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The Peril of Good Policy and Bad Communications

A few recent projects that have come through the Bonfire shop reinforced the importance of effective communications in rolling out new policies, whether you’re a government, not-for-profit or business.

Good communications help shape the narrative around a new policy and illustrate the rationale behind it. It explains need, addresses concerns and rallies people behind a new direction.

Ask anyone who has tried to effect change in their organization – great communication is a key element of change management. And here’s the secret: it doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. Forgetting to consider the communications effort before rolling out a new policy can often doom it to failure, even if it’s a good policy.

The world is a complex place and people often struggle with change.

Many smart policies get sidetracked by bad communications. Often, the people leading the policy development (and documenting it) are so immersed in the topic that they can no longer see the forest for the trees. That results in the following rollout missteps:

They start the story in the middle – and miss that essential step of framing why the policy change was needed. Without the “why,” the benefit of the change gets lost because they assume everyone already knows (Pro-tip: they don’t. Framing and context is vital to effectively communicating any kind of policy).

They use academic language – and using bloated, imprecise language that dominates and diminishes so much academic writing turns people off. People seem to think using big words, convoluted sentence structures and the passive voice makes them look smart. (Pro-tip: it doesn’t. The goal of all policy communication should be clarity. Get to the point. Take out as many needless words as possible and avoid complex words when a simple one will do.)

The rationale gets lost – why are you doing this? That essential bit of context often gets lost in the race to share the details. Explain the rationale for changing policies in ways that actual humans can understand. (Pro-tip: talking like a human is always good – we changed this policy because now it will be better, more accessible, or cheaper.)

They make it needlessly complex – policy can be complex and too many organizations spend time (and countless pages) telling us how the hotdog was made (apologies for that image). They go too deep into details that most people won’t understand or care about. (Pro-tip: focus on benefits, not process. Tell us that that hotdog tastes great on a warm summer day at a barbeque with your family and friends, not the various leftover animal parts that were squeezed into the tube.)

Many organizations spend considerable time and resources developing new or improved policies, yet don’t take the time to think about how to effectively communicate these changes to their audiences.

Effective communications are rarely a “bolt-on.” Integrate your communications advisors into the policy process at the beginning. Get their take on how they believe people will respond and listen to their expertise on how best to frame the changes. Get a good writer involved and spend some time working on the executive summary, introduction and conclusion. They’ll ensure it’s written clearly with a focus on the benefits or outcomes.

Spend a few bucks getting a designer to lay out your document so it’s easy to read (that Microsoft Word report template is not as sharp as you think it is). Make sure there are lots of headlines and subheads to call out key points and break up the text into readable chunks.

Think about what else you might need to reach your audience – social media “shareables,” video content, FAQs and more. You need to do the work to reach the folks you care about – don’t assume they will read every word of that 50-page report.

The goal is clear: ensure people understand why you are making this change and how it impacts them, and then rally support for the new policy. An effective communications strategy will ensure you get the ball over the goal line.

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is the president of Bonfire.