By switching to dark mode you can reduce the energy consumption of our digital service.

Learning from failures in communication: sharing lessons from research & practice workshop

This article captures the key findings from a workshop at ECCA 2017 that aimed to have open discussions around experiences with adaptation communication to share and learn from what hasn’t worked.
Multiple Authors
Michael  Osina


Adaptation is an area of innovation where often things do not go according to plan; it is primarily about action in a constantly changing context. When it comes to talking about adaptation (particularly in public forums) the focus often centres on success stories. However, this workshop illustrated that there is a place for learning from communication failures, and that it can be empowering for both researchers and practitioners in the adaptation field.

This workshop attracted over 50 adaptation professionals from the ECCA delegate group and was declared the ‘most over-subscribed’ of the conference. The objective was to have open discussions around experiences with adaptation communication in order to share and learn from what hasn’t worked, and to look at what learnings had been derived from these experiences.

This report* forms the next step in exploring the need for an ECCA adaptation communication Community of Practice.

Do you have experiences or stories to share around failures in communication? Your comments are welcome – feel free to leave a comment in the box below (under further resources) or start a conversation in the discussion forums.

*Key sections of the report are summaried below. See the full text for more detail.


The objective of this workshop session was to identify and discuss experiences of where climate change communication has not worked. This was achieved through a facilitated and frank discussion between the workshop team and ECCA delegates, drawing together an understanding of what lessons that had been learnt from this and to share these lessons.

The participants who attended the workshop were diverse, and ranged from government and non-government agency practitioners to consultants and researchers across more than 14 countries (most being European and UK locations).

The workshop format and methodology

The first part of the workshop established the necessary context for the session through a series of short presentations from the workshop team. Each presentation deliberately focussed on personal examples of communication failures.

Following these, the first exercise was to collate experiences with failures in adaptation communication through what is commonly referred to as ‘fishing’. The idea is to throw out a question and to see what the participants bring into the space in response to this. Individual participants were asked to list a communication activity that didn’t work and then discuss this as a group. Each group then fed back the key points of these discussions to the room.

The aim of the second exercise was to link these experiences to learnings. Participants were asked to think about the one piece of advice on climate change communication that they would tell the work experience kid. They were then asked as groups to select what they considered to be the top three pieces of advice.

A key aspect of the workshop process was the creation of a ‘safe space’ using world cafe principles so practitioners could speak openly in relation to their work.

Outcomes and Impacts

What didn’t work – common issues:

  • A lack of understanding of the factors necessary to support effective communication with stakeholders, e.g. stakeholders’ specific communication contexts and needs, and the communication mediums, approaches and language types that are needed to engage different audiences.
  • Making inaccurate assumptions about stakeholder’s ability to influence contexts and their understanding of the science. For example, “that people know things”.
  • A lack of research into other issues influencing stakeholders’ ability to be engaged.
  • Not including or being able to access key stakeholders.
  • Failure of communication between different stakeholders due to lack of consideration of who the key people who need to be communicated with were.
  • The under-allocation of the time required to undertake effective communication and adaptation across all activities in a programme.
  • A lack of understanding as to how to work with communication specialists to achieve an effective outcome.
  • Not framing through the audience’s area of interest. Language specific failures, including negative responses to words such as vulnerability and climate change and over use of uncertainty. A lack of consideration of the stakeholder’s context and possible reactions to the information. Using another person to translate also led to some failures.
  • Generic communication failures that were also strongly prevalent in the adaptation examples that included:
    • Using email not face-to-face communication;
    • Death by PowerPoint;
    • Leaflets and websites that were too text heavy; and,
    • Content that is not focused on a particular audience.

The one piece of advice you would give – key pieces of advice:

  • Listen more than you talk!
  • Have iterative and inclusive communication which was tailored to the audience – “Be patient, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat but don’t use jargon.”
  • Get to know your audience prior to engaging them, value stakeholders and do not make assumptions about who they are and what might interest them.
  • Use more visual and less text based communication of information.
  • Think of communication as an ongoing process which needs to build understanding and empower audiences if it is to be effective.
  • Use more reflexive learning approaches which accommodate positive interaction as part of an evolving process.

Lessons learnt from the process

  • Although they may not identify as such all adaptation practitioners are communicators at some level.
  • Adaptation is primarily about action in a constantly changing context. Forums where people can communicate openly about what does not work in a way that supports learning is thus key to supporting adaptation action.
  • There is a need for different forms of communication that are tailored to specific stakeholder groups and align with their interests and values.
  • Researchers may need to think differently about their research, the role of communication and the stakeholders they work with.
  • Using inspiring and entertaining narratives are key to developing adaptation communication practice, but do not always support deeper learning between researchers and practitioners.
  • Communicators need to develop new and more inclusive approaches that address the specific needs of different stakeholder groups to create shared understandings.

“Being humble about your findings allows for reflective dialogue.”

Overal, this workshop highlighted that communication of and engagement with adaptation research is a difficult and sometimes thankless task, and a specific skill that needs to be learnt. It is an emerging area of practice in adaptation and ultimately, not everything will succeed. Sharing and learning from what has not worked is on ongoing process that can be used to enhance current practice and build new knowledge. The creation of spaces which support these open discussions and ongoing learning between diverse stakeholders, is an important part of progressing adaptation agendas.

Suggested citation:

Young, C., Wilkins, T.M., Dilling, L., Vulturius, G. and Bergseng, A.M. 2017. Learning from failures in communication: Sharing lessons from research and practice workshop. European Climate Change Adaptation Conference, 5–8 June 2017, Glasgow. UKCIP, University of Oxford.

Add your project

Exchange your climate change adaptation projects and lessons learned with the global community.