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The onthinktanks interview: Laura Zommer (Part 1 of 3)

 [Editor's note: Leandro Echt has joined onthinktanks.org as a contributor. This blog is the first of three based on an interview we did with Laura Zommer (CIPPEC's former Head of Communications) and translated by Andrea Moncada.]

The most complicated thing about communications in a think tank is changing cultures and practices, designing and implementing processes that work and allow overcoming the dichotomy between the seriousness and importance of knowledge and its dissemination.

In an effort to keep the knowledge and experience within the organization and to share that experience with other think tanks through our platform Executive Directors of Latin America (DEAL) and Bridging research and policy in Latin America VIPPAL and its newsletter, last month I interviewed Laura Zommer, former Director of Communication at CIPPEC (where she worked for over 8 years), who has recently become the Executive Director of Chequeado.com. In this interesting conversation, Laura addresses various aspects related to communications in policy research institutes. The interview is very useful for think tanks’ directors and heads of communication, both experiences was well as those who are taking their first steps. Among other topics, the interview goes over the relationship between research, communication and influence, the key challenges and opportunities faced by think tanks in the field of communications, the opportunities offered by digital tools, the relationship with governments, and think tanks’ reputation. She also addresses the main characteristics that communications director should posses and provides advice to them and their Directors.

This is the first part of the interview.

Leandro Echt: What motivated you to work for CIPPEC?

Laura Zommer: I was always interested in public and social issues. When I worked for the newspaper “La Nacion” as a writer on judicial topics, my co-workers would tell me that I was the journalist for lost causes, because every time there was somebody protesting for an interesting or noble cause I would cover it and after the ruling I’d get interested again, and when it would go through a National Chamber (of the Supreme Court) I’d get interested yet again. I always had a strong calling for public issues. Besides, I have a critical way of looking at journalism in general, in the sense that it is not as thorough as I’d like it to be. I also have a critical point of view on Argentinean academia, which is generally focused on itself. So, I felt that working for a think tank could be a way of overcoming these two problems: the superficiality of journalism and the divorce of academia from the social and political reality.

I arrived at CIPPEC almost by coincidence, even though I do not believe in coincidences. When I worked for La Nacion, I was given license to go work for the national government for a period of time, when Nestor Kirchner’s administration began, specifically at the Secretariat of Internal Security on a project on civilian control over the armed forces. But that ended quickly; in fact we found out that we were going to be shut down through the newspapers. And I felt that it wasn’t very reasonable to go back to La Nacion and cover judicial issues again, I felt there was a huge conflict of interest. So, looking through some of my notes on access to information – which I needed to present in my application for a teaching position at the University of Buenos Aires – I found a position for a director of Communication (CIPPEC did not have a communications area at a that time) which was available only till that day. And, since I do not believe in coincidences, I sent a cover letter to Vanesa Weyrauch, Director of Institutional Development at that time, and she got back to me immediately after. It was a Friday and we agreed to meet on Monday. The letter began like this: “I do not believe in coincidences. Looking through my notes on access to information for my university, I found the position at CIPPEC. I just finished a job in the public service and I do not want to back to journalism”.

LE: What were the main challenges that you faced during your term as Director of Communication?

LZ: The main challenges were internal. The most complicated thing about communications in a think tank is changing cultures and practices, designing and implementing processes that work and allow overcoming the dichotomy between the seriousness and importance of knowledge and its dissemination. That was the first barrier the researchers put up, who assumed that I was going to cheapen their investigation. It took months and years and several discussions to convince them that while you can broadcast information in a “non serious” manner, that you can also do it a seriously and that this generates more impact and more resources for other serious research. So, far from being a dichotomy, research and dissemination are quite complimentary. Regarding the Executive Directors, I always had a lot of support from them, beyond the discussions and differences I had with the staff. All of the Executive Directors were always convinced that it made sense to have a strong Communications area, with resources, equipment and a decision-making capacity. In order to overcome these challenges, this support was essential.

LE: How do you think you contributed to improving communications in CIPPEC?

LZ: With a lot of decisiveness, clear ideas and some strong, non-negotiable ideas. In that sense, especially at the beginning of a communications area in a think tank, there are battles that from the outside seem to make no sense, but if one gives up you end up not really changing the organisational culture. I also contributed with planning, with putting together a great team and with lots of work. When putting together a team you have to choose people well and then work with them in order to share a roadmap that lets you prioritise.

When I arrived at CIPPEC, the institution was four and a half years old. I was a journalist for a major newspaper focusing on one of the areas that CIPPEC worked on but I had not heard of them.  During my meeting with the Executive Director of the time, I said to him “You may have done very interesting things, but you have a serious problem. I should have been your ally: I’m a journalist that cares about social issues, that cares about academia, but that doesn’t know you”. So, the most important part about the beginning of my time there was to make sure that the relevant actors of the world of politics and journalism knew us.

I think that we have achieved that today: there are no longer any journalists that do not recognise CIPPEC when you mention it to them, or any relevant politicians, whether or not they have a good or bad opinion of the institution, that do not know CIPPEC as an actor that wants to improve public policy. In that sense, my first contribution was that CIPPEC is no longer anonymous or insignificant but is now a player in the field of public policy.

A second contribution had to with our internal affairs: nowadays, everyone in the institution shares the vision that communication is important. There may be differences in small things (like which tools to use, or when), but there are almost no individuals in the institution that question its importance. I think that we got the point across that communication is an ally to their research. And in third place, we have developed a publications policy that is most likely the best one that a think tank at the global level could have. All of these achievements are not just mine, they are my team’s as well.

LE: Why are you leaving CIPPEC?

