8 easy steps to engaging neighbours and stakeholders in a pandemic

 

In a pandemic or any kind of crisis, communicating and engaging with stakeholders is more important than ever.

Know how frustrating it is when you’re worried about something and no-one is telling you what’s going on? Imagine what it’s like for people who may be affected by your organization’s activities and suddenly have no idea what you’re doing. They’ll be patient for a while. But only for a while.

You don’t have to let that happen. Even during an unprecedented event like this pandemic, you could use the new situation to build stronger relationships through analysis and strategy: two activities that people often neglect in the communication and engagement-planning process. The following eight easy steps will help you develop a plan that is smart, pragmatic, and relevant in the new operating environment.

Before you start, think about what you’re trying to accomplish with your plan and jot it down. Keep it nearby during the planning process: it will help you stay focused and will underpin all your plan elements  

For Step 1, write down some background or an overview of the  topic you want to communicate about with your audience. Who is most affected by this topic? Why?

Then in Step 2, write down your objective in one sentence or less. Do you want to give people specific information to help them understand an issue or development? Or are you trying to change their behaviour or perception about something? A good example might be giving people information about what you might need them to do so you can do something for them.

In Step 3, define your target audience as well as you can. List the stakeholder groups and individuals (inside and outside your organization) that you need to engage. Remember to include vulnerable stakeholders — people who may be more affected by what you are doing than other stakeholders would be, and who may have difficulty accessing your information. Vulnerable groups will vary according to your area of operation, but in developing countries they often include:

  • ethnic minorities,
  • indigenous people,
  • women, 
  • youth,
  • people with disabilities,
  • elderly individuals,
  • illiterate people,
  • marginalized members of the community (e.g., people suffering from HIV/AIDS or Ebola, former war combattants, LGBTQ members, religious minorities), and
  • the poorest of the poor (lowest socio-economic status).

As part of this, identify their characteristics. Include a brief analysis of their values, as well as the positions and interests that influence the way they feel and act about the topic, and how they view your organization in general. 

Knowing your audience/s is an essential step in creating a plan that will guide you in the most effective way to engage them based on their characteristics.

Step 4 is formulating what you want to say. Think of the frequently asked questions (FAQs) you anticipate people will ask about the topic and list them so you can develop information to use to answer each of them. This essential information needs to be straight to the point, so keep it  focused and use clear, appropriate language and tone for your target audience. 

Do not try to communicate more than 3 main ideas at once. It’s hard for people to retain complicated or lengthy messages, especially when times are tough and they’re preoccupied by a multitude of different things.  For example, don’t expect people to read a lot of text right now.

In Step 5, list the methods or tools that will help you effectively communicate with your audience. For each activity, list the corresponding tools that you will use. Knowing who your audience is (Step 3) will help determine the format that will be most effective and appealing to them. And if you’re unsure, try asking them. Asking people questions is also a good way to build relationships.

Make sure you use strong images and graphics that help communicate what you want to say. The tools you use might include social media, a news release or public signs  — all things that people can access in a safe way during the pandemic.

Now that you know who you’re going to communicate with and what you want them to understand,  think about what it will cost to do that. Step 6 is Identifying the resources required to carry out the activities and create the tools you are planning to use. Resources come in 3 forms:

  • People (staffing and technical support),
  • Administrative (equipment, venues, transportation), and
  • Financial (the budget that covers all resources that need to be purchased or paid).

Step 7 is creating a detailed work plan and schedule that lists all the tasks that need to be done, from start to finish. The work plan should include all activities related to preparation, implementation and evaluation as well as their target completion dates, and assign roles and responsibilities. It’s often easiest to do that by creating a simple 3W table with columns for Who, What and When.

Then get going! Launch your first activity and carry on from there. Remember that the work plan is not etched in stone: you can adjust it whenever situations change along the way.

Step 8 is to organize status update or debriefing sessions, so you can gauge  how well the plan is going and make adjustments to get back on track if you need to.  These sessions can take place  at set points during plan implementation,  and definitely at the end, to discuss the effectiveness of the activities and tools you used (what worked well, what didn’t), and lessons learned (what you could have done differently/better).

It helps to  develop some progress indicators to monitor or evaluate the effectiveness of your plan. The indicators are the criteria that you will use to decide whether your activity was successful or not (e.g., number of people who participated,  positive comments, decrease in number of inquiries/complaints, etc.).

You’ll notice that most of the steps in this process involve brainstorming, planning and analysis — things that can be done with or without physical distancing and that form the foundation of every good communication plan.