begin to clearly define; the interaction groups you are going to address, the type of change that is expected and how you expect to measure that change. Although these are still at an initial stage, you are advised to start dealing with them at this point. They will be refined more precisely later on. Please bear in mind that the communication strategy design sequence presented in this handbook is only a guideline to assist you in solving problems in a systematic manner. You should see it as an outline that can be changed around to fit individual thinking patterns and experiences. What is important is to arrive at a strategy that is consistent with the field findings and, effective in relation to the defined problems. To achieve this you need to transform the data from the field into usable information.

1.2.1 Using Field Findings to Identify and Analyse Focal Problems

Identifying and prioritising root-problems, causing the main problem, is not always easy. Chapter 2 of the PRCA Handbook provides a detailed explanation on how to carry out an effective cause-effect analysis. It is however important to note that once the focal problems (which as you remember are the major causes of the main problem) have been identified you should consider their nature and prioritise them. Before deciding which ones you will be focussing upon in designing your strategy, you should consider how relevant they are and how communication can assist in achieving the solution.

You should use all of the data collected during the PRCA to assess the situation and then use the baseline findings to verify, validate and further focus the PRCA findings. Furthermore you should compare PRCA findings with the data and perceptions of the project as reviewed before going to the field. Sometimes problems affecting the success of a project are a result of differences of perceptions between project staff and the community. (See the example in Figure 9/10, Chapter 3, of the PRCA Handbook). It is therefore important at this stage to identify and define precisely the causes underlying the main problem. These causes will then be considered as problems. After their selection (based on their importance and, if they can be tackled by communication) they will be the starting point upon which the strategy will be based.

1.2.2 Focussing on Communication Related Problems

When assessing the situation in the field and investigating the factors responsible for the problem you wish to solve, you may end up with a long list. The first thing to do in such a situation, even before you start to prioritise the problems, is to separate problems, is to separate problems that can be addressed by communication from those that cannot i.e., asking yourself which problems are communication-related or which ones are structural. The latter can not be directly addressed through communication approaches. This categorisation is done to simplify the task of selecting appropriate issues that can be effectively addressed by communication. Structural problems are those that can be addressed only by the availability of finance or materials e.g., funds for buying a vaccine, construction of roads, a certain number of water pumps, etc. Communication cannot have a direct impact on these types of problems, as they require materials or finances (even though communication approaches can assist in lobbying for funding). Communication related problems are those that deal with issues regarding people's participation, perceptions, adoption of innovation and change of behaviour. These kinds of problems are generally concerned with change in awareness, knowledge, attitudes and practices (AKAP levels) or with factors concerning participation.l

Of course structural problems, such as those regarding availability of funds can sometimes be addressed by communication. For instance, if a nutrition project finds out that there are no schools in an area, it could hypothetically involve the people in an advocacy approach to lobby for the schools with the government, thus indirectly assisting in the search for funding, or directly contacting potential donors. This however may go outside the project boundaries of the nutrition project, which could nevertheless report the problem to the relevant authorities or advise the community on how to go about making a proposal for that issue.

When looking at the whole cause-effect analysis of the main problem you should concentrate on identifying communication entry points. These are the root-causes responsible for the persistence of the problem and they can be effectively addressed by communication. One of the most common and crucial communication entry points is the Windows of Perception, presented in the PRCA Handbook. These represent the full perception of the project and the community with respect to the main problem. It is surprising how often these two perceptions cannot be just different but even opposite to each other. Johari's widow below explains this.

Table 1
Johari's Window.

