Skip to Content

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Change Agent.

“It was my understanding that there would be no math.” —Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live, appearing as President Gerald Ford

Most of us didn’t get into communications to do math. Or science.

I suspect many of you, like me, saw it as a place of refuge and creativity, away from numbers and terms like “activation points,” “left brain hemispheric activity,” “quantitative versus qualitative data,” or “regression analysis”.

But here we are.  

The fact is, the days of hiring smart English majors who write nicely and calling them communications experts are over.

Smart, strategic communications in the 21st century is research and science.

Need convincing?

Let’s start where communications begins — with listening. Communications is, at its core, about listening — to audiences, to experts, even to yourself.

Listening is research. The act of listening is an act of gathering data.

And data is available everywhere these days: focus groups, polls, message testing, surveys, digital analytics, engagement metrics, as well as exciting new breakthroughs in brain science, psychology, and more.

In this issue of Change Agent, The Communications Network’s biannual print journal for social sector communicators, we’re inviting you to explore the ways that data and research are shaping the field of strategic communications for good.

Our own research into the core qualities and competencies necessary to do social sector communications with excellence, revealed folks know how essential data and research are to a comprehensive and ultimately successful communications strategy.

We found that quantitative skills are valued just as highly as emotional intelligence. And that’s important, because data gives you precision and facts, not just intuition.

Data alone won’t change minds, as we’ve seen in today’s public discourse. But it does allow you to talk to folks in a way that speaks to their emotions and needs, which, as you’ll see, is a powerful motivator. And, data allows you to monitor narratives with unprecedented depth and breadth in today’s information ecosystem.

The trouble is, how do you find quants in communications, or learn how to do the science yourself?

The following pages of Change Agent will attempt to illuminate the answer, as well as:

  • Why communications is just as much science as art
  • What kinds of data you can and should pay attention to and gather — and what you ought to ignore
  • Ways that research can amplify your strategic communications efforts
  • How to be deliberate about collecting the right information

Why is now the moment to (if you haven’t already) break out your inner nerd and embrace statistics and psychology and numbers and put them to use in your work?

Because Americans are consuming nearly 11 hours of information every single day. Ten hours and 39 minutes a day to be precise. That’s up a full hour from just last year.

Communicators need every advantage they can find to help them cut through the noise to ensure the ideas and issues they’re charged with moving forward are not just heard, but acted upon. Strategic communications done well isn’t simply about raising awareness, it’s about empowering people to engage and take action in order to improve lives.

If your communications work isn’t already incorporating insights that only research can reveal, you’re working with a hand tied behind your back.

That said, if you haven’t been using research and data in your work to date, it can feel like an overwhelming enterprise. Where to begin? The fact is, there’s a lot of data to be found today. And too much can be overwhelming. It’s important to be thoughtful about what you’re collecting, and why. The goal, after all, is to work smarter, not harder.

In this issue of Change Agent, we’re highlighting some of the most innovative research in our field today, bringing you the numbers, stories, and strategies that will empower you to think a little differently about the ways you use communications for good.

You’ll hear from Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey as she reflects on the role communications played in her nearly 15-year tenure leading the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Ford Foundation shares their recent research which reveals how to tap into American aspirations and use the elements of the American psyche to engage better with your particular audience. Similarly, FrameWorks Institute explains how framing research can help you understand which narratives stick, and which fall flat.

Perception Institute unpacks how our implicit biases make us interpret the exact same information in completely different ways. The Mellon Foundation details how philanthropy can promote diversity and inclusion by framing it as a critical resource. And if you’ve been wondering how to effectively advocate in Congress in today’s political climate, the Congressional Management Foundation breaks down the key insights from its new research surveying every single Congressional office to learn what actually works.

The Rockefeller Foundation will explain why PR firms may be the partner you need to actualize your organization’s social change goals. You’ll also learn that plenty of research was behind two of America’s most famous examples of ingenuity — the Wright brothers.

And of course, what would a data and research issue be without some math? Carson Research Consulting gets into the specifics of what you, Network members, believe to be the essential skills you need on your team to do your work with excellence. We call them the Core Communications Competencies. And the data whizzes at Periscopic render raw numbers into gorgeous and inviting interactive experiences that create empathy and understanding.

This issue of Change Agent would not have been possible without the commitment of our Board and the incredible generosity of The Rockefeller Foundation. We’d also be remiss not to thank the team at Pyramid Communications, whose creative genius and attention to detail are present in the design of every page.

And, if you think you’ve noticed something different about the articles in this issue, well, you have. A special thank you goes to Charles (Chuck) Babington, former White House Correspondent for the Associated Press and The Washington Post, whose keen eye and deft editing strengthened and sharpened every piece.

After reading this issue, we hope you’ll agree that while communications shouldn’t be rocket science, it is a science, as well as an art. The social sector would do well to embrace the precision, insights, and strategies that data and research can provide.


Because if there’s one equation that is universally true, it’s this:

The stories that win hearts + the psychology that changes minds  = a more just, inclusive, and equitable world.



* indicates required

Join The Network

Community, learning, and leadership to help you do good, better.

Become a member