Development comms industry is tough, but rewards are great

It is a cruel irony that the time when established multilateral development organizations are having their greatest impact is also an era when it seems harder to get publicity for development successes.

It is a cruel irony that the time when established multilateral development organizations are having their greatest impact is also an era when it seems harder to get publicity for development successes. The media landscape is changing at bewildering speed. It's more crowded than ever, attention spans are shrinking, and people are preoccupied by their own financial struggles.

So how do you go about raising profiles and awareness in this environment? First, you have to accept that old strategies, tactics, and location are not enough. You have to be much more aware of where your audience is. Life in the development sphere is no longer concentrated in the major cities. The developing world media, for example, is increasingly influential. In an inter- connected world what they say informs global debates.

CNN's MultiChoice African Journalist Awards recognizes the importance globally of Africa's star commentators. The major papers and broadcasters remain important, but an array of well-informed, well-read specialized outlets has sprung up. Fixes, the ONE blog, and Guardian Global Development are cases in point. Information must be accessible and meet differing needs. Don't fall into development speak. You have to provide the information in digestible chunks and in new and informative formats.

The global one-size-fits-all press release that used to dominate development communications has had its day. Tailor approach and information by geography and audience. This is harder work, but the results are worth it. Nor, of course, is it enough to tell audiences what you are doing. They want the chance to engage. You have to find ways of enabling and encouraging genuine dialogue.

Call it compassion fatigue or simply the law of diminishing returns, but the picture of the emaciated baby or the story of the mother who has walked for hours for medical treatment no longer has the impact it once had. You can't rely solely on the moral argument, but have to add enlightened self-interest into the mix.

This is helped by finding new voices with credibility and authenticity to carry the message, including the growing number of successful entrepreneurs and role models from emerging economies.

In short, development communications is getting tougher, but also more interesting and more rewarding. 

Tim Allan is the managing director of Portland and previously was an adviser to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

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