Open knowledge

What we know and what they know

 Their hidden knowledge

 What they know and what we  do not know

Our hidden knowledge

What we know and they do not know


What we do not know and they do not know

If the project perceived the irrigation scheme as a means to improve food security, thus life standards, while the community feels they have been forced into something complex and difficult to deal with, the result is that the irrigation scheme increases their insecurity and fears for making a living. Just the opposite of the original project perception! This is just one of the many examples where difference of perceptions account for most of the problems. Sometimes the difference can be due o a simple misunderstanding, as in the case of a health project that was trying to promote the drinking of safe water. In local language their slogan read something like “Drink Only Clean Water”. Unfortunately by “clean” people in the community meant water taken from wells and drunk as it was. It was opaque thus clean. By `clean', the project meant water that was made safe through boiling. However, since ordinarily `boiled' water looks dirty, the community thought it was not drinkable. And with their campaign the project was actually reinforcing this practice! Looking at Windows of Perception you will have to see if any of these differences apply to your case and if so how to unify the two perceptions. Remember in communication, perceptions can be as important, if not more, than reality. What counts is not what it is, but what people perceive it to be.

Selecting and investigating focal problems can be a difficult and challenging task. To increase the chances of success for your communication strategy you should make sure that the root-problems identified and selected can be effectively addressed through a communication intervention and that they are the most significant ones. Appropriate selection and prioritisation of the focal problems can ensure the success and sustainability of the communication component and consequently of the project as a whole. The next step is to assess and transform the secondary data available and the data collected in the field into information useful for designing the communication strategy

1.2.3 From Priority Problems to Creative Solutions

The assessment of the situation in the field and the cause-effect analysis of specific problems have been discussed in the previous section. At this point you should have already identified and clearly defined the relevant focal problems. Now you should start thinking about possible solutions for addressing each focal problem. This should not be very difficult as everybody is used to face situations, small or big, requiring a problem solving attitude and thinking daily. All that is needed here is a fair dose of common sense.

Every day you deal with decisions requiring some sort of analysis. For instance, you have to figure out what to give first priority in your daily tasks or to decide which approach to follow in searching for the car keys that always go missing when you are in a hurry. The same process is applied when looking for solutions to the focal problems identified. For instance, if a focal problem leading to children's malnutrition has been defined as inadequate knowledge of feeding practices by the mothers, the solution must aim at increasing that knowledge. How? This is part of the problem-solving approach you must adopt. Once you have defined the focal problems and possible solutions you can consider how to turn the problems into solutions, thus defining the communication objectives. These objectives should provide direct solutions to the focal problems, which in turn, should assist in solving the main problem. Even if it may sound na´ve, remember to ask yourself not only what the problem is, but also whose problem it is. You would be surprised to find how many problems addressed by development projects are not perceived as such by the community or the interested interaction groups.

Figure 4
A typical storage hut.

This storage hut was elevated from the ground through rocks in order to minimise crop damages due to natural pests (e.g. mice) and early morning moisture.

Participatory Communication Strategy Design

A practical ingenious solution.

Sometimes a solution can be reached as a result of some logical conclusions. At other times to arrive at a solution requires some innovative thinking (see figure 4 on the previous page) . In Chapter 2 you will discuss the importance of creativity in many of the phases of the communication strategy design process. Remember that every person has creative potential, which is often used in daily situations. Thinking patterns of course, do not happen in a clear-cut sequential way. Every person has a different way of thinking. Some people are more analytical, while others are more intuitive. Still others are more visual, etc. The problem tree is actually a cause-effect analysis adopting a sort of “clustering pattern” approach. A central thought/problem is linked to its causes and effects at various levels and in different directions. This is one of the ways in which the human mind operates. The problem tree represents on paper what happens in a person's mind, thus helping us to visualise the process.

Visualisation is another very effective way of dealing with situations and solving problems. Whenever you have a problem that does not seem to be solved by means of logical thought try to visualise it with your mind's eye. Try to see it. Do not to think about it. Sometimes this method gives surprising results. With time and practice you will see how many problems and difficult situations approached in this way can be solved. While creativity maybe innate in human beings, it can still be improved by experience. Being creative will definitely enhance the effectiveness of your communication strategy. Remember that creativity can come from you as well as from the community, so learn to listen actively, i.e. be ready to use people's local wisdom.

