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From Underdog to Buzzword: How the Role of Communication Has Changed

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

When I first joined the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) in 2010, I was quite surprised at how low in esteem “communication” was perceived within CGIAR and CPWF (unfortunately it still is). Most researchers disdained working with communicators, and that communications was concerned only with public relations was the prevailing opinion.

comms for dev Conventional communications involves one-way dialogue. Through CPWF we moved to communications for development involving engagement, discussions and dialogue. Source: Kim Geheb

I had come from a background where communicators and knowledge managers engaged in development and research activities and were seen as part of a team. The boundaries of communication, knowledge management, information management, extension, policy dialogue, training and research extension linkages were blended. Most importantly, communication and information experts were seen as part of the research and development process.

In the CGIAR, I felt that I had moved into some time warp of 1950s corporate communication (unfortunately without the lunch-time martinis!). Communication was seen as promotional in nature and was passive, reactionary and one-way. Communication was rarely targeted downward but only focused on ‘upward’ users, most often meant to keep donors and our bosses happy. Customer satisfaction and development of materials that could be used were not a high priority.

The Change Began With CPWF

In CPWF, a group of us in the Knowledge Management Team (including Sophie Alaverez, Boru Douthwaite, Tonya Schuetz) began to define a new type of knowledge management and communication paradigm. In this approach, knowledge management (composed of communication, information, and monitoring and evaluation) integrates with research around the project and program impact pathways.  This approach ensures that knowledge management systems and activities are geared toward achieving program outcomes and are not just seen as a service or administrative support.

We were joined in our efforts by Peter Ballantyne, Ewen LeBorgne, Marianne Gadeberg, Terry Clayton, Mahamoudou Sawadgo, Javier Baca and the CPWF basin leaders who led the way to re-envisioning communication within the research for development paradigm.

Within CPWF, a whole new range of knowledge management work was initiated, well outside of the realms of corporate communication. Some of these efforts included innovation platforms, wikispaces for collaboration amongst researchers, participatory video, using film in dialogues, writeshops and improving facilitation of dialogues both internally and externally. We also started a dialogue with CCAFS and Livestock and Fish on knowledge management that evolved into an annual workshop on knowledge management and communication for research programs.

Next Step: The Paseo Approach?

At a CPWF writeshop held this past summer, much of this experimentation was nicely articulated and conceptualized in a think piece, written by Tonya Schuetz and Abby Waldorf entitled ‘A PASEO Approach’.

What I like about this think piece is that it re-envisions communications and knowledge management at the regional level. It highlights the need for both communicators and researchers to think differently about how we go about research for development communication. The paseo approach underscores that communication is a process of engagement and not merely a collection of products. It links communication activities to the wider change processes and the outcomes that researchers seek.

Beyond advocating for these changes, the authors also argue a new term is needed to distinguish this approach from public relations communications.

This is where I wonder whether we need to learn from the past rather than try to reinvent the wheel. The paper presents the new approach within a vacuum, only contrasting it to corporate communication. But it could have also looked at the approaches and experiences of previous efforts to reinterpret or reinvigorate the role of communication.   

We’re Not Alone: Communications for Development Is a Movement

If we look at communication for development—a field that started back in the 1980s and has continued to reinvent itself—it includes many of the same concepts that are described as part of the paseo approach, with a particular focus on social change.

Learning from other experiences and partnering with those who have experience (again, rather than reinventing the wheel) is one area I see as missing from the paseo approach, and it is something that is important for the CGIAR and others. One has to look only at the incredible work that the Overseas Development Institute has done on policy communication or at the recent publication on new roles for communication in development by the Institute of Development Studies to see that our take on communication for development is part of a wider movement.

Slightly further afield, the public health sector has had huge success in linking communication with science and action. Think of AIDS and other health campaigns that have changed the way we behave and act towards different diseases. In public health, the communication teams have embraced a behavioral science approach to communication, something that the agriculture sector has lagged far behind in.

We Are Making Progress

So after four years of being in the CGIAR, do I see any new movement?

I would say yes! Think pieces like the one on the paseo approach and the hands-on work being done by researchers, communicators and uptake staff at the regional and national level show that a whole new approach is emerging. Communication is increasingly seen as a strategic area of concern for moving research to outcomes.

Do We Need a New Approach?

