April 15, 2013
Summary Report

An often-overlooked partner of a multi-stakeholder partnership is the communications component. Based on the evolving knowledge and experiences of its member organizations, the Devonshire Initiative convened a workshop on 15 April 2013 to examine lessons learned and best practice in ‘communicating partnerships.’

The workshop launched with a review of findings from two ‘consumer surveys’ which summarized international and domestic (Canadian) perspectives on corporate-NGO partnerships. In general, the results of these surveys pointed to a generally positive perception of the role played by (Canadian) firms operating internationally, tempered by an acknowledgement that while impressive gains have been made in social and environmental performance, companies (and the sector writ large) still has room for improvement. Generally, the public appears supportive of corporate-NGO partnerships as an effective tool for addressing common and global social and environmental issues.

From this, participants examined the drivers underlying media interest in partnerships. Part of this is likely due to the novelty of these approaches in Canada (as opposed to their more commonplace role in American, British, and European approaches to international development and corporate social responsibility).

Much of the workshop was focused on lessons learned, best practice, and tools for developing communications strategies to allow organizations to better speak to the value of cross-sector collaboration and to enhance public understanding of these partnerships. It was acknowledged that in order to provide a more balanced and accurate assessment of cross-sector collaboration, significant investment of time and effort is required by all parties involved. At the same time, in many organizations, the communications function is often under-resourced, which makes it difficult for organizations to naturally come together around communicating their partnership.

As well, the nature of these partnerships – that they are complex and technical, operating in highly unfamiliar (to the average public) locations, and that they are innovative in many respects – means that the story or ‘narrative’ around partnerships tends not to evolve in the media over time (as opposed to international stories with greater local resonance). This has been noted around media portrayal of international development for some time, where an outmoded personification of what ‘international development is’ persists. Partnerships need to proactively engage with media outlets to trigger and advance the evolution of news stories.

Key lessons for communicating partnerships included:

  • the need to be proactive and to provide constant messaging through a variety of media platforms;
  • the need to focus on a variety of stakeholders and ‘publics’, many of whom are non-experts and unfamiliar with the technical / professional language of the partnership;
  • the importance of correcting incorrect, insufficient, or inaccurate information, in all media platforms and outlets;
  • the need for coherence and transparency amongst partners in their communications strategies;
  • the importance of a focus on communicating results and on speaking to the intangible benefits of ‘constructive engagement’;
  • and, the underlying value of a participative approach to communications.