Managing conflict so as to prevent it becoming violent, ending violence, and re-establishing stability are among the principle aims of many organisations. Communications of all kinds should be, but too often aren’t, central to that objective. And strategic communications – a process designed to change the perceptions and behaviour of a specific group of people – even more so.
Among the possible intentions are: encouraging talking rather than fighting; discouraging stereotyping of ‘the other’; or discouraging participation in corruption. In terms of preventing and managing a conflict (violent or not) desired changes such as these often have longer term positive effects than a peace agreement, or one side beating the other.
Beginning with a coherent, believable narrative is the first step in designing an effective (ie one which works) strategic communications process. The narrative has to explain the nature of the invention (developmental, diplomatic and/or military) and the objective.
The essential task is then be to pursue and communicate that narrative by all means possible. Communication can consist of a development initiative (an infrastructure or medical intervention); an official statement, social media posts or a report from the conflict; a briefing (on or off the record); a military action or movement, or even a decision not to act militarily. Abd there are dozens of other options. Each of these communicates, and has a message. Having a narrative doesn’t have to mean communicating a grand story, it can also mean contributing to an overall understanding of the story through many smaller communications. Messages (and stories) designed for domestic and international audiences used to be able to be different, but that is less easy now.
Obviously target audience(s) have to be identified and defined, and their culture, history, values and behaviour understood properly before any communication effort is undertaken. In the contemporary, immediate and interactive communication world audiences are and should be expected to be participants in the process, rather than passive recipients of messages as information or ideas.
Changing behaviour in fragile or conflict affected states is the principle aim the narrative. Communicating is not an addition, but has to be an integral part of conflict prevention and management, and to re-establishing basic government functions. Engaging with the audience pro-actively delivers better understanding of their perceptions, values, and behaviour in what is likely to be a rapidly changing situation. With that dynamic understanding messaging can be changed as the new attitudinal and behavioural realities kick in. That means that the M&E processes must engage from the start of the intervention.
Behaviour change takes time, and no matter how much it is perceived as being necessary it may not be achievable in the time allowed. So keeping it realistic, and not designing for failure, is a good start. Behaviour change is a complex and uncertain process with many variables. It is rarely possible to measure the effect of communications on behaviour accurately, but long-term planning and focus are key.