The C Factor: from problem to plan, a five-step approach to communication

Anyone who works for central government knows that the government does not operate alone. To get results we rely on the help of individuals, businesses and civil society organisations, each of which has its own interests and dynamics. Many government authorities are investing in programmes that use the insights of these external parties to develop new and different ways of working. In essence it’s a way to take account of the diversity of those concerned and focus on issues from their perspectives. And the C Factor is a communication approach that helps you do that.

What is the C Factor?

The C Factor was developed in 2003 by the Academy for Government Communications as a way to put communication at the heart of government policy. After more than 15 years, the C Factor has been updated and improved to include new insights and terminology. At its core, however, the C Factor remains unchanged. It is a five-step approach that helps you work out a strategy and communication plan, with due regard for the perspective of your target audience or user. It is not a process you are meant to work through alone but rather, together with the dossier holder or the project team. This way of working is hugely advantageous for the organisation because, by following each of the five steps, it becomes very clear to all parties involved how they can contribute and who their work will effect. In other words, it’s a way to bring external perspectives to your internal process.

Shifts in the playing field

In recent years the relationship between central government and its stakeholders has changed considerably. This is evident, for example, in the government’s growing participation in social networks and dialogue. The government now listens more closely to civil society organisations, individuals and businesses, and at an earlier stage in the process. By looking at social issues from their perspectives, the government gains valuable insight, which it can use to hone and clarify its policy objectives. In the past the government opted primarily to take on a leading or performative role, but today more is required. For example, the government must now be responsive and assume the role of a facilitator that seeks opportunities for cooperation and dialogue with social partners.

Many ministries already have programmes in place to help them adapt to these new roles. And though the names of these programmes may vary, they are all based on the same core idea: to gain understanding of stakeholders’ interests. Such insight is crucial for any government that wants to formulate and implement policy that is both promising and successful. As manager of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy’s ‘Together in policy’ programme, Anke Sikkema, puts it: ‘As a civil servant there’s so much to be gained by forming partnerships with other parties inside and outside the government. From time to time you just have to stop trying to lead and take the time to look around and listen to what other parties have to say.’ The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy launched the ‘Together in Policy’ programme to help staff take an externally focused approach to their work. ‘In practice,’ Anke explains, ‘staff attend working sessions through which they get to know the government’s various roles and reflect on what this new approach requires of them, such as listening, working responsively and building bridges with social partners.’ The C Factor can be used by communication professionals who want to take a more strategic approach to their work and allows them to keep pace with their policy officer colleagues in this regard.

Five-step approach

How does the C Factor work in practice? The C Factor approach consists of five steps, and for each step there are four discussion points. To assist you, most steps offer methods and techniques to use during working sessions or for conceptual models. Each of the five steps are outlined in broad strokes below.

  • Problem: The first step is to formulate an answer to the question ‘What issue, problem or challenge are we going to tackle?’ Is this also a problem experienced by the parties concerned? What is a suitable role for the government? Although asking questions and receiving answers about the content and context of a particular issue may seem obvious, all too often this step is passed over too quickly. In this phase, the role of communication is to approach the problem from the perspective of the target audience. By taking account of the perspective of the target audience at this early stage, you set the tone for an externally focused approach in which your starting point is the problem as it is recognised in the real word.
  • Context: Once you have clearly defined the problem, you can begin to analyse the context. The C Factor offers a wide range of methods to help you map out in detail which parties are affected by or have an interest in the issue, what their motives are, how they are involved, how much sway they have on the issue and what their relationship is to each other. It is impossible for one person to do a good and complete context analysis on their own; it is best done as a team. Many teams realise that they already know a lot and that it is very valuable to meet and share this information with each other. Such meetings are also an opportunity to establish what you still do not know and, if necessary, take action to rectify this.
  • Strategy: The context analysis often produces significant results, which in turn form the basis of the communication strategy. And that means: making choices. Which well-chosen target audience are we going to focus on? What is a suitable frame? What is the communication supposed to achieve? The strategy is in fact the brief for the communication professional. This is a good time to discuss expectations and what both parties view as effective communication.
  • Narrative: Once you have a broadly supported strategy, the door is now open for working out a communication plan. An important step in this is the shared narrative. Other terms for this are core message, common thread, message house and press lines. When using the C Factor, formulating a narrative starts with listening. It is essential to listen carefully to how people talk about the issue in order to be able to put together a response that corresponds to the reality of the receiver. One of the techniques the C Factor offers is the ‘message box’, whereby the level of urgency felt by the target audience is a driving factor in formulating a message. To unify the various storylines, channels and target audiences, another option is a ‘message house’, which is an overarching narrative with various sub-narratives. A starting point of the C Factor is that establishing a rapport with your target audience depends on whether or not the message appeals to them, provides answers and reflects their perspective. It is a way of guaranteeing that the interests and concerns of the target audience are incorporated into the policymaking process.
  • Plan: A good communication plan is critical to the success of your strategy. This step is about designing and implementing a thorough communication plan using the right means of communication at the right time. This also involves making agreements about roles, tasks and finances.

The C Factor shows what you’re worth

Taken independently, the steps that comprise the C Factor are not new. The major advantage of the C Factor is that it lays out the entire process in explicit terms, allowing you to continue to build on the answers and information you collect in every step along the way. In this way, following the five steps is a direct path to a good communication strategy. Even if the task at hand is something as straightforward as setting up a website, you can demonstrate why it’s best to first look at the exact problem and the dynamics at play. Because it is only after doing so that you, as a communication professional, can provide the type of communication the situation demands. In this way, the C Factor also lays the foundation for excellent implementation.

Using the C Factor also provides accountability and ensures that you are able to justify every choice you make – whether substantive or process-related. Above all, the C Factor is practical. It is a useful tool kit in which you’ll find numerous handy techniques all in one place. The C Factor is suitable for everyone, whether the issue you are working on is a government-wide priority or more limited in scope.