7 min Read
March 14, 2017

Leveraging Research to Transform the Narrative: Communications Research

Beth Hallowell

Most nonprofits want to do more research and use it to shape their work more deliberately– but few actually budget for it or build it into their staff structure. American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a large Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action, figured out how to do this with amazing results. A cultural anthropologist and self-proclaimed data nerd, Beth Hallowell conducts research to understand how people view the issues that AFSC works on as well as how they’re covered in the media. Her title is Communications Research Director, and she’s a key member of a large communications team that largely supports AFSC’s programs. Beth’s role is fairly unique from what I’ve seen but it’s one that adds enormous value. In this blog, I interviewed Beth to learn more about her work and how nonprofits of any size can leverage research in their work more effectively even if a full-time staff position isn’t likely. – Sarah Durham

What are the day-to-day responsibilities of a Communications Research Director?
My core areas of work are audience research, media analysis, messaging research, and monitoring and evaluation for comms – plus managing my team, grant-writing to make sure we stay in business, and continuously learning more myself about how to do this kind of work. Today, for example, I spent the morning pulling together the results of our most recent media analysis on Islamophobia in the news for our anti-Islamophobia campaign’s media strategy; brainstormed with my supervisor about how to package the results of a new messaging study that we have coming out in late March; scheduled time to work on an LOI for our next foundation funding prospect; edited a post that one of my interns wrote for our blog; and attended a webinar by the CMO of IDEO to learn more about how the big kids are implementing design thinking for marketers.

How does the work you do in the communications department impact other departments (i.e., programs or development)?
My job typically starts with a problem that program staff are having – often, because they’ve been trying to move people to action for a long time but they don’t feel like they’ve been making much progress. They come to me to help them figure out why constituents aren’t taking action, or why it seems like their messages just aren’t getting through. For example, a few years ago when ISIS started posting gruesome videos online, AFSC’s programs to decrease military spending all of sudden found that their messages were being ignored. They’d made a lot of progress in their messaging during the draw-down in Iraq and Afghanistan, but as those videos started showing up and ISIS garnered more media attention, they increasingly found that their previously war-weary audiences were now scared and were no longer supportive of decreased military spending.

That’s where we came in.

We started by doing a media analysis to pin down the messages our audiences were hearing about violent extremism in their daily lives. The results were worse than we expected: For example, one of the main messages people were hearing from mainstream media was that violent extremism requires military action, that Islam is almost always linked to extremism, and that there really aren’t nonviolent ways (like diplomacy) to solve this kind of problem. You can read all about our findings here. We are currently in the next phase of this research: Given what we know about what our audiences are hearing, what messages will be most effective in countering Islamophobia? What messages will most effectively promote inclusive communities? Once we have this data, we’ll use it to guide our own content on this issue as well as share it with our partners.

Recently, you led the research for AFSC’s new report “Mixed Messages: How the Media Covers ‘Violent Extremism’ and What You Can Do about It.” What were the findings?
We found that 90 percent of the time, news stories about extremism mention Islam, even in several cases when Muslims aren’t involved. They cover violent responses to conflict five times more than they cover nonviolent responses. This means that media coverage paints a picture for U.S. news consumers that links Islam to extremism—and extremism to violent conflict and military intervention. If this is the story that people see every time they turn on the news, it’s no wonder that Islamophobia and support for military intervention in the Middle East are both on the rise, as we’ve seen in public opinion polls.

What advice would you give to a CEO or Executive Director who is considering creating a position like this?
This position helps achieve an organization’s mission by using data to take its communications to the next level. That’s my elevator pitch to anyone in the C-suite looking to get more out of their marketing efforts. At AFSC, our mission is to promote lasting peace with justice. Communications research has helped achieve that goal by providing guidance to program staff and the communications team on who our audiences are as actual humans, what they want, what messages work best for them and why, messaging pitfalls to avoid, and how well we’re doing as a team and an organization in terms of growing our digital engagement with our constituents.

What are the characteristics of nonprofit organizations that might benefit from a Communications Research Director?
Any organization that wants to move an audience to do something can benefit from communications research. Content creators at many organizations usually have a working understanding of what kinds of content work for their audiences – through trial and error for example, or by watching analytics. But with a Communications Research Director, you get a person whose full-time job is to test assumptions about who the audience is and what they care about; look for opportunities to improve messaging and find the most effective directions for doing so; and evaluate communications performance from a 360-degree perspective.

What advice do you have for organizations that are interested in using research more, but can’t dedicate a position to it?
Read our blog! Especially if you work on social justice issues – we want to share our results as widely as possible, and that’s our main platform for doing so. We try to make our findings user-friendly, so that anyone could apply them. I’d also recommend the wonderful resources at the Opportunity Agenda – my position wouldn’t exist without their thought-leadership on the role of communications in social justice movements. If you’re interested in learning more about your own audience – or evaluating how your own communications are doing – but have no budget, then I’d recommend setting up a calendar reminder to do 3 things every quarter or so:

    • Talk to at least one internal person about how your comms are working
    • Talk to at least one external person (a constituent, a donor) about how your comms are working, and
    • Check basic analytics (i.e. Google analytics and maybe the analytics of 1-2 key social platforms).

Anyone on your team with 1 hour per quarter can do this and report back to you, or you can do this yourself as long as you make the time. At a minimum this will help you avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. It will also help you begin to build a culture of continuous learning.

How does the Communications Research Director position fit into the overall structure of your organization?
I lead a team with two full-time researchers (myself and an analyst), and we typically have 2-3 volunteer interns – Philly is full of colleges, so we created an internship aimed at students looking for experience with applied research/analytics/marketing. Our team is in the Communications Unit, and my supervisor is AFSC’s Communications Director. The Comms Unit is a crossroads for our very diffuse organization – we have over 70 programs in more than 30 locations worldwide – which is great because it gives me the opportunity to work with staff around the world. I’ve worked with staff from Denver to Iowa to the Middle East to North Korea.

Has the current political environment affected communications research at AFSC?
It’s increased the urgency of what we do. The stakes of getting our message right the first time – by knowing our audience as best we can so we can engage them as quickly and as effectively as possible – are the highest they’ve been since I started with AFSC in 2014. We need to learn faster so that we can move faster, pivot faster, mobilize faster – and more effectively. That’s what my job is about now – the day-to-day tasks and skills haven’t changed, but the stakes are higher. I think it’s really important that even though we’ve been in rapid response mode for a while now, we aren’t just reacting to the current environment: Instead, we are building on what we’ve learned and we’re still doing what we need to do to learn more and improve as we go.

Thinking about restructuring your communications team? Big Duck can help. Give us a shout.