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Is the WASH sector good at communications?

Published on: 04/08/2020

Ever wonder if using the acronym WASH (however clever) has been a barrier to communicating what our sector does? Is it telling of our ability to communicate clearly?

These are questions I have been wanting to explore for some time. I've always seen communications as a significant barrier to our progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6), yet one we rarely address. Communications is the foundation of building relationships and engaging stakeholders, which in turn is essential for achieving organisational strategies. It requires significant effort, budget and skills.

Working with water.org to redefine their communications approach for their programmes, I embarked on a reflective journey on communications in the WASH sector. I interviewed individuals from various organisations to understand their experience, their successes and lessons learned on communication strategies, messaging, materials and channels. I particularly appreciated the interviewees' honesty and no-holding back attitude. These discussions were very informative and highlighted the sector's desire to complain, to reflect and most importantly, to do what we do best, find solutions.

Interview Quote

Interviewees provided interesting tips on how to overcome some common communication challenges. Analysing your stakeholders' needs and communication preferences is an important step that is often overlooked.

The consensus from the interviews was clear: The WASH sector is not doing a great job in communications. Interviewees mentioned various challenges such as the sector's focus on engineering and academic skills, with disregard to communications skills; organisations only thinking of communications as fundraising, and not understanding the communication needs and preferences of their other key stakeholders; too many long reports that few have time to read; the overuse of jargon; sacrificing clarity for accuracy; the lack of communication strategies and plans; the failure to communicate a timely response to global events; the reluctance to share failures...the list goes on.

The challenges are complex and vary in different regions and organisations. But one common thread in the interviews was the observation that too often organisations ask their programme staff, who are specialists in WASH issues, to also do communications, not always recognising that it is a different skill set altogether.

The second consensus: Let's improve communications in our sector. There is a real desire for positive change. I sometimes worry about our sector's ability to change and adapt, especially when it comes to engaging audiences beyond the WASH sector. But these interviews revealed how many people in the sector have a similar feeling and are pushing to improve and broaden communications to strengthen relationships. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced how adaptable and responsive we are when the need to change is thrust upon us. (See downloads for the 1-page fact sheet summarising the key findings.)

And in the meantime, why not reflect on the effectiveness of your communication strategy to engage with your different stakeholders?  

Reviewing existing resources such as the WHO Communications Framework for effective communications available below which also presents some useful guidance.  

If you are similarly interested in joining the conversation on the effectiveness of communications in the WASH sector, please reach out to me, Sterenn Philippe (rennphil@gmail.com). We welcome professionals eager to start a dialogue on communications in WASH.

Cover_ World Health Organization, 2017. WHO strategic communications framework for effective communication

World Health Organization, 2017. WHO strategic communications framework for effective communication

Downloads

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