Strategic Communications Requires Funding
USAID contractors and grantees write communications programs into their work plans. However, they rarely fund them. The misperception is that communications can be done with limited or no funds. Social media is free. Earned media is free with a press release or a conference.
Some campaigns indeed become viral without resources. However, they usually involve a hot and timely topic, a star endorsement, or a one-of-a-kind idea. Most everything tweeted, posted, or shared that reaches a large audience is paid through ads or promotions. Even free media events benefit from having money behind them to record and amplify those events through video clips on social media or websites.
I have personal experiences with a zero budget while introducing reforms in taxes, pensions, stability, and legal reforms. This has meant leaflet creation on available copy machines, use of existing networks for promotion, and no-cost events at government buildings. These ad-hoc and no-cost efforts rarely had the desired impact for large reforms that involved stakeholder or citizen behavior change.
The general rule is that the more complex the issue, the more money is needed to put behind an information, education, or behavior change campaign. A large target population group requires more resources than a smaller trade group. Therefore, young people are a larger and more expensive audience to reach than a smaller group of tax accountants. Reforms also require message repetition, so a one-time conference with a website post will not move an audience forward.
My general rule is communications funds are needed, if the topic of your communication is:
- Critical for the audience to understand or take action
- Complicated to describe
- Not taught in schools or the home
- Requires a behavioral change
- Changes a traditional practice or culture
- Is new information or a concept that has not been seen in the country or a neighboring country
- Easy to ignore or avoid
- Requires reaching a large portion of the population
Healthcare is one of the few fields where behavioral change communications are funded. This is partly due to unsuccessful HIV-AIDS education campaigns in the early 1990s that did not have the desired results. In Malawi, advocates were surprised to learn that simple leaflets and posters on information materials were not enough to change cultural behaviors and a doubtful public. Funding for health behavior change communications is now done with focus groups, persuasion tools, and impact testing for malaria, immunization, and hygiene.
The health field has recognized the importance of putting money into information and behavior change campaigns. However, reforms in governance, economics, agriculture, legal, education, and democracy often lag in funding. As a result, many programs take several years of slow repetition to convince targeted audiences to accept reforms or change behaviors.