Public diplomacy and advocacy handbook

August 2011

Part four: Advocacy and strategic communication

11. Principles of public advocacy

Public advocacy is the process of communicating programs, policies or perspectives to target audiences to win their support. It is core business and is the responsibility of all DFAT officers.

This section looks at the skills and approaches that make up successful public advocacy, including setting goals and objectives, identifying and ‘segmenting’ audiences, translating complex issues into persuasive key messages, and using media and non-media delivery systems.

Public advocacy typically involves:

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Goals and objectives

All public advocacy efforts should start by defining the overall issue you are dealing with and setting goals. Be precise about where your advocacy starts and ends.

Next, define the communications objectives that will help you to achieve this goal. Communications objectives dictate the focus of your efforts and your level of commitment.

The most common public advocacy objectives are to:

Informing people about a particular policy position is relatively straightforward. Once you have successfully passed information to someone, your responsibilities to the public advocacy process regarding that issue are essentially complete. However, sometimes there may be useful follow-up opportunities. For example, a request for tourism information from the office of a senior official could mean the official is planning a business visit or holiday in Australia—and this could be worth following up for possible PD purposes.

Influencing attitudes requires a more sustained effort because you are setting out to reinforce, strengthen or change an opinion, which someone may have held for a considerable period of time.

And getting people to change their behaviours requires even more intense and sustained work.

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Tips for success

Take time to identify what you expect your public advocacy to achieve.

Be realistic about what you can achieve in a limited time. If your goal is to change people’s behaviours then be prepared to sustain an ongoing dialogue with the people you need to reach.

Whatever your objectives, make sure they are SMART:

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Which audiences do you want to reach?

Successful public advocacy begins by defining as precisely as possible your audiences or the people you need to reach.

In particular, you need to know:

You can segment audiences in a number of ways—by geography, demography, behaviour and attitudes. The more detail you have on your audiences, the clearer and more effective your communications become.

Your public advocacy is often better served by concentrating on particular groups.

After segmenting your audience, you should try to determine their involvement with your issue. To what extent are they aware of it? Do they agree with your position? Are they undecided? Are they opposed but willing to engage in dialogue?

This will influence the type and quantity of material you send to particular groups or audience ‘segments’.

You should also try to determine how your audiences prefer to receive their information.

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Setting priorities

A large public advocacy campaign often has multiple audiences, and because you are likely to have a finite budget and limited time, you need to rank each in order of priority.

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What are your key messages?

For effective advocacy, you often need to distil complicated issues and programs to a handful of key messages that will underpin your conversation with the community.

As a first step, identify the really important pieces of information associated with your issue, and then carefully craft them into key messages.

Key messages should be:

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Tips for writing key messages

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Tailoring messages

For impact, a key message must match the audience it seeks to reach. Often, your messages may need to emphasise different elements to make them relevant for particular groups. For example, host country audiences will be looking for the elements of your announcement that will impact on, or benefit, them. They are less interested in what impact the announcement will have in Australia or in other countries.

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Support your messages

Key messages must be backed with some form of evidence—otherwise, there is a danger they will be seen only as assertions.

The evidence can be in the form of facts and figures, testimonials, expert opinions, case studies, agreements, independent reports or favourable international comparisons.

If you cannot support a key message with evidence, assess whether the message is the right one for your issue, or do further research to provide more evidence.

Once your public advocacy messages are finalised, use them in every one of your communication platforms, such as publications, media releases, video scripts, events and websites.

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Which key influencers can help?

People with the ability to influence others are always in demand in their communities. They shape attitudes and opinions and pass information through their networks. You can strengthen your public advocacy program by persuading appropriate key influencers to support your policies or perspectives.

Key influencers can be experts in their field, public figures, media representatives, leaders in professional organisations or otherwise have credentials that mean they speak with authority. And they are not always found at the top of the hierarchy.

The support of key influencers and third party champions can be particularly valuable in countries where personal networks work better than formal structures. And with the spread of email, the Internet and social media, many are increasingly becoming ‘e-influencers’. The advent of new communications technology that uses the Internet as a distribution platform has significantly changed the methods of debate, the ways in which influence is exerted and the power of commentators to impact on decision-making.

Personal contact is always the best way to reach influencers, because invariably they are busy people and they are unlikely to respond to broad-based approaches.

You should continually build on and develop relationships with key influencers who are supporting your program or issue by maintaining regular communication and keeping them updated on developments.

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Choosing your communication platform

The media is a powerful way for your program or issue to reach the most people in the fastest way. However using a media strategy only and excluding other communications platforms can have significant drawbacks. If you rely completely on the media to inform people, you run the risk of surrendering direct access to your audience.

It is therefore important to complement a media program with non-media delivery systems in order to spread your message more effectively.

For guidance on communicating through the media, see Part 5—Contact with the media.

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Non-media platforms

Non-media delivery systems include:

Direct mail, email and SMS focus on one-to-one communication and can be very effective, but they can also be resource intensive. It is imperative that you use up-to-date databases, don’t send unwanted material that could alienate your audiences and make sure you comply withprivacy regulations.

New media technology, blogs and social media sites using the Internet as a distribution platform will play an increasingly important role in communications strategies. The Department is taking a gradual approach to adoption of these additional vehicles and will continue to build on recent use of Twitter and YouTube over the coming year. Posts will be advised accordingly.

Internal events arranged at posts or in the department can provide excellent opportunities to bring together a target audience and present specific information. With internal events, you have control over the time, place, agenda and invitations to both speakers and the audience.

Outside events hosted by respected external groups can provide cost-effective platforms.

Expert speakers who are well qualified and willing to support your advocacy in official or external forums can be valuable allies.

Issue-specific newsletters (electronic or hard copy) are useful for informing internal and external audiences progressively of developments in ongoing or longer-term programs.

But remember—there is no point in producing any of the above material unless you have a very clear idea of how it will be distributed, to whom and when—and, most importantly, for what purpose.