1.2.4 Expected Change and Criteria to Measure It

At this point, after you have analysed the focal problems, defined the communication objectives and drawn the profiles of the Interaction Groups, you should start thinking about the type of change you expect to see, based on the focal problems, and to be achieved through the communication intervention. What impact do you hope to have in order to get the intended change? You should specify how you expect the situation to be improved by achieving the communication objectives. Next, you should indicate how you are going to measure the degree of success, or failure, of the communication intervention. Which criteria will you take into account in order to define the impact of your intervention and the degree of change? Once you know what you want to change you should define how you intend to measure the impact of your activities.

The reason for doing this is that you should be able to assess and evaluate the impact of the objectives of, that is, the degree of change caused by the communication intervention.

For instance, one of the communication objectives of a Nutrition Project may be to increase knowledge regarding proper feeding practices by 25%, among mothers of under five children, by the end of the year. One criterion that you could use to assess the degree of success could then be the level of knowledge reached by the mothers of under five children. Another criteria, which can be used to measure the end impact of the communication activities, will be the number of malnourished children under 5 years. Even if the `malnutrition' problem cannot be solved solely by increasing the level of knowledge of the mothers, this can assist in reducing the problem. It is therefore important to start thinking of what you want to change and how you want to measure what has been achieved. A more detailed account of indicators for monitoring and evaluation is provided in the chapter on Situation Analysis Framework in the PRCA Handbook.

1.3  Putting Together the Communication Strategy

In the first section of this chapter you have had an overview of the communication strategy design process. At this point the situation in the community has already been assessed, communication objectives have been defined and the interaction groups have been identified. You are therefore ready to start designing the communication strategy in detail.

1.3.1 Using the Priority Interaction Groups Profiles

Having completed the analysis of the situation you should also have selected and defined the priority Interaction Groups for each specific focal problem. It is very important that for each Interaction Group you will confirm or draw a profile as described in the PRCA Handbook. The more detailed and comprehensive the profile, the more effective the design of messages and discussion themes is likely to be. You might need to know, for instance, their educational level, their religion, at what time they listen to the radio, what colour they associate with mourning, what their level of literacy is, what their socio-economic status is, where and when they meet, what they talk about, who they consider to be an influential source of information, etc. Interaction Groups are an active part of the problem solving strategy. The more you know about them, the easier it is going to be to work with them towards an effective solution. Being familiar with the background and the way of thinking of the Interaction Groups will also facilitate creative thinking at the time of communication materials design. In the next chapter you will become familiar with the principles of participatory message design and you will see how people in the communities provide the necessary inputs and thus indicate the characteristics that messages should have in order to be meaningful, relevant and above all effective.

Which Interaction Groups need to be selected will be indicated by the focal problems you have identified as well as by the subsequent definition of the communication objectives. How much and how well they will need to be defined will also be indicated by the focal problems. After having done a general profile you may see the need to probe deeper certain aspects of the interaction group in areas perceived as relevant (e.g. level of education, beliefs related to falling sick, etc.). For instance, in the case of the Nutrition Project example one of the focal problems could be the inadequate knowledge of feeding practises for children under five years of age. Naturally the Priority Interaction Group here will be the mothers of such children (thus you might also have other relevant interaction groups such as nurses, who might be in regular contact with the mothers, or household heads). Among other things, the problem-solving approach will need to look at ways of informing the mothers of children under five years of age about proper feeding practices. It is therefore vital to know something more, for instance, about their literacy level in order to decide which approach, medium and treatment to adopt in the communication strategy. If the overall level of literacy is low, there will be no point in doing leaflets, or posters with words. Or if your profile of the Interaction Groups indicates that women are busy in the fields most of the days, as it is often the case, there is no point in designing messages or discussion themes simply urging women to dedicate more time to their children. Allocating a significant amount of time to their children may have other cultural and economical implications that in the long run may cause other serious problems. Sometimes decisions such as these do not depend solely on the women but on the head of the household, who usually, are men. This is why it is vital to discuss and analyse problems and possible solutions with the people themselves, and to do this you need not only be aware but also have a good understanding of their way of life. A clear profile of the people you are working with may provide most of the inputs needed to assist you in the creative process of message design.

