Advocate for the user

- May 2024

Advocacy: The heart of communication and change management

The editor’s role is to advocate for the reader.

This was the first thing I was taught in the first week of my Master’s degree. I’ve since tried to find a source, but to no avail; it’s an expression that’s been around. And it’s one that I’ve held close to my heart for the last 15 years because it speaks to the very core of what I believe is important as a communication and change professional.

It adapts beautifully: when developing websites I tend to adjust it to ‘advocating for the user’ or ‘the public’, and in internal communication and change management scenarios, we’re ‘advocating for our people’. But what does that mean? And why does it matter?

Communication is a 2-way relationship

There is a sender of a message and a receiver of that message. Both have their own preferences for what content they’re interested in, how they prefer to communicate and their own skills and life experiences that influence how they encode (express) and decode (receive) information.

Publishing is a world of discretionary spending – readers can choose what they read and when. If a book doesn’t resonate with readers, they won’t recommend it and they won’t purchase future books by the author. So in publishing the editor acts as an intermediary, identifying where there may be gaps that prevent the author’s message reaching and resonating with their readers, and working with the author to address them and realise their book’s full potential. Of course, this benefits the publishers who can then sell more books.

In corporate and government environments, the stakes are exponentially higher. The “readers” – in this case stakeholders such as the public or employees – can’t just opt out. They can’t just choose another source. The message must get through. And if it doesn’t get through, it can affect entire lives.

Being an advocate

This is where the communication and change managers offer a particular value to leaders and project managers, the senders of the information. I’ve heard experts explain how we – comms and change folk – are facilitators, bringing together different parts of the organisation to unify and shape messaging and activities. What they usually fail to acknowledge is our pivotal role in bringing the voice of the people into those conversations.

Knowing who you’re advocating for

Primary research is fundamental for informing advocacy: unfounded assumptions and stereotypes can undermine your work in a flash. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is a great resource for understanding different groups within the Australian population, and many government departments regularly conduct robust research into specific stakeholder groups relevant to their work. Within organisations, reach out to HR for workforce data and employee engagement survey outcomes. And, of course, directly engaging with target stakeholder groups first-hand is invaluable. Focus groups, meetings or chatting in the lunch room. Connect with people. Ask questions.

Listen to their answers.

Defining stakeholder groups

Who needs to hear, understand and act on this information? Go deep and split your stakeholder groups into well-defined groups you can tailor communications to.

‘The public’ is big and broad, and almost no budget could ever be large enough to meaningfully cover all the bases, so it’s guaranteed you’ll miss most of them. Segmenting ‘the public’ into smaller groups of external stakeholders lets you get a bigger bang for your buck. Are there particular age groups who need to receive the message? Genders? Locations? Are there ambassadors, influencers, peak bodies or provider networks who will be conduits – both recipients and senders of the information? Homeowners or renters? Volunteers, environmental activists or mechanics?

Within an organisation, ‘all employees’ is equally unhelpful for defining internal stakeholders. Is it frontline workers, people managers or decision makers who need to understand? Call centre workers, policy writers or admin assistants?

Analysing stakeholders

What do you know about these groups that will likely affect how they receive the message?

What information will they be seeking? What language or literacy skills might affect their understanding? What pressures or priorities (e.g. financial or social) might influence how receptive they are? Whose opinion will they value and where might one group be able to influence another?

For internal stakeholders, how does this align with their values and those of the organisation? What are their workload pressures and how does this fit with their priorities? Who are their leaders and influencers? Who do they collaborate with or avoid?

Advocate by default

Use the above information to inform the communication and change activities in your strategies and plans. More importantly, be fluent with this information so you can advocate on the run.

We all know that leaders can be exceptionally busy, and that your quality communication or change strategy will probably receive barely a glance. So being able to repeatedly and seamlessly provide context as products move through approval processes, at project meetings and in executive briefings is invaluable.

Successful initiatives, organisational performance and, most importantly, individual wellbeing, are all dependent on how effectively communication and change professionals advocate for stakeholder needs.