As evaluators and communicators, we’ve seen a familiar pattern: It’s time to prepare an evaluation report and share it with our clients and their different audiences. But this assignment can unleash diverse, passionately held world views. On the one hand, evaluators typically prefer to share findings in ways that demonstrate nuance, rigor, and are laden with data – often in a complex, technical language. On the other hand, communicators believe in translating those findings into succinct messages packaged in a highly visually way. Evaluators worry that simplification will lose important nuance. Communications staff assume that no one will read a dense, technical report. Each of these views has merit, but they can lead to challenging collaborations across roles.
Both of us have seen good and bad collaboration across evaluation and communications roles, and we’ve learned a lot of important lessons. In 2015, Kevin was part of a panel at the Communications Network conference, where communications professionals asked, “How can we work better with our evaluation colleagues?” More recently, the two of us convened a roundtable session at the 2016 American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference to work through these issues with a room full of evaluators. Here is what we discussed…
Like Evaluation, Good Communications Depends on Rigorous Planning
In one of the AEA conference’s keynote speeches, Heather Fleming, founder of the design firm, Catapult, noted the similarities between the design and evaluation professions. She emphasized that both design and evaluation projects should be informed by rigorous plans that are strategic in nature.
The same can be said when comparing evaluation and communications. In the same way that evaluators root their methodologies in a thoughtful, substantive theory of change or evaluation framework, communicators ground their activities in an overarching communications strategy. A comprehensive communications strategy contains goals (what we want to achieve through this strategy and how it aligns with broader program goals), target audiences (more on them below), key messages, specific tactics (e.g., Issue Briefs, blogs, conference presentations, and webinars) to deliver those messages to the right audiences, a workplan with a timeline, and, ideally, metrics to assess effectiveness. And like a theory of change or evaluation framework, a communications strategy should combine rigor and detail with flexibility – allowing for shifts in objectives or changes in the field.
When crafting a communications strategy, communicators and evaluators can collaborate to:
- Identify the most significant themes and findings from an evaluation. It helps to invite communicators into the evaluation project early in the engagement, so they can understand the work and be in a better position to design tactics appropriate for the most important audiences.
- Create collective ownership of the strategy. Evaluators and communications staff can build collective ownership by reviewing drafts together, asking for insights, and identifying shared responsibilities (e.g., for writing blogs, Issue Briefs, etc.) to make the communications strategy a collective endeavor.
Empathize with Your Audience
Communicators are also crucial in helping evaluators bring an audience focus to their work. When identifying audiences, it is important to be as specific as possible – for instance, “policymakers deciding early childhood funding” is better than “the early childhood field.” Once you know your audience(s), you can ask three helpful questions to better empathize with them:
- What do you want them to know? Within the broad set of evaluation findings, determine which information is most important and relevant for each of the audiences identified.
- What do you want them to do? Think about how your audience could use the evaluation to take action based on your findings. You may want to promote specific policy or practice changes, or perhaps inform future conversations about those topics.
- How can you provide the right information? Identify the communications formats and methods that will make your work most usable to your audiences. This question often prompts evaluators to think about summary documents, presentations or press releases.
Understanding the answers to these three simple questions goes a long way to stronger strategic communications. And there are likely to be different answers for different audiences, so be prepared to reach them in the ways that make the most sense. For example, program administrators will often look for guidance about how to put evaluation findings into practice – so perhaps a toolkit could be a useful addition to the evaluation report. This is an important area for collaboration. Evaluators are essential in helping communications staff identify the most relevant audiences and ultimately craft a successful communications strategy.
Communicators are always looking for opportunities to “tell a story.” But in doing so, an important question must be addressed: whose voices are telling that story? Asking that question enables communicators to apply an equity lens when crafting a strategy. When designing a communications plan, the “default” voice often becomes that of the evaluator. But the evaluator is only one of many voices that can communicate about the impact of the program. For instance, consider a project that aims to improve college access for historically underserved populations, including many potential first-generation college students. To ensure that all voices associated with this initiative are heard, we need to consider tactics such as inviting students, teachers, and community members to write blogs about their experiences with the program. Incorporating a mosaic of voices results in a more powerful and authentic story about impact.
To adopt an equity lens, communicators and evaluators can collaborate to:
- Identify and reach out to different constituents (e.g., students, community leaders, youth leaders, policymakers, etc.) to gauge their interest in sharing stories about the program and its impact. During site visits, focus groups, learning communities, or other activities, evaluation team members may meet individuals with illuminating stories to tell. We can then work with the identified individuals to write a blog post or other communications piece.
- Review the communications strategy to ensure that an equity lens is in place. In the spirit of creating collective ownership of the strategy, evaluation teams should assess whether the strategy includes contributions from the distinct voices associated with the program.
Communications Can Scale
Strategic communications does not require a big staff. As we’ve discussed, it requires a plan, an understanding of your audience, and knowledge of the tools available to reach those folks. And for those of us in the scrappy social sector, there’s an array of free tools that help anyone look professional with some focused effort. Here are some helpful resources to make your work look sharp:
- Blogging platforms like Medium can provide a free, public place to share findings that you can augment with email newsletters and social media like Twitter and Facebook to attract attention to your insights.
- Visually, high quality images are important, and easy to find. For example, there are high-quality, professional images available on iStock that cost about three lattes per image, and there are a lot of other examples of good stock imagery that doesn’t suck.
- Noun Project is a great resource for icons that can illustrate concepts like education, health or impact.
These little touches can make a big difference to engage audiences, and they establish trust and respect for our work.
Evaluators and communicators clearly have a mutual interest to collaborate. The approaches we take to our respective professions are more similar than we often imagine – we ground our work in strategy, we pay close attention to the needs of audiences and nuances of the field, and we apply tailored methodologies that address the goals of the project. It requires both sides, evaluators and communicators, to collaborate as a team. Ultimately, our collective goal is to tell a story of impact, and to elevate the myriad voices that shape and benefit from the work of our clients.
Let’s embrace to make that happen!