1.3.2  Setting SMART Communication Objectives

During the course of field research and problem analysis you identify critical areas and define communication objectives. Usually the latter are formulated in a rather generic manner such as “Increase the awareness of the community on the importance of feeding practices” or “reduce the malnutrition rate of children under five”. Even though objectives such as these provide a definite direction towards a solution they are too vague to provide you with a clear indication about what you are supposed to achieve exactly. That is why at this point you should make your objectives SMART. That is, objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-framed. An example of a SMART objective can be “Raise the awareness of proper feeding practises in the district among 70% of all women between the age of 16 and 40 by the end of the next year”. Having SMART objectives makes it easier to clearly define what you are supposed to achieve, hence facilitating the monitoring and evaluation process. This also provides further support in the definition of the expected outputs.

Communication objectives directly address issues such as awareness, knowledge, attitude, practice, behaviour and participation. Each of these represents a communication level, which needs to be dealt with separately. If for instance your objective is to induce change in behaviour concerning personal hygiene practices, first you need to make the people concerned aware that there is a problem with the previous behaviour. You then make sure that the knowledge and the attitude necessary for the change to take place are present. It is only when all these prerequisites are met that you can hope to achieve your communication objectives.

In most instances change can be considered to be an innovation. Hence it can be dealt with as an adoption of innovation. The Adoption Ladder process, highlighted in figure 5 on the right, can help you to understand better the sequence of such adoption and the various communication levels:

This adoption ladder facilitates the identification of the communication entry points, which may be concerned with raising the awareness or the knowledge of a certain issue, or changing attitudes or encouraging the use of certain practices. You can therefore select the most appropriate communication approaches according to the level targeted by your communication objectives.

Participatory Communication Strategy Design

Figure 5

The Adoption Ladder process.

1.3.3 Identifying Rough Core Content and Themes to be Developed

No matter what communication modes and approaches you choose to use, you need to identify the rough core content or themes that your communication strategy will deal with. In order to define this area, which sometimes is also referred to as the content platform, you need to look at your SMART objectives. In the previous example, the objective set, already defined the rough content, which is dealing with feeding practises. At this point you only need to know that `feeding practices' is to be one content area you will address in your communication strategy. Later on you should get more information on the issue and see how to treat the relevant themes in an effective way, so as to achieve the communication objective.

1.4 Selecting Communication Modes and Approaches: The Communication Intervention

Communication approaches are ways of using communication techniques, methods and media to address specific issues in the most effective way. Selecting communication modes and approaches is a very crucial stage in Communication Strategy Design. This is when the communication intervention starts. Several important questions are asked at this stage:

It is very important to note that the way in which communication materials, techniques and methods are used can have a great influence on the final results. Communication modes and approaches assist in determining which direction to focus the communication (e.g. promote, educate, inform, etc.) in order to have the best results.

1.4.1 Main Communication Modes

In the Action Programme workshops you will deal in detail with the Participatory Message Design Approach, or Mode as it has been labelled in this Handbook. This is due to the fact that in organising a Campaign it is the Participatory Message Design Mode that is most frequently used. However, there are other possibilities. In this Handbook we shall consider three main communication modes only. Each one of these includes a certain number of communication approaches. To simplify and clarify the issue we shall consider persuasion, advocacy, information and promotion as part of the discussion themes/message design category, education and training fall under the instructional design category, while community mobilisation, group formation and networking/partnerships belong to the group mobilisation activities design category. Each communication mode reflects a particular kind of strategic design, and each of them contains a number of approaches, which are by no means mutually exclusive.

