When done right, research can dazzle.

Laura Potgieter  |  26 August 2021

DevCom assisted Sappi in a research programme that has had a long-lasting impact and yielded an award-winning safety campaign. The purpose of research communication is not only to communicate findings to people in a concise and understandable manner, but also to engage them in your research. Findings that inspire people are more valuable than facts that are merely informative. Getting the word out about research goes beyond just explaining it, it builds bridges between research, stakeholders, and the public, at large. It fosters mutual engagement, and it promotes a dialogue. From this vantage point, projects can grow and be mutually effective because everyone can see how the big picture is of benefit to everyone.

All 5,000 Sappi Southern Africa employees had already taken part in the company’s annual global employee engagement survey during 2015, but the language, concepts and metrics used did not resonate with the bulk of the audience. What was missing was an understanding of how to use messages and media to achieve specific outcomes, specific to tone, flow, and trust of communication.

Sappi Forests has a large group of employees and contractor workers that rely on effective operational communication to achieve their collective targets. But operational communication was an area that required improvement, to achieve better productivity and safety behaviour.

The goal of this study was a deep dive into the elements of operational communication driving engagement, to answer this question: “How do we improve operational communication to achieve better engagement to achieve business results?”

The desired outcome of the research was increased understanding of the audience and seven other key focus areas.


The DevCom team realised that we needed to develop an innovative approach for the research itself if we wanted to get the right answers. Where we add value is to begin our process with keeping all levels of the organisations in mind – not focusing solely on management and expecting them to drive change.

We designed an illustrated questionnaire that was suitable for all levels of the organisation, from business executives to mostly illiterate blue-collar workers. Pictures made the questionnaire easier to understand and quicker to facilitate, but also helped respondents to use the right side of their brains to give emotional answers, not rational answers.

The research aimed to understand the following elements of operational communication:

  • The processes in the Forestry business that can influence operational effectiveness,
  • The people in the business, the impact of authority levels and buy-in and collaboration between HR, Forestry and Corporate Affairs,
  • Blockages in flow of communication,
  • Levels of trust between employees,
  • The tone culture,
  • Operational communication methods/media,
  • Content testing and message retention, and
  • The influence of recognition on the communication culture.


The research involved 961 participants: employees, contractors, and leaders from all organisational levels. We conducted surveys and focus groups, spearheaded by three teams of three members each, over a four-week period.

  • The first major challenge that the DevCom team encountered was to ensure that the illustrations conveyed the correct message to everyone. By the end of testing the questionnaire with various pilot groups (including Sappi support staff and labourers), the illustrations had been adapted according to the input received – a crucial success factor in the research project.
  • The large geographical area was the second big challenge. The research teams travelled approximately 12,000km to the research areas, where rough terrain required that all teams had a 4×4 vehicle and excellent driving capabilities.
  • The language barrier was a challenge, especially during the focus groups, and DevCom included isiZulu-speaking facilitators in each research team. Native language is a vital part of this process as it is inclusive and reaps the best results.
  • The logistical planning was complex as each employee had a different schedule, and the lack of telecom infrastructure posed some challenges when it came to finalising arrangements with participants and capturing data.


The illustrated questionnaire explained difficult terms and situations in a way that everyone understood, and they took 20 minutes less to facilitate than traditional questionnaires. This was a great innovation, saving time and money and delivering excellent results.

For instance, it provided tangible examples of intangible concepts, and many of the tested concepts influenced the messaging that was developed in the subsequent strategy.


More importantly, however, the findings of the research led to changes in the organisation; the most important being:

  • That production performance is negatively influenced by content filtering,
  • That safety communication and terminology is not being understood by everyone, and
  • That there was lack of trust between fellow employees and corporate messages.

All of these and other elements were addressed because of the research. Subsequently, a full safety and operations communication budget was approved to roll out over two years, and some quick wins in terms of safety communication were immediately implemented.


When you squeeze the shimmer and magic out of your research and commit to providing quality and honest data, your results are sure to dazzle and shine! – Mari Lee

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