LZ: I am leaving CIPPEC because I am restless: I want a change of environment, of people, of dynamics, of processes and discussions. And even though there are many things yet to do in CIPPEC, these things require new energy. For example, it’s no longer necessary to convince the staff that they must write press releases, but to convince them that they all must have a Twitter account or that they must have a blog. And I feel that I no longer have the energy for these discussions: they must come from someone else, with renewed energy, maybe to say the same thing, but with a different voice.  I consider that changes in leadership are beneficial to the institution and that it has proven to be successful when it has done so (like with the Executive Director and the Institutional Development Director). So I am leaving without unease: I think that whatever comes can only be better.

LE: Where are you going?

LZ: I am now executive director of Chequeado.com. From my point of view, it is the most innovative and has the most potential among all the organisations created within Argentinean civil society in the last 10 years. Our goal is to improve access to information and the quality of public debate in Argentina through the verification of public discourse. The organisation is one year old, and has grown a lot in that year. It is a lot like when I began at CIPPEC or before (since there were already some institutionalised processes at CIPPEC when I arrived). Chequeado.com is a journalistic project and I wanted to reconnect with that part of me more than with the communications part. Besides, the current conflict of polarisation between the media and the national government makes working for traditional media an undesirable choice.

LE: What advice would you give to your replacement?

LZ: In order to support the new Director of Communications, I agreed with the Executive Director and the President of the Administrative Council to have face-to-face meetings with my successor for two months. I put together a list of sixteen topics I felt were essential, and we went through all of them during one and a half hour meetings. It had to do more with the informal aspects of each of those topics. Members of the team participated in three of those meetings: in the publications meeting, the politicians’ meeting and the meeting about media. Later, during the new Director’s first month, I dedicated half a day of my week to whatever he needed: online and over the phone, meetings to tell him what I would have done in a specific situation, etc.

In terms of recommendations, I told him to trust his instincts, to be himself and to “put on the communications shirt”. There are many areas at CIPPEC where Communications could create conflict. For example, if a great project with a lot of resources, in a bad moment in terms of finance, must be turned down because it could jeopardize the institution’s independence, Communications must say so, even if it’s uncomfortable to everyone else. The same thing goes for conflicts of interest or when the quality of a certain publication is bad. Since saying yes is easier, my recommendation was to “say yes only when you’re convinced it’s a yes. If not, you get paid to say all of the ‘nos’ necessary”.

LE: How did you find your replacement?

LZ: What we did was put together a list of people who, including the Executive Director, we felt would not take the position because they were doing very well in their current jobs, but that we would like for them to take over as Director of Communications at CIPPEC. A sort of wish-list. My replacement turned out to be one of those three people of the original list. During my first meeting with him, he told me that he was doing well in his job, that he had just renewed his contract, etc. We got two of his friends to talk about the good things of CIPPEC in respect to other jobs, and he agreed to a second meeting in which we finally convinced him. An open call was also made through which we generally got good CVs. We presented the Board with two other candidates aside from the first one. Everything went reasonably well, but because we had learned in our search for an Institutional Development Director how not to do it. That first search was an open call, which will sometimes give you great CVs, but from people who don’t have experience in this sector, or people who have lived a long time out of the country and that aren’t necessarily good for the Communications position. This time we did things the other way around: we thought about what we would like and looked for those people. Since we had a great team, we were only going to look for someone abroad if their name was important: if in the media or among political actors his name made resonance because of his seniority, trajectory and experience, beyond his professionalism.

LE: What personal or professional characteristics should a director of communications have?

LZ: It depends on the organisation. In CIPPEC, due to the public profile of the institution and the current Argentinean political context, to me it was central for the new director to be “progressive”. Of course, it couldn’t be someone identified as part of the opposition to the government. That’s why I recommended that he looks at everything through his “distrustful journalist” eyes, and if it passed his analysis, then it would go through anyone’s filters. That’s what used to happen to me: before any communication activity, I would stop and ask myself: “what if someone asks me this?” which was what I would ask if I weren’t at CIPPEC.

Coming from journalism, it had to be someone who did not write puff pieces: it should be someone who is interested in content and the new ways of getting it across. Being a journalist wasn’t a condition, but to me it was a virtue, because to be a good journalist you have to be distrustful. Part of what you have to do as Director of Communications of a think tank is to distrust some processes, to look at them from “the other side”. You must ask yourself: how will someone with bad intentions look at this? How will it make us look? If you are a journalist, that comes naturally, it’s not something that can be learned. You can’t sit with someone and make them make you look at things in that manner.

People used to tell me that, as Director of Communications, I was the “cop” of the institution. And I really was. Later, when you have a great team like the one CIPPEC has now, you can learn everything else. Besides, a Director of Communications should have certain skills: how to know who is who, have political culture, know their profession well. The main mistakes in communication, not only in civil society but in the private and public sector as well, come from communicating things that no one cares about.

So first you have to know your audience and their interests. For example, there was a time at CIPPEC when books were written and sent to Senators and members of Parliament. That is fine, you have to send books if they are relevant, even if they just read the title, the index or the prologue, or if they use a quote to put in a law. But if you send the book to a political actor that you know doesn’t have the time or interest in the issue, then you’re dead. That’s why a Director of Communications should know his profession well and have political clout, not only for dealing with external actors, but for internal affairs. And he must also have character, in the sense that he must have strong ideas, be insistent and persevering. This way, the Director of Communications becomes an escape valve for the Executive Director, since he alleviates the latter of having certain discussions which are not relevant or are too uncomfortable to be addressed by the institution’s maximum authority.

Next week: part two of the interview.

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