Depending on the approach selected, you will deal with one, or more, of the three broad categories, or modes, aimed at developing a strategy for message design, instructional design or group mobilisation activities design. As mentioned above, this handbook focuses on message design (which includes discussion themes design) because it is the most frequently utilised and one that can be used in a large number of situations. The basic features and requirements of the other two categories (i.e. instructional design and group mobilisation) are nevertheless going to be looked at briefly in order to provide a comprehensive picture of the full potential and possibilities of the communication strategy. Remember that up to the point of selecting communication approaches, the sequence of the process is the same for each of the three categories presented above. Only after having selected the communication approaches, will you need to see into which mode you are required to operate. This can be a combination of two or all the three modes.

You can use the communication mode most appropriate for your strategy or a combination of modes and approaches as long as you are aware that the steps of designing your strategy will differ depending on the overall approach, or communication mode, you select. In this handbook we mainly look at the Participatory Discussion Themes/Message Design, as this is the most widely used in communication campaigns. At the same time, we also look at two other communication modes, namely; Instructional Design and Group Mobilisation. The former is particularly useful for providing knowledge and skills needed to use new techniques or adopt innovations. The latter aims at forming and mobilising groups of people to be more effective in addressing a particular issue.

Participatory Discussion Themes/Message Design

In development, Participatory Discussion Themes and Message Design are concerned with identifying critical topics, elaborating relevant information and passing certain contents, either in a one-way manner or through a two-way dialogue mode, in order to address a situation which needs to be improved. When developing messages and themes you should always keep in mind that the participatory element should be present as much as possible. The message to be passed on should be identified and dealt with, with the community or the selected group. Ideally you should discuss with the community the content, but also the approaches, appeals, media and the way to present them. If that is not possible you have to make the best of the time you can spend with the community and then devote extra time and extra attention to the pre-testing phase. The same applies for the discussion themes design. This differs from the message design in that its aim is not to pass a definite message but rather to create the basis for discussing a critical issue. Picture codes and cloth flipcharts are often used for this purpose. As the term suggests discussion themes design aims to develop communication materials designed to debate certain topics. The aim here is to have the community open up and become aware of certain issues, i.e., exploring its pros and cons. This can be a very effective way of dealing with issues which, if given as straightforward messages, might not be taken into account. When the same issues are presented and discussed openly with the community they usually acknowledge and reflect upon many of the points in question. Moreover being a two-way approach, discussion themes and tools often offer useful insights to help you understand and work towards a solution of the problem.

In order to effectively understand and use the participatory discussion themes/message design mode, which you will explore in greater detail in the next chapter, you should review and go through the whole sequence. First, you must assess the focal problems, then define the communication objectives, confirm and review the profile of the Priority Interaction Groups. Once this has been done you then select the communication approaches most suitable for your strategy. If the identified communication approaches include information, advocacy, persuasion or promotion, you need to go through the discussion themes/message design process. You must be familiar with ways of treating and packaging information that assists in bringing about desired change. Messages are usually concerned with passing information and knowledge necessary for the Interaction Groups to address and solve the problem. Posters, brochures, radio, video, booklets can be used for the transmission of the intended message. Messages, even when designed in a participatory way, remain a one-way communication instrument. Discussion themes on the other hand, are concerned more with bringing up issues to be openly discussed rather than providing definite answers or passing specific information. They are particularly effective in issues dealing with raising awareness and highlighting attitudes. Illustrated flipcharts and picture codes are some of the communication materials frequently used for this purpose.

Analysis of the problems and the communication objectives provide relevant inputs into the content of messages. Communication approaches indicate how these messages should be developed. After identifying the approaches you start working on the creative design of messages or discussion themes. This is followed by selection of the media to be used based on considerations drawn from your field research (e.g. which media are most popular in that community, which media appears to be more compatible, credible and effective for that particular culture, group, topic, etc.). Once you select the media and you know what you want to achieve and why, you may call in a specialist: a creative person to assist you in the finalisation of the message design and in the technical aspects of material production. After this the next steps would be the implementation of the field activities and related monitoring and evaluation.