My personal thought is that we need to continue to invest resources and efforts in bringing researchers, communicators and knowledge managers together to leverage their respective skills. We need to keep on walking the talk and to support the new approach to communication that is already emerging, and has been emerging for years, within CGIAR. I am, however, less sure we have to create a whole new terminology to do so.

Please use the comments to let us know what you think! Are communications and knowledge management well integrated into research for development? How can this be done better?

Read Here:

'A PASEO Approach'


Thank you for this excellent article. I am heartened to read of how you have made progress in integrating knowledge management with research programmes and projects. This is an approach that I am trying to implement here at CTA, using the same entry point of planning around impact pathways.


On the one hand, I agree with you; I don't think we need a new terminology (and I don’t find the “paseo” term particularly instructive). On the other hand though, I do want to acknowledge that, based on my own experience within CPWF and WLE, it is sometimes difficult to give communications for development the attention it deserves. I don’t know if it’s due to the expectations of our colleagues or our own attraction or familiarity with corporate communications, but it does seem that it’s always easier to write another brochure than to engage in communications for development. I know of other development organizations that have begun naming some of their communications staff “engagement officers” to signal the intended focus of their work. Maybe the name could make a difference?


Great - and candid - reflections Michael!

Really enjoyed this and couldn't agree more of course.
Like Marianne, 'Paseo' doesn't do it for me as a term - it's not really evocative; but I do think terms influence people and can thus be useful (e.g. the example of 'engagement officers' that Marianne gave is good). I'll read 'A paseo approach' entirely before I can comment further on this.

For all readers, find out more about this and from this very author at: https://km4meu.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/communication-for-development-km-...

Thanks for this article, Michael. It helped me see new things and to consolidate several observations of mine in recent years. I've tried to articulate these below. Hope I have not been too defensive or muddied the waters too much. And hope this is useful to arguments to keep CGIAR communications integrated.

To proponents of ‘KM’ (and detractors of ‘PR’)

In the rush to dismiss the more public-relations (PR) kinds of communications work in our CGIAR enterprise, often now deemed obsolete, in favour of newer forms such as knowledge management (KM), we might profit from looking at a short history of public awareness (or PA, as PR came to be called throughout CGIAR) and the more recent KM and its allied disciplines (knowledge sharing, organizational learning, and so on) in CGIAR. Do these functions really serve different ends? Does separating these functions and reporting lines, as the CGIAR Consortium and some centres have recently done, have anything but organizational novelty and some ‘repositioning’ to recommend it?

Let’s start with the older function and term (I hesitate, given the prevailing ethos, to say ‘discipline’): PA. This is what I do and know best. In my (long but limited) understanding, PA work in CGIAR centres grew out of straightforward science editing and writing in the late 1980s, when ‘core funding’ (funding not tied to any particular research project or program) began to become scarce. It was no longer enough to document the science conducted for our knowledgeable, and accommodating, partners and donors. We now had to translate that science for lay publics, showing its relevance for development-focused decision-makers and their constituencies. We had to show value for money to people new to the worlds of developing-country agriculture. This mostly externally focused ‘corporate communications’ work involved science writing (now more ambitious to emulate Scientific American than Science, New Scientist rather than Nature), media relations, photography and videography production. It demanded skills in basic story telling; in framing topics, summarizing progress, and targeting messages; and in designing information (flyers, posters, photofilms) and branding corporate materials (annual reports, calendars, newsletters). PA work of late is expanding in, and through, ever-evolving diverse social media platforms. Distinguished from science editing and information services and other kinds of communications work ‘back in the day’, this kind of communications work might be characterized as that which originated content, as well as new ways of presenting content, so as to help raise the profile, repute and interest in a CGIAR institute or program or initiative or achievement. Writers and designers worked together to create products that would ‘make a difference’, with a large part of that difference being the ability to attract and keep the attention of people and institutions that mattered most to CGIAR, and yes, with donor organizations and key research partners always near the top of the list.

