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Vicki Francis/Department for International Development;

Chapter 10.3 Communications, information, education

Communications strategies

Photo: Vicki Francis/Department for International Development;

The aim of public education programmes should be to create what is often called a ‘culture of safety’, where awareness of risk and adoption of risk-reducing measures are part of daily life. It is relatively easy to improve knowledge of hazards and risks and how to deal with them, but harder to change people’s behaviour so that they take appropriate measures, individually or collectively. Achieving a culture of safety is a long-term process, therefore; it cannot be achieved through a one-off intervention. A programme of activities is needed to reach different target groups, explain and reinforce messages (repetition of messages can be an important element in successful public education campaigns), and give people opportunities to think about, question and validate the information they receive. It may be a long time – perhaps several years – before behaviour changes. Nevertheless, the experience of public education initiatives in other fields, such as public health, shows that it is possible to change behaviour in positive ways.

Research also shows that people are unlikely to take action to reduce their risks unless they know what specific actions can be taken, they believe that those actions will be effective and they are confident in their ability to carry them out. Another point to remember is that people must be encouraged to act, not simply told to do so. Nevertheless, it is also well established that people only respond to awareness-raising initiatives by specialists to the extent that they believe the information supplied and trust those providing it. Trust is vitally important. Public distrust of policymakers and officials can undermine risk communication initiatives; if lost, trust is difficult to regain.+R. Lofstedt, ‘Risk Communication: Pitfalls and Promises’, European Review, 11 (3), 2003, pp. 417–35.

All DRR programmes should include communications and awareness-raising as a central, ongoing element, and they should have a clear strategy for doing this. In practice, relatively little time and effort is invested in this area. It is often just a component added to the end of individual projects, undertaken by people without specialist training or skills. Public education therefore becomes fragmented into separate, one-off, short-term interventions whose impact is rarely assessed. Ideally, it should be a long-term, sustained process that seeks to raise awareness and stimulate protective action progressively and sustainably.

Box 10.2 sets out 11 steps to be undertaken in developing and implementing an effective communications strategy. Note that most of the steps involve planning and testing – implementation does not begin until Step 10. Pre-testing of methods and materials is essential to ensure their appropriateness and effectiveness. Involvement of communities throughout the process is also a key factor in making it relevant and successful.

Box 10.2 Eleven steps in a communications strategy

  1. Define the overall project purpose.
  2. Define the aims of the project’s communications strategy.
  3. Identify and prioritise audiences and participants.
  4. Determine information needs.
  5. Identify barriers and opportunities.
  6. Identify communication channels and messages.
  7. Plan coordinated timing of activities.
  8. Formulate communication material.
  9. Participatory pre-testing.
  10. Implementation.
  11. Evaluation.
A. Burke, Communications and Development: A Practical Guide (London: Department for International Development, 1999), http://www.eldis.org/vfile/upload/1/document/0708/DOC7389.pdf, p. 25.

Communications and public education strategies should use a wide range of complementary methods to reach different target groups and maximise their outreach. Successful campaigns choose methods that complement one another (e.g. mass media messages complemented by interpersonal or group communication). The mix of methods is likely to change over time as some are found to be more effective than others, or their effectiveness is diluted as they become too familiar to public audiences. There must be a clear understanding of the people the initiative is aimed at: who the target groups are, why they have been chosen, their current levels of understanding and interest in risk reduction, what changes in attitude and behaviour can be expected from them and how they can best be reached.

There is no perfect medium or method for communicating, but in any situation the best methods will be those that are appropriate to the target audience. People the world over have their own preferred ways of receiving and sending information. Communities are not homogeneous, and methods that work well for one group may be inappropriate for others. Communications with the poorest, most marginalised and vulnerable groups can be particularly challenging. Generally, they cannot access the full range of relevant information and knowledge that is available on account of factors such as illiteracy, language barriers, disability, cultural marginalisation, displacement, physical remoteness and poor transport, social isolation and lack of access to technologies such as televisions, radios, social media and mobile phones. For such groups, their own social networks are often the most important channels of communication. Projects should identify these differences within societies and try to use the methods that are most suitable for reaching all sections of the community.

Case Study 10.1 Communicating weather forecasts to farmers

Over 70% of Ugandan households depend on rain-fed agriculture. They need reliable forecasting information to plan their farming activities and protect their crops. The government’s Department of Meteorology is responsible for issuing weather forecasts and advisory messages. However, in the past many people did not receive these in time, the terminology used was too complex and technical, guidance was unclear, information was in English only and neither the Meteorology Department nor local government had the resources and coordination capacity to disseminate forecasts adequately. As a result, many communities did not receive or trust official weather forecasts.

In June 2012, the Meteorology Department began issuing simplified seasonal forecasts and advisories, translated into local languages (initially four, later rising to ten). Advisory messages were also prepared for specific sectors (such as health, agriculture, water and energy) and dissemination to communities became more thorough and targeted, using a range of communications channels including radio, meetings, churches and markets. Most of the target areas received forecasts in time.

Case Study: Weather and Climate Forecasting for Community Resilience to Climate Related Risks and Shocks (Kampala: Ministry of Water and Environment, Department of Environment, undated).

Many risk communication initiatives are based on ‘active’ information – i.e. exhortations to people to do something. But it may be just as important to use ‘passive’ information: making sure that when people do want more information or have questions, the material or answers they need can be obtained easily. A combination of active and passive information is often useful.

Personal experience of a recent disaster is a powerful force in inspiring people to take protective action. Purchases of emergency resources – radios, torches, canned foods, bottled water – and interest in obtaining official information on good practices often increase considerably after an event. This ‘window of opportunity’ for public education and mobilisation may not remain open for long, as anxiety about disasters is supplanted by everyday concerns or complacency sets in.

There are obstacles to maintaining public information facilities such as documentation centres and networks for distributing materials. The main one is the difficulty of securing ongoing funding. Another problem is that the growing demand for information as a result of successful dissemination increases staff workloads and may require extra capacity. Charging users for materials and services rarely produces enough income to cover costs, and excludes the poor. More attention should be given to helping communities themselves to acquire, keep and share information between their members and with other communities. Finally, it is always advisable to get help from communications specialists when planning and implementing initiatives.

Box 10.3 Questions to ask when choosing communications methods

Communications strategies must be planned with care. Questions to consider include the following:

  • What is the purpose of your message?
  • Who are the key people you want to communicate with?
  • What facts must be presented to achieve your desired effect?
  • What are the audience’s current attitudes towards the issue?
  • What are the preferred communication styles of the audience (e.g. formal versus informal, written versus verbal)?
  • Are you sufficiently familiar with the subject matter that pertains to the message?
  • Are there constraints that affect the selection of the method (e.g. time availability, necessary skills, logistical arrangements, access to the medium, shared language, literacy, existing knowledge of the subject, cultural sensitivity)?
  • Are there visuals that will convey the message better than words, or that will supplement words to strengthen the impact of the message, making it more engaging, easily interpretable and memorable?
AfricaAdapt and Stockholm Environmental Institute, Risk Communication Guide for Climate Change Practitioners in Africa (Dakar: AfricaAdapt, 2013), http://www.africa-adapt.net/media/resources/875/resource-guide-on-risk-communication-1.pdf, p. 4.