A new one-off study by the Development Engagement Lab has revealed what kind of materials, messages and media decisionmakers in Germany trust when it comes to development cooperation. The data suggests: The fancier and more innovative approaches are not always more effective.
If you are an advocate for development cooperation and poverty reduction, you want to be heard by decisionmakers. When putting together your advocacy toolkit, you must first determine decisionmakers’ preferences when it comes to media sources and information they trust.
A recent study by the Development Engagement Lab has done just that, achieving what is quite rare: Convincing decisionmakers to devote their limited time to talk about their media preferences and consumption when it comes to aid and global poverty.
DEL conducted this survey between 16 February and 20 April 2021, collecting responses from members of the German Bundestag, their staffers, and civil servants within the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), with 85 responses in total. The distribution of respondents is broadly representative regarding party affiliation.
The survey covers four key areas: 1) What are the main sources of German decisionmakers’ media consumption? 2) What are their attitudes and opinions towards development cooperation and related issues? (3) To what extent do decisionmakers trust and value information provided by development NGOs? And (4) What determines whether German decisionmakers get behind a cause or campaign?
When it comes to getting your work in front of decisionmakers, DEL uncovered two key insights. First, classical media still trump social media. Newspapers and TV are by far decisionmakers’ preferred source of news about international issues. Second, decisionmakers generally trust NGOs on issues related to development policies. But position papers, good old two-pagers and reports are still preferred over other forms of communication – even over a personal conversation. In essence: many innovative forms of providing information such as videos or online campaigns won’t get you all that far. Online petitions ranked particularly low in making an impression on decisionmakers.
However, this is still great news for CSO colleagues: The survey reveals that decisionmakers often turn to NGO reports, personal experience, and academic research when they want to understand development issues better. NGO publications rank first for both hearing about, and in getting a better understanding of development issues: 62% and 65% of decisionmakers hear and understand issues related to development cooperation through NGO publications.
When it comes to NGO advice, there’s more good news: More than 70% of respondents said they trust NGOs and value their advice. Yet there are nuances to this: When opinions are broken down by role, i.e. MPs, staffers, and BMZ officials, there are large variations across the three groups. Only 39% of MPs trust NGOs themselves, but 54% trust the advice/information provided by the NGOs. This is compared to 75% of the BMZ officials and 78% of staffers who said they trust NGOs, and 100% of BMZ officials and 75% of staffers who value their advice. This suggests that there is more work to be done with respect to building trust between MPs and NGOs. Maybe their staffers are a key intermediary here.
This is useful groundwork for direct engagement, but if you want decisionmakers to learn about your positions from somewhere other than your external relations team, to put it bluntly, do classic media outreach! It’s important to reiterate that German decisionmakers are mostly focused on newspapers and TV as their main sources of international news, and there is no substitute for good press.
Making a case
Once you have the attention of decisionmakers, what works best when making the case for your organisation’s work? DEL researchers categorized and tested various dimensions and frames to better understand which arguments drive decisionmakers to take up a cause. Decisionmakers were shown two hypothetical campaigns side by side and asked which one was more likely to get their support. The findings were clear, and perhaps deceptively simple: Make poverty reduction the center of decisionmaker engagement efforts. According to the data, less direct arguments – for example making the case that aid is in the national interest - are just not as effective. The survey results suggest that if a campaign is framed as reducing poverty it is significantly more likely to get backing from a decisionmaker, while campaigns that frame development cooperation in terms of benefitting the national interest or the moral case are no more or less likely to get support. In short, much like donor publics, decisionmakers support aid because it addresses the needs of people living in poor countries.
In brief: You will be a great advocate in the fight against poverty – at least in Germany – if you stick to bread and butter: Intelligent arguments put together on paper, traditional friendly and respectful exchanges with civil servants, MPs and their staffers. Combined with traditional media work to inform the wider public, this is the most likely strategy to garner decisionmakers’ interest. In an environment of political communication that is becoming more and more hectic and attention seeking – this might actually be the best piece of news.