I was first introduced to KM work in CGIAR by the ICT-KM Program of the early 2000s, run out of WorldFish and then Bioversity by CGIAR CIO Enrica Porcari. Peter Ballantyne’s arrival at my institute, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in September 2009 as head of knowledge management and information services gave me my first practical understanding of what this field was about. We revamped our website within the first month and developed and followed new workflows to ensure that our communications were posted online and recycled efficiently and effectively. We developed an online repository of all our communications materials and began tagging our communications religiously. We made use of the whole of the Worldwide Web to do all this, shunning in-house built programs in favour of the most popular and functional sites and software. We grew our readership enormously in the following years. We hired new kinds of communications staff and gained a reputation for facilitating meeting in ways that made a profound difference in the ‘engagement’ and future collaboration of all the meeting goers, and even those who attended virtually. We began working ‘out loud’ on Yammer and wikis. We hired and embedded communications officers of diverse kinds in our programs and regions. We transformed our libraries into infocentres and our training programs into capacity development programs that involve everything from fellowships to e-learning to mobile telephone projects to advocacy work to innovation platforms. We moved service up front and centre in our IT agenda.

ILRI’s PA work has profited enormously from all the new KM-related kinds of communications work. We ‘corporate writers’ can now dream up and publish materials online within hours, and can quickly get our hands on the best and most appropriate images and slide presentations and other materials among diverse and rich institutional online collections maintained by many, many people. We can reach many, many more people with our materials through posting on key social media platforms, where we can actually engage our readers in conversations. We live and breath now in the online universe, pleasantly surprised at how much we have widened our reach and how much we have enriched our listening to others.

Of course, everywhere we look, there is lots and lots more to do, but that’s not so much a sign of our backwardness as it is of our driving ambition to keep moving forwards, finding better ways to communicate ¬— to engage with and influence and listen to and learn from others.

Those of us in corporate communications want to add ‘messy stories from life’ to our ‘impact narratives’. We want to get really, really good at capturing an idea and engaging an audience in under two minutes flat. We want to experiment with some ‘lyric essays’ and start series of long-form articles that dig deep into the everyday (ambivalent) research experience. We want to get more science in our communications (rather than talk about science). We want to eradicate faddish development clichés and tired, contrived formats from our speaking and portfolios. In short, we want to live up to our diverse collective communications potential and ambitions.

While I confess that I share what seems to be Michael Victor’s dissatisfaction with conventional PR—and I too like the innovative ways CGIAR communications is moving—I think he has homed in on the wrong target. PA/PR isn’t the reason so much of today’s development communications is uninspired and lacking impact. For that, we have many other causes we can consider, such as an emphasis on documenting for documenting’s sake, a tendency to lean on secondhand development ideas as a cover for incomprehension or lack of confidence, insufficient understanding of the science we are communicating, a corrosive fix on donor interests and pots of money, conventional university communications programs, and so on.

What I think I hear in Michael Victor’s article above, and what I have experienced in recent years at my institute, is that rather than go for something truly collective, we are being tempted to split up our diverse and innovative communications work so as to privilege one or more kinds over others. For example, I see hints of us jockeying to position ourselves, and our disciplines, for the very fashionable ‘strategic communications’ domain. As though only one kind of communications can be truly ‘strategic’. (See, for example, this comment by Michael Victor in response to this question by ILRI’s Ewen Le Borgne in an interview: ‘What trends are you observing in comms/KM in the development world [or any closer arena]?’ Answer: ‘Moving from service orientation [corporate] to much more outcome-oriented focus. Also moving from a support/administrative function to a strategic one.’ https://km4meu.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/communication-for-development-km-...)

Where I used to have to convince scientists that ‘corporate communications’ plans should be integrated in projects from their start, I’m now having to make the same argument to my communications colleagues on the KM side, who tend to think that my kind of communications work can come in at the end of the project, ‘when the project has a result to announce’. (Sigh.)

The indictment of PA’s obsolete conventions are well taken—the well-worn, familiar and comfortable production of self-serving annual reports and newsletters, the spurious authority of impact assessments. Indeed, it’s no wonder that good communicators like Victor are dismissive of PA. But I also think Victor is saying that rather than separate out PA from other communications functions, we ought to be revelling in our new-found communications breadth. I agree. I think we ought to be relying on and using each other’s diverse expertise to be more experimental, more confident, more inclusive of different realities and perspectives. More effective!

Rather than discount PA because we associate it with mundane-to-trivial prettily decorated materials, we should work together to explode those formats, those predictable plots and dilemmas, manipulated quotes, neat endings, ideologically correct goals, received [and unquestioned] wisdom. We should go after (co-create) narrative drive, newsy news, nuanced arguments, subtle characterization, original (odd) ideas, recommendations that matter, dramatizations that approximate lived experience . . . .