Instructional Design

Communication strategy development should not be limited to the challenge of designing appropriate and effective messages. Not all desired changes can be induced by messages. Some situations require a more interpersonal intervention. The scope of the instructional design mode is that of providing part of the community, or the selected Interaction Groups, with certain skills or knowledge necessary to address a problem. By using training or education approaches people have the opportunity of becoming familiar with complex issues; of acquiring knowledge and skills useful for improving their situation. Education and training are also effective approaches in addressing changes of attitude.

When you decide to adopt the training or educational approach you should use one of the approaches included in the instructional design mode. This requires the specifications of a set of instructions aimed at successfully imparting a certain level of knowledge or skills. Usually, development projects entail strong training components that in most cases mean training of field staff. That is training of trainers, i.e., extensionists or other field workers, to use discussion tools or some other materials developed in the discussion themes/message design mode. Another use of the instructional design could be that of training some members of the community as part of a campaign team to provide skills about a particular issue beneficial to everybody, e.g., how to maintain the water pump. None of the modes or approaches has to be used exclusively. On the contrary, on many occasions you might find it necessary to adopt a combination of approaches and methods. The Instructional mode requires that you design the learning instructions needed to achieve the communication objectives in an effective way. Once you have defined the needed specifications you may decide on the need of any medium to be used and on how the interpersonal approach should be carried out. Finally you need to indicate the outputs expected (e.g. 2 training workshops, 28 extensionists trained, etc.).

Group Mobilisation Activities Design

The third broad category that can be adopted in your communication strategy is Group Mobilisation. It is a way of organising people in groups around specific issues and/or objectives. The purpose of the group mobilisation mode is that of strengthening the possibilities for successful action, through the uniting of many people with different backgrounds but with similar objectives. It includes the following approaches: community mobilisation, partnerships/networking, and group formation. All of these approaches try to organise the community, or part of it, in order to address the main problem facing the community or group more effectively. Sometimes, for the same purpose, the community may decide to work towards a common objective with some outside entities, taken on board as partners. Once one of the approaches in this mode has been selected, it is important to make sure that everybody understands the purpose and benefits of such an effort. The group size, rationale and purpose need to be carefully assessed. According to the situation, there might be a need to promote recruitment in the group, assist in the group formation for a specific purpose or lobbying for some partners in a development initiative. Whenever one of these approaches is adopted, the communication strategy must take into account and indicate the modalities and benefits of entering into the group promotion mode.

1.4.2 Frequently Used Communication Approaches

The approaches presented in this handbook have been grouped into the three main categories: discussion themes/message design, instructional design and group mobilisation activities design. The rationale for this categorisation is the need to group together approaches that follow a similar pattern during the development of the communication strategy. There are also other “communication approaches”, such as “social marketing” or “adoption of innovations”. They all include the use of a number of specific communication approaches, which are basically, the ones being presented here. If you understand the rationale and the sequence of the process of communication strategy design you should be able to adopt a similar approach for all the various communication modes, even when they have not been specifically dealt with in this handbook.

The various approaches are presented within the communication mode they have been grouped in. Naturally in a communication strategy a number of approaches, and even modes, can be used to achieve set objectives. The first of the approaches to be presented here does not fall in any specific mode. Rather, it falls in all of them since it is at the heart of every participatory communication approach.

Dialogue cuts across all the other approaches. It is the basis of the other approaches since it is the main bonding factor upon which to build mutual trust and understanding. It assists people to identify, visualise and reflect on their problems, needs and capabilities, and to create a mutual understanding among the various groups in the community and between the people and the outsiders. Dialogue also helps to bring out the various perceptions on an issue. It generates views as to the possible causes, solutions, and consequence of identified problems.



This is the treatment and the transmission of data meant to provide objective facts on specific issues. It differs from other approaches such as promotion, persuasion or education in the treatment of data which is transmitted “raw” without specific added value, such as making it more inviting or appealing or having some instructional connotations to treat it as transfer of knowledge. Instances of information approaches are those posters or radio spots that just mention numbers, e.g. Every year millions of people die of AIDS, do you know how to avoid being one of them?


