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Going Global: New Directions in Development Communications

Development communicators need to reach audiences across continents. To "go global", they need new strategies, partners and skills.

Development communications can often look like travel writing: telling stories from far-away places for audiences “at home”. Most content on development is produced for people in countries where organisations are headquartered and – perhaps more significantly – where they are funded. 

Yet, recent conversations among members of the OECD DevCom Network suggest that their work has taken on new directions. Here are three ways development communicators are “going global”

  • Global issues. From climate change to pandemics, from energy shortages to migration, communicators today need to explain how the big issues affect people at home and abroad. Development is not just charity
  • Global platforms. In the digital era, communicators know that their content can and will be shared (or even mocked!) across national borders. They need to understand how their brands are perceived across countries and platforms. 
  • Global audiences. The geo-political landscape is shifting. Development organisations need to find partners, demonstrate results and build trust in the communities where they operate. They need to promote values like human rights, democracy and gender equality.  

Going global should be easy for development communicators. After all, their organisations are global in nature, with offices, partners, local knowledge and deep expertise all over the world. Many communicators have begun using this network actively to source better stories and reach new audiences.  

Yet, many of them say they find global communications hard. Here are some of the challenges they mention:  

  • Finding skilled partners. Colleagues in country offices are rarely trained as professional communicators, but as diplomats, project managers or policy experts.  
  • Keeping partners on-script. The more people you entrust with sharing your main corporate message, the more likely it is that one of them goes off-script. 
  • Tailoring content. You can’t source stories or reach audiences without adapting to local contexts, languages and media consumption habits. 
  • Understanding your audience. There is still little evidence on how citizens in partner countries perceive international development co-operation.  
  • Fighting fake news. Development organisations need to contend with concerted mis- and disinformation campaigns in partner countries
  • Funding global communications. Unlike their peers in multinational corporations, development communicators lack marketing and campaign budgets. 
  • Fragmentation. Even big budgets can lose impact when they are spread across too many small-scale communication projects. 

Going global is thus a complex exercise for development communicators. They need to develop effective working relationships with a multitude of actors in many countries. They need a much deeper understanding of diverse international audiences and local contexts. And they need to deploy their communications budgets more strategically. 

Last year, members of the OECD Development Communication Network (DevCom), shared first ideas on how to “go global” and agreed to deepen their discussions in 2023. Here are four specific challenges they can address.  

  1. Boosting the communications capacity of country offices and delegations 

Several organisations have begun hiring communications specialists for their regional and national delegations, often opting for local professionals with a better understanding of the media landscape. Many have opened new social media accounts to join local conversations. 

Most organisations offer training sessions, “how-to” guidance and toolkits, particularly for colleagues who are not communication specialists. Some organisations have increased incentives for staff to communicate well, for example by giving them communications-related performance indicators or linking budgets to communication results. 

The pandemic has made online training and peer learning an inexpensive and popular option. Training sessions can be thematic (i.e. on communicating specific policies) or technical (e.g. on mastering specific communication tools), or can simply focus on networking and peer learning among communicators based in different country offices. 

  1. Balancing central guidance with local autonomy 

Many organisations contract local experts to design campaigns, frame messages, choose languages and prioritise among media channels. Yet, providing greater local autonomy carries risks. Local partners can go “off-script”, particularly if they are unfamiliar with political sensitivities, or with how international development co-operation works in general. 

To reduce these risks, organisations need to define clearly and upfront the goals and scope of local communications work. If they give local partners budget autonomy, they also need to agree on a regular monitoring and review process.  

Several organisations have found that their regional offices can act as go-betweens, balancing corporate demands from global headquarters with national communication needs.  

  1. Defining the ambition of global communications 

Most organisations still take a project-based approach to global communications, adding communications clauses to their contracts with project implementers. This can work well, particularly when communication is integrated throughout the project cycle, and when project teams receive appropriate guidance and sufficient funding for communications. 

However, the project approach can be very fragmented, with hundreds of smaller communication activities achieving limited overall strategic impact. Some organisations have thus chosen to pool their resources into a smaller number of professional and well-resourced campaigns (e.g. the European Commission’s #WeSeeAfrica campaign). 

Besides promoting projects and campaigning, some organisations regard “going global” as a way to promote values like democracy and human rights. For example, last year the Dutch Foreign Ministry collaborated with the Cartoon Movement, encouraging its country offices to connect local students with international artists to help raise awareness about issues that need global and local attention. The initiative generated powerful shareable content. 

  1. Understanding new audiences and public debates 

No matter what communication goals they set, development organisations need deep insights into their diverse audiences. In going global, they will encounter not only supporters of international co-operation, but also strong skeptics. Communicators will have to address both historic post-colonial grievances and feelings of current injustice (like climate hypocrisy). They will also need to fend off systematic mis- and disinformation campaigns.  

Some organisations have invested in research to better understand public perceptions, gauge opportunities for collaboration and improve their communication strategies. To fight fake news, several have upped their support for local fact-checking initiatives. Yet, most organisations have only just begun to gather the insights they need to go global. 

Going global will require humility. In a tense geo-political landscape, development organisations need to build trust, demonstrating that they are serious about local concerns and not just “flag-waving”.  

Their communicators can help, for example by amplifying local voices and supporting independent journalism. They can adopt new branding strategies, update the way they frame their messages, and drop outdated terms like “missions” and “field offices” from their vocabulary.  

And they can continue learning from one another. Please join us DevCom for further peer learning sessions on “going global” in 2023. 

Featured image by Script & Seal at Behance

Going Global: New Directions in Development Communications

Going Global: New Directions in Development Communications

Felix coordinates the OECD Development Communication Network (DevCom), and manages DevCom's SDG Communicator site.

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