Common mistakes in public communication of civil society organizations

By Paramita Mohamad
March 6, 2018
Kucing yang tidur telentang adalah kucing yang percaya dengan lingkungan sekitarnya.
Of course there are various reasons and agendas that bring you into civil society organizations. But I am sure that it all boils down to one goal: you want to help improve Indonesia.

The Draft Strategic Plan Document for the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID) for 2018–2021 recognizes the importance of public communication to assist the work and foster the credibility of civil society organizations. The enthusiasm of Indonesian people in using social media and the popularity of online petitions might make you optimistic that public communication is effective in accelerating change. Perhaps you have also heard of some “winning cases” of these petitions. Apart from that, your heart may bloom when you see changes taking place in several areas which have ended up being hot on social media and leading to online petitions, for example the cancellation of the Minister of Home Affairs' regulations on research, and the postponement of the ratification of the RKUHP yesterday.

In behavioral science there is a phenomenon called survivor bias : we tend to only see examples of success, and are blind to examples of failure which are actually much more numerous. It seems that we are experiencing survivor bias in viewing the effectiveness of public communication via social media. Search results for petitions on the site with the keyword "Indonesia" found 2,065 petitions contained in 207 pages. However, in just a few clicks we can see that the petition declared "winning" in Indonesia is only contained in 7 pages. Civil society's public communication through social media and online petitions is not always effective in accelerating the arrival of change.

I don't mean to dampen your optimism about the potential of public communications. I believe public communication from civil society organizations can accelerate change. However, it is precisely the practices within civil society organizations themselves that blunt the catalytic power of public communication.

Treating public communications as an onion
Since founding Communication for Change in 2016, the majority of my clients have been non-profit institutions. I observe that civil society organizations generally treat public communication as an afterthought.

These are the characteristics of treating public communication as an afterthought in civil society organizations:
  • There is no serious investment in effort and time to design a communication strategy before implementation; no one has thought deeply about the relationship between the organization's mission, program goals, and aspects of communication that occur in the public space
  • Even if communication is discussed when designing a program strategy, it is only mentioned as one item in a whole series of activities
  • Communication only starts to be thought about after the activity is about to take place (because you have to make invitation posters on social media, make broadcasts to the media, or live-tweet during the event)
  • Automatically without consideration, you always choose the same communication products
  • There is no clear call-to-action in public communications aimed at mobilizing action.
I am sure that civil society organizations do not intentionally treat public communication as an afterthought. I suspect this has something to do with historical “accidents”. I don't know since when, many non-profit institutions include communication in one package with publications and documentation. Now in several non-profit institutions, publication and documentation matters have metamorphosed into knowledge management , but communication activities are still left to one side, namely announcing organizational activities. It is not surprising that the communication output produced is still the same: broadcasts to the media, pamphlets and booklets without a detailed distribution plan, and coverage of activities via live-tweets or articles on their own website, complete with a photo of the speaker in front of the backdrop.

I also see that many civil society organizations seem to separate communication (which revolves around the publication of activities) from activities that are labeled socialization, mobilization, or outreach. Aren't these three things essentially communication too? Could it be because socialization and friends are part of advocacy, while communication is defined as publication?

The ultimate goal of non-profit institutional communications, whatever the organization, is twofold:
  1. Policy changes
  2. Changes in social behavior
A non-profit institution may want to realize these two goals so that its vision is achieved. For example, organizations seeking to achieve gender equity in economic participation will seek to change policies (e.g. paternity leave) and social behavior (getting men more involved in performing domestic tasks).

What about changes in public opinion? Changing public opinion is an intermediate goal. Sometimes we have to change public sentiment first so that policies can eventually change (for example the civil rights movement in the United States). In the public health discipline, the attitudes and feelings of a group of people often need to change first in order for their habits to change (e.g. carrying emergency vests in cars in France).

Looking at the two final goals above, I don't see the need to question what constitutes advocacy and what constitutes communication. To start a public communication effort in order to change policy, a more productive question is:

Who made the policy? Who influences the policy maker? In what context do they come into contact with it? How can open communication in the public sphere trigger changes in the thoughts, feelings and behavior of policy makers and the people who influence them?
Meanwhile, to start a public communication effort in order to change the behavior of a group, a more productive question is:
Who is doing this behavior? What and who encouraged them to start doing it? What and who encourages them to continue doing it? What is stopping them from starting a new behavior? What should change in their beliefs and feelings? What should change in the beliefs and feelings of those who influence them? How can communication that occurs in public spaces trigger these changes?
If you suspect that these questions are also asked when designing program strategy, you are right. The questions for designing communication in public spaces are questions about program strategy.

This means that civil society organizations must stop treating public communication as a complementary activity or as an afterthought. Public communication can only be effective in accelerating change if it is carefully designed when we create program strategies. In other words, public communication strategy is an inseparable part of the organization's program strategy.