This is usually defined as a communicating process aimed at influencing others. Traditionally it has the connotation for being very seldom, if ever, of a participatory nature. Sometimes however it could be used within a participatory strategy if rooted in a participatory assessment of the need for such an approach. A persuasive message has a point of view or desired behaviour that the recipient is supposed to adopt in a voluntary, even if rather passive, fashion. In a persuasion approach there is always an element of mutual fulfilment between the persuader and the one being persuaded, and this is the main difference between persuasion and propaganda. Persuasion attempts to cause a change either in the attitude or behaviour of a specific group of people.


This is informing to make people aware and familiar, or even accept ideas, concepts or behaviour. By promotion you try to create interest or a favourable impression of an idea or practice through motivation, image creation and/or positioning. Often promotion implies calling people to action, entertainment, benefits, relevancy and packaging. Depending on the situation it can imply either top down or horizontal communication.


This is seeking to generate support of decision-makers, both within and outside the community. Such an approach is usually adopted to create a conducive environment that may lead to a policy that is sensitive to the issues in question. It can also be directed at NGOs, Ministries or international donors in order to start, or obtain funds to start development initiatives on critical issues. It aims at influencing the development policy, obtaining financial support and legitimisation. An advocacy approach can be used not only in a bottom-up mode but also in a horizontal fashion in order to facilitate or set a favourable environment, for instance, from NGOs' to policy makers or from the latter to decision makers.



This is to increase knowledge, comprehension and maybe change attitudes, usually through a formal learning environment. Education approaches can be carried out at an interpersonal individual level (teacher-student situations), at a group level (meetings, specific gatherings, schools, etc.) or at a mass level (publications, radio and television).


This is to impart or increase skills and give opportunity for trial. The training approach is similar to the education one, but it focuses on practical skills rather than theoretical knowledge. That is why it usually implies an interpersonal learning environment in venues such as workshops or demonstration sites. Hopefully people will adopt or adapt the new idea after trial.



These are attempts to have different groups or associations, within or from outside the community, joining and working together to address, more effectively, specific issues or problems. Very often communities have problems that cut across different development sectors. This means that external facilitators can go into the community focusing on just a single sector, while a number of causes of the problem can be derived from other sectors. Furthermore a single group or association may not have all the resources for tackling a certain community problem, so it may be necessary to network with other organisations for help. Partnerships need to be built with organisations, both within and outside the community, to assist the community either in kind or with funds. Even when dealing with a problem involving a single sector it would still be advantageous to have partnerships of different groups/associations joining together in order for the intervention to carry more weight, thus facilitating the achievement of the common objective.

Group Formation:

This consists of encouraging and facilitating the formation of groups of people, usually within the community, having a specific set of tasks aimed at addressing a specific issue. Groups can be formed to deal more effectively with a certain problem, to share labour required by a complex activity, to provide moral support and legitimise social and technological change, to facilitate the duplication of certain knowledge or practices in the community. Groups are usually advised to form a management committee to carry out a number of tasks, such as calling meetings and prepare the agenda, report about actions taken, promote decision-making; follow up the implementation of the activities, etc. This approach, which entails an extra amount of dialogue as its basis, uses communication to facilitate mutual trust and understanding among people sharing a common interest or need.

Community Mobilisation:

This is the systematic effort to involve the community in actively taking part in the resolution of a specific development issue, through communication means and methods. This approach aims at bringing together all the community in order to work together to achieve something beneficial for all.

Communication approaches give you a direction to follow in the use of different techniques and media. They provide a purpose for using them (i.e. to promote, to inform, to educate, to form groups, etc.). In order to select an appropriate approach you should consider the project framework, the field findings and most importantly, the communication objectives. These will give you the rough content and themes to be developed which in turn facilitate your task of selecting the most effective approaches in that situation. You can always refine the approaches, or add new ones, if you see the necessity at a later stage.

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