Good science communications of all kinds baffle our desire for easy explanation. They give us not what we want but what we suspect is more meaningful, more accurately reflecting life and life’s complexity. Maintaining (and valuing) what Victor calls, in the interview quoted above, the ‘blurred boundaries’ of our institutional communications expertise in a single coherent program is, I think, a good start to achieving that.

Note 1: It has not escaped my notice that the title and substance of my ‘ruminations on communications’ employ not one but two abbreviations (more precisely termed ‘initialisms’) — PA and KM — the use of which of course outgrew its welcome in the 20th century and is now deemed an egregious form of jargon by all right-minded language teachers, communications pundits and style guides. I myself have spent much of my professional life painstakingly excising such forms from literature of one kind or another and, where that was forbidden, making endless lists of the ugly little words for study by myself and hapless readers. But in this little description of what might be perceived as a fight for hegemony among different kinds of CGIAR communications, reference to ‘PR’/’PA’ and ‘KM’, as well as other jargon, seems apt, as it seems we have a tendency (to be disrupted!) to continue to obfuscate our communications even as we argue for its ever-expanding role in CGIAR work.

Note 2: In the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food PASEO think piece that Michael Victor describes and links to in his blog article above (https://cgspace.cgiar.org/bitstream/handle/10568/51589/PASEO%20thinkpiec...), there is more dismissal of PA communications. This statement may serve as an example: ‘Corporate communications will always put a “positive spin” on any unfavorable news and will always present a “unified” image of the organization.’ I recognize in this description neither myself nor any of the CGIAR ‘heads of corporate communications’ I have worked with over the last several decades. Indeed, part of my ‘corporate’ communications responsibilities has always been to provide nuances missing in most public discourse, to articulate diverse points of view and why they deserve our attention, and to name research failures as failures, most importantly including those of my institute. Just saying.

Hi Susan,
Thanks so much for the excellent and thoughtful comment. What i was trying to say (maybe didnt get the full point across) was that i think elements of the Paseo approach are great but did not really agree with how much it focused on pitting the approach against "PR" or corporate comms. Related to this, i think we are doing whole lot more than corporate communication much of this already doing alot of what the Paseo approach outlines.

In regards to corporate communication/PR, i still think this is an important area of work for center level communications. However, there area we need to better define in the CG centers with PR and corporate communication is how to move beyond branding to real marketing and campaigning. Like you say this can be integrated into the 'strategic level communication' from the start.

I also agree with you that we should see all types of communication-knowledge management approaches as necessary and needed within the bag of tricks that we use. We work in multiple levels and contexts. Corporate communication is still essential at hte program and organizational level. At the project and regional level we need to mechanisms.

I was just talking with Neil Palmer about exciting new ways to tell stories using photos and film and how to link this into communication within the projects themselves.

However, alot of good science communication, story telling, corproate campaigning takes a different approach from what many of our researchers and managers are used to. It takes creativity, playfullness and some risk-taking which i think it still not well appreciated. Until we can unleash this creativity, i think we will stay behind other research leaders (IIED, ODI, WRI) in how use communication at different levels.

Just some thoughts and again, thanks susan for the wonderful response.

best, michael

Agree with everything you say, Michael!
And I think this is a timely conversation to be having.

Just one thing to add: In my experience, corporate communications, including that of the CGIAR Consortium, has always relied heavily on project work and communications (rather than program or institutional work and communications) as its central storehouse of material. Nothing beats a story about individuals working in a specific project, usually against great odds, to better the lives of people living in hardship. The challenge I face on a daily basis, and have never resolved, is how to get more than a handful of these project stories told, and told well, in any given period. I am in overwhelm daily about the rich stories that could be told, and constantly aware of those we are not telling for lack of time. . . .

One thing that has helped to address that is all the KM work now to document and communicate in and with and for projects right from the beginning in planning workshops etc. That is fabulous. But I want to see so much more!

Would be great to have a conversation started here on what project-level, as well as regional-level, communications could be like in future. This is where the science LIVES. This is where the biggest differences could be made in all our communications.

Would love to hear ideas on this.

Thanks again for starting this conversation!