I think a lot about how we can use research at Change Consulting in alignment with our ethos of action over theory. Before we can craft the communications tools and smart strategy that support changemakers, we must first understand the ecosystem and landscape within which they operate, and their unique strengths, challenges, and opportunities. By laying this foundation for our work, we are able to create applicable strategies that put their advocacy and brilliance into action.
I have always been drawn to using research as the foundation for effective strategic communications, yet the concept of research can all too often seem intimidating or out of reach. Most research I come across is done by someone with five PhDs and a public policy degree, or was developed through years of data collection and analysis. It makes me wonder how findings are applied, who pays attention, and how they can advance racial justice.
Over the years, we have used the terms “research” and “insights” interchangeably, but there is a clear distinction. According to Peter Ballard from Foolproof UK, “research can tell us what is happening, [but] we need insight to understand why it is happening, and crucially, what to do about it.” For our work at Change, that means using research to uncover and make meaning of important pieces of information, and using our Insights Process to put that knowledge into action.
We often say that we get a masters degree in each issue area we work in during the Insights Process. While we work to get close with our clients as partners, we also strategically maintain our distance and outsider perspective to offer fresh eyes to help our clients uncover blind spots and think differently. Our process is always adaptable and puts our clients’ culture and needs first. We do this through discovery and strategy sessions to unearth their organizational goals, vision, strategy of change, and what audiences they most need to reach to advance these things. We also conduct a thorough review of their materials and communications channels; conduct media scans and media audits; assess the landscape; and hold 1:1 in-depth interviews, focus groups, and listening sessions to learn first-hand about their key stakeholders and audiences. It is through this process that we are able to:
- Listen deeply and get familiar with the landscape within which our clients operate.
- Hold up a mirror to uncover things our clients may not be thinking about, but need to be.
- Immerse ourselves in their ecosystem to thoroughly understand their challenges and opportunities, and how they are perceived and positioned in the world.
- Ask [many] questions about how they tell their story externally and live it internally.
- Identify opportunities for them to use strategic communications as a lever for social change and a way to authentically express their vision for a better world.
Why does this matter for strategic communications? While insights live “underneath the waterline” of a communications campaign or program, they help us develop more effective messaging, branding, and communications strategy that actually makes real material change possible for our communities. By leading with curiosity and grounding ourselves in the context our clients operate in, we can use what we learn to design communications strategies, tactics, and deliverables that advance the change they seek.
Insights allow us to test our assumptions and hypotheses, and ground our activities, stories, messages, and headlines – all the things that we consider “above the waterline,” or the resulting activities and materials that the public sees – in what we learn, not just what we personally think, which can be biased. By applying insight and research to our communications, we can understand where organizations, audiences, and narratives/frames are so we can develop effective communications strategies to reach our clients’ goals.
Theory should never get in the way of action, but it can help inform it. Through our Insights Process, we can help lay groundwork for those on the frontlines and help them take effective action to not only make systemic change possible, but inevitable.