What's So 'Strategic' about Communications, Anyway?

By Susan M. Puska, President & CEO

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

It’s part of virtually every donor-funded program but ask most development professionals how communications adds strategic value to their efforts, and chances are they won’t be able to tell you. Some think of communications as a reporting function, editing technical narrative and formatting it to look and sound “pretty.” Some think of it as a marketing function, producing websites, graphics, and social media posts for select audiences. 

At KANAVA, we like to think of communications as bigger than the sum of its parts.

At KANAVA, we like to think about it as something bigger than the sum of those parts. For us, communications is about storytelling. 

Although reporting and marketing are important parts of any development program, helping project managers keep track of their teams’ progress and share it with donors and stakeholders, communications professionals can also help uncover stories of impact that might not fit neatly into a project’s workplan. 

For example, while a workplan might include a target number of training opportunities for host-country start-ups, an enterprising communications team can tell the stories of the individual entrepreneurs, creating visual testimonials and data-rich infographics that capture the impact of the donor-funded activity from the perspective of its beneficiaries. These stories, in turn, can offer qualitative data on what participants found most useful, informing future programming and helping ensure even greater impact. 

These are not just feel-good opportunities. As host governments struggle to provide economic opportunities to their people, international programs are under increasing pressure to show results. Add to that a growing backlash against overseas spending in donor-country capitals, and the drive to show development’s results isn’t just about stories; it’s about sustainability. 

To tell the story of development’s worth, though, practitioners must speak in a language that makes sense to as broad an audience as possible. One of our favorite examples of this is USAID Jordan’s “Just Bring a Chair” campaign, which used the story of one schoolteacher’s classroom to show how the agency had supported the Kingdom as it dealt with the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees from the neighboring crisis. The video’s caption says, simply:  

“In Jordan, where the Syrian crisis has led to around 635,000 additional people taxing already overburdened schools, hospitals and social services, some people still find reasons to open their arms and make it work. Ms. Maha is one of those people.” 

This USAID Jordan video tells the story of one teacher’s struggle to accommodate growing numbers of students in her classroom. Source: https://youtube.com/watch?v=QuOb9bWr1SU

The video was one of USAID’s most widely shared on social media. And here’s the thing: none of the substance of the USAID program was lost. Instead, by telling the story in simple language, the video also reinforced one of the guiding principles of all program design: the simplest solutions tend to be the most effective. 

Communications pros don’t design programs, of course. But by helping lead a conversation about how those programs are impacting real people’s lives, they can help technical staff and managers refine their thinking, better represent their value to donors, and — ultimately — boost their impact. That‘s strategic. That’s valuable. And that’s what communications should be. 

Susan Puska