Think Tanks and communications: the challenge of being reasonable, resourceful and proactive
From 2013-2014, Results for Development Institute (R4D), together with CommsConsult and consultants Ray Struyk and David Olson, supported 13 Anglophone Africa think tanks in strengthening their policy engagement and communications (PEC) strategies. The work, conducted as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications program, attempted to help think tanks better translate research into action.
Over the course of the year, we saw the struggle that existed between the distinct functions of producing high quality, demand-driven research to inform citizens and policymakers, and effectively disseminating and using the research to help inform policy. These two functions require separate skill-sets and our efforts focused on the second component, namely working to increase the uptake and usage of research products.
At the outset, there was agreement that producing high quality material is not sufficient to engage decision makers, and a dedicated focus on PEC strategies is crucial toinfluencing and affecting change. With this focus, we supported think tanks in designing and refining communication strategies and leveraging tools to sharpen strategic messaging and outreach. Our team saw the PEC process as incorporating three key stages: (i) planning, (ii) packaging, and (iii) monitoring, evaluating and learning. The first stage involves developing a theory of change, mapping the target audience and developing an effective communications strategy. Second, it is crucial to understand the most appropriate dissemination mechanism given the research message and target audience. For instance, news and press releases may be appropriate for certain audiences, while blogs and social media may be primary or complementary outreach methods for other stakeholders. Lastly, effectively monitoring and evaluating PEC strategies helps in better understanding what strategies work – and what don’t – and how to course correct if needed. This continual learning is only possible if information on communication activities is collected.
Planning, packaging and monitoring for PEC
The tools, lessons, and reflections developed over the project have been shared as a publically available e-manual. Here, we reinforce the importance of “strategic” PEC planning, namely being reasonable, resourceful and proactive. Reasonable as in understanding what is good enough to have, and pursuing what will reap the most return on your investment (as opposed to doing everything).Resourceful so that you’re compelled to move beyond your silo to engage and partner with others who can provide support. And lastly proactive, so that you make fewer mistakes and miss out on fewer opportunities.
Below is a small selection of tactics think tanks can take to be PEC strategists:
1. Theory of Change = Having Reasonable Expectations
To strategically plan around PEC, it’s important to start off with reasonable expectations of what you’ll achieve. Specifically, this means having a theory of change.Most resources on theory of change today are vastly complicated. Add that to a layer of complexity that comes with influencing policies, and you’ll have more questions asked than solved.We propose a simplified, back to basics version of a theory of change framework for think tanks wishing to newly embark on this process.
2. External Engagement = Be proactive, politically smart, and audience-focused
Being proactive with external engagement entails knowing who your audiences are so that your communications is clearly catered to them. This means knowing what they find most important and interesting; where they get their information; and how they like to typically receive it. As part of our project, we used a mentorship model to connect think tanks with communications experts and/or journalists who provided first-hand views on how to write, pitch and talk about compelling content.
Sometimes, partnerships and syndicated blogs can be politically smart moves (for instance, STIPRO’s partnership with the Tanzania Science and Journalist Association and IEA Kenya’s syndicated blog column in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest circulation paper) as this helps earn the trust/attention of the media. On the other hand, choosingnot to engage on certain controversial topics can also be an equally smart move.
Success with your external engagement is a key element of your PEC’s M&E strategy. While most measures of success are heavily skewed towards the quantity of outputs and inputs, it is more important to focus your M&E tools towards audience satisfaction, demands, testimonials and feedback. These are measures that aren’t easy to follow but there are tools to help – for instance,internal journals, written and online surveys, web analytics, and social media.
3. Internal Engagement =Get more cohesive
A cohesive team and brand is essential for a think tank’s reputation and howothers experience engaging with the think tank. The e-manual’s section on branding provides a set of steps and questions that can help think tanks reassess their visual and non-visual brand. For example, this includes having an honest reflection on whether staff have clarity on what the organization stands for (now and in the future) and how it should promote itself. Much of this process involves internal buy-in and collaboration.
The e-manual is available here. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions, including on what more is needed to help convert research to action.