Designing a strategy with the "as long as it is there" mode
Sebagai konsekuensi dari langkah pertama, maka langkah selanjutnya adalah organisasi harus lebih serius menginvestasikan waktu dan tenaga dalam merancang strategi komunikasi publik.

Strategi adalah praktik menentukan cara terbaik menuju ke sana (tujuan) dari sini (titik awal). Pada hakekatnya, menyusun sebuah strategi adalah sama dengan menyusun sebuah argumen mengenai pendekatan mana yang paling tepat untuk mengatasi penghalang antara sini dan sana. Argumen ini tentu harus dibangun dengan premis-premis yang faktual, dari data yang akurat, dan asumsi yang realistis. Selain itu, premis-premis ini pun harus terikat dalam satu logika yang lempeng.

As an argument, a strategy should have the following elements:
  • Description of where we are now (starting point)
  • Description of where we want to get to (end point)
  • What is the barrier between the starting point and the ending point (what stands in between)
  • What approach do we choose to reach the end point (the chosen approach, the guiding policy; in communication strategy this element is called a change statement)
  • A series of steps that must be taken (the course of action).

Often documents titled "strategy" skip two important elements which are actually the heart of a strategy, namely a hypothesis about the root of the problem and what approach to choose to overcome this obstacle. However, without these two elements, what we have is just a to-do list without focus, logic and implications for resource allocation.

Strategy demands focus, and often we forget that focus means sacrifice. In strategy, what we will not do is as important as what we will do. Without a hypothesis about the root of the problem and the chosen approach to address it, we have no solid basis for determining what we will sacrifice.

In a good communication strategy, the change statement is always formulated from the perspective of the communication target. There are several mistakes that I often observe in the public communication of civil society organizations in this regard:

First, failing to clearly define who should be the target of communication. Terms such as “local communities” or “lay people” are not enough. Use a more detailed description, for example "residents who did not vote for the regent in the regional elections yesterday, who must be convinced to vote for this regent so that he can be re-elected", or "husband's parents who still think that if the wife works, then the husband’s social standing is being downgraded."

Second, using one communication output to target more than one target group. If we do this, the message in the output becomes blurry.

Third, we need to move on from the assumption that the target group cares as much as we do about the issues we are monitoring. As an organization that oversees this issue, of course you believe that this is important to improve Indonesia, and the more people who are "aware" of this issue, the smoother the path to a better Indonesia will be.

Maybe that's why I often find words like "enlighten", "make aware", and "educate" implied as change statements in public communication strategies. In fact, the general public, especially those who are not directly involved in this issue, have many more pressing matters that occupy their minds and drain their feelings.

I believe public communications will be more effective if it starts with the assumption that our targets probably don't care, and it's not their fault. I myself always start with the default position that the target group is indifference (perhaps the translation is indifferent). Consequently, I always think that in many ways, communication is an effort to fighting indifference. Viewing public communication as more like persuasion and not enlightenment will lead me to strategies and execution that are more effective in bringing about change.

Reluctant to work with professional practitioners
Communication is a matter of stimulus and response. Responses are all the impressions that arise in people's minds or feelings about something — in this case, the issue we are raising. Stimuli are all sensory and experiential elements, whether intentionally designed or not, whether coming directly or through other people, which can cause these various responses.

Strategy is connected with determining the right response in the right person, through the right means and media, at the right time. Strategy is a matter of logic. Meanwhile, creativity and imagination are needed to develop stimuli that can arouse and defeat indifference. This is magic that surpasses logic.

I believe that civilization advances in part because there is specialization, division of tasks, and voluntary exchange between specialists. Likewise, it is the case for making magic out of public communications of civil society organizations. Moreover, nowadays, there are many quality creative workers who work independently. There are already many working platforms or marketplaces that bring together service users and themselves in Indonesia, such as Fiverr, Upwork,,, Sribulancer, and Behance. Never before have civil society organizations had as many options for finding professional practitioners who fit their budget and needs as they do today.

Civil society organizations can have a productive working relationship with professional practitioners as long as they provide clear direction (brief) from the start and do not change it along the way. Often with good guidance, professional practitioners will be challenged or encouraged to engage in these issues. In the process of creating communication outputs, civil society organizations provide feedback that is specific and based on direction, not from personal tastes and assumptions. And of course, this is all for nothing without transparent and fair payments and processes.

We have blank instructions for professional creative workers that you can use. If you need it, you can leave a message on our site. However, you must have a sharp and complete communication strategy to be able to fill in the blank well.

In conclusion: if you want to carry out more frequent public communications that are effective in accelerating change, civil society organizations have three main homework assignments. First, stop treating public communications as an afterthought; second, start investing more seriously in developing communication strategies along with program strategies; and finally, start trying to work with professional practitioners.

Godspeed, rebels.

Paramita Mohamad
Written by
CEO and Principal Consultant of Communication for Change. We work with those who want to make Indonesia suck less, by helping them get buy-in and make changes.

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