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The onthinktanks interview: Laura Zommer (Part 2 of 3)

 This is the second part of a three-part interview of Laura Zommer, CIPPEC’s former director of communications. You can read the first part here.

Supposedly a think tank does not produce knowledge for the pleasure of it, but to modify reality and impact on it. With this objective, not investing in communication is a contradiction

Leandro Echt: What do you think are the main opportunities that think tanks currently have to transmit their work?

Laura Zommer: Generally, in Argentina there isn’t a production of information and research that is done in a timely and reliable manner for the political class. There’s a need for information, which opens a window for think tanks that are able to position themselves from a place that isn’t polarised. On the other hand, through the years politicians and journalists have learned to “squeeze the juice” out of these organisations, although without the intensity that we would like. Now