Building NGO credibility through Communication Strategy

By Paramita Mohamad
March 9, 2018
Kucing yang tidur telentang adalah kucing yang percaya dengan lingkungan sekitarnya.
About two weeks ago Communication for Change published an article about the common mistakes that civil society organizations often make in public communication. Two of the mistakes relate to organizational habits (treating public communications as a mere complement and not a central part of the organization's program; reluctant to hire professional practitioners). Another one is communication strategy planning which is still below the standard.

We then received a follow-up question in response to this article:
I agree that the term brand awareness is overrated not only in the non-profit sector, but also in the marketing world (because what is more important is brand salience, but let's not get distracted).

I don't have a case study on how a non-profit organization can build credibility with a new audience, but I want to share my thoughts, in case a client gives me this brief.

A strategy is the practice of calculating the best way to get from here to there. We start with a description of “where we are now”. The question above is about a nonprofit organization that has to deal with a new audience. I'll take a few steps back: what brought the organization to this new audience? Of course there are several explanations, but to make writing this article easier I proceed from the assumption that the development of this organization's strategy brought them before an audience they had never had contact with before.

The next question is, what makes this audience important to the organization? The ultimate goal of nonprofit sector communications is to change policy or change public behavior (changing public opinion is an intermediate goal). This means that this new audience can be related to one of the two goals.

The first possibility is that this new audience may be related to policy changes: they could be the creators, or parties who can influence decision makers.

I am aware of the dangers of stereotypical thinking, so far I have only met policymakers who might be called technocratic in style. At least explicitly they care about the “evidence base” in making policies. Meanwhile, I believe that many policies are not made in a technocratic spirit, but as practical political maneuvers. I have never been in a working situation with them, but I suspect they have considerations other than “evidence based” policies.

What usually prevents technocratic-style policymakers from considering a nonprofit think tank credible? Maybe because he had never heard of this institution before. Thus, one of the approaches we choose to get on the radar of policy makers who don't yet know the existence of our organization is to look for other parties they trust who can connect us with them. The aim is to open opportunities for interaction with policy makers. However, policymakers should soon be able to see that interactions with these think tanks can help advance their agenda.

To start initial interactions with policymakers, try designing the interaction using the following tactics:

From the just knowing level to the level of trust, usually technocratic style policymakers need to be convinced on these matters through:
  • If this think tank provides recommendations for policy direction, to what extent are these recommendations based on accurate empirical evidence and properly analyzed?
  • What other recommendations has this think tank put forward? What is the response from policy makers who receive it?
  • To what extent are the people from this think tank competent in this area? What's the clue? What is his track record?
  • What interests does this think tank promote ? What is the ideological bias, and who is the source of the funding?
Apart from direct face-to-face interactions, the media that can be used to answer these questions may be quite standard (websites, brochures, policy briefs ). Unfortunately, often the execution in this media is not optimal because it is made based on a template mode or using what previously has been done before: without thinking long about the objective, let alone empathizing with the communication target, with long-winded writing, laid out in a haphazard design.

Another medium that is also quite often (mis)used in think tank interactions with policy makers is presentations (presented in government language). Too often I see presentations become a PowerPoint karaoke ”: the presenter reads text after text, cramming the slides , while the audience is busy doing something more fun than enduring boredom. If you are interested in how to create presentation content (including design and visualization) and deliver it, you can explore the training that we provide.

The second possibility, this new audience is related to the ultimate goal of changing behavior. Here the question is: to change, does the audience have to believe the party first before asking them to change?

If we assume that humans are 100% rational, the answer to this question is yes. This type of audience will have the same questions and considerations as technocratic policy makers.

But this answer expects too much from human rationality. Behavioral science is full of studies about how rarely we give in-depth consideration at length before deciding to change behavior. We are too lazy or busy to make these considerations (remember the elephant and driver metaphor for Systems 1 and 2?). In addition, our moral intuitions blind us and make us unable to let go of our tribal identity (remember Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations theory?).

In this case, I sadly hypothesize that the credibility of nonprofit organizations as inducers of new behavior is only relevant as a justification or justification of those who are already inclined to agree. In the eyes of naysayers, these nonprofits will never be relevant. If anyone has read a study about this, please comment.

Then what should I do? If you want to change the behavior of a group of people, you have to use a different approach. You should use approaches that do not assume the rationality of human behavior, such as the Fogg behavior model, behavior economics, and moral foundation theory. We will discuss this further in the communication strategy course for the non-profit sector.
And finally we arrive at Pandora's box: don't technocratic style policy makers actually behave the same way: mainly driven by a fast, shallow and emotional System 1, and blinded by their moral intuition?

Of course. They are ordinary people. I think the difference between them and the audience for behavior change is that they have more incentive to at least "act" as System 2 people. But we also know that operating in System 2 really takes up mental energy, so sooner or later (and usually sooner) System 1 will appear too, with a vengeance .

I suspect that to be able to answer that, I need to learn more about what people in the development world call thinking and working politically. I'll start from here. Can you share your institution's experience in this regard? I would love to hear it.
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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