Chapter 2: Avoiding Mixed Messages

Countries, like people, enjoy talking about themselves. Countries also like talking to themselves. Many a politician spends many a day telling citizens about what they, as citizens, value or want. Many a foreign policy is therefore really a domestic policy in disguise, a stern message a society sends to the world that is in fact a love letter written to itself about its needs and desires.

If politicians want to communicate effectively with the goal of reducing irregular migration, then they have to be careful that the messages they are sending out are not contradictory – on one hand telling migrants to stay away and the other suggesting they are welcome.

If countries say loudly that they are good international citizens and respect the rights of refugees, some people will naturally believe that they are encouraging them to come and claim asylum. If they muse boldly about the need for immigrants to do their domestic work and balance their ageing populations, some people will expect jobs if they can only reach that labour market. We have to be careful about matching purpose, message, audience and channel. 

Politicians funding migration communications have two audiences to communicate with. The first is their intended target audience in countries of origin. The second is their constituents at home whose tax dollars are funding these projects. These two audiences are distinct and therefore warrant two separate communications strategies. The case study below illustrates the consequences of combining the two. 

Avoiding Mixed Messages: Case Study

One country’s campaign in Afghanistan to reduce the number of people risking their lives and money through irregular migration had the opposite effect. The themes of the campaign were:

1) We are an open and generous country that respects our international legal obligations.

2) There are legal channels and illegal channels to enter the country; don’t take the illegal channels.

3) Stay at home and work with your friends and family to build your country.

We can unpack why it did not succeed.

The first theme was for a domestic audience and was more likely to encourage Afghans to choose the donor country as a destination. It is understandable that countries want people to believe they are open and generous and respect international legal obligations. However, many migrants will see this as implying that irregular arrivals are welcome. Hearing that a country is open and generous can easily be misunderstood as an invitation, especially since many migrants are already predisposed to look for facts that support their ambitions.

The second theme, on legal and illegal channels, fails to take the Afghan perspective into account. Most people considering irregular migration understand the idea of permitted and forbidden, but interpret it in a different way than a donor government official. There is behaviour that many Afghans know to be forbidden, but which is acceptable for reasons of survival or advancement in a precarious environment. The country produced over 4,000 tons of opium in 2016, for example.

The idea that a destination country considers it illegal to take a journey that results in long-term prosperity suggests to many Afghans that it is better to beg forgiveness later than ask for permission first. If the facts show that Afghans can stay in a European country for years, or even forever, what does illegal really mean? As we show in the 3E Impact method, it would be much better to engage with ambitions, concepts and language that are meaningful from the other side’s point of view.

The third theme of the campaign in question was encouragement to stay in Afghanistan with friends and family to build the country. This one was the best-conceived. It at least engages directly with the audience, and the message can be understood on their terms. That is not to say it would be effective on its own or add much value. We do not have enough evidence for that, and there are reasons to be sceptical. But at least this message could work if it travels clearly from sender to receiver.

It is an impossible challenge to keep all the voices in your communications space on message. But you should certainly be ambitious in engaging and advising a wide range of people.

For example, if a minister gives you money for effective communications campaigns, you can often help your objectives by giving the minister talking points in return. Explain what will work best and what to avoid. Also draw up a long list of those who are likely to speak out on the issue and think about how to reach out to them. If not, all your hard work and subtle messaging can be blown away by a single unscripted comment.

A more subtle and far-reaching challenge is determining if the right people are listening to your messages. As with a lot of public policy communications campaigns, it can be difficult to know whether the feedback you are getting is from those already sympathetic to your cause. It is easier to like something on Facebook if you already believe in the message than if you do not.

There are two ways to deal with this, and we discuss each in more detail in the 3E Impact method. First, audience segmentation allows us to engage more accurately. Some audience segments are ignored. Some receive gentle prompting. Others are engaged and immersed. But all audience segments have different start states, expected end states and pathways in between. That means you need to engage with each audience differently and on their own terms – not as one amorphous blob.

Second, we need to track what happens to the people we engage. A randomised controlled trial or a longitudinal study are excellent for this. In any case, we need some way of checking whether we are talking to ourselves or to the people who really matter.

Chapter 1: Planning a Communications Campaign

Chapter 3: Selecting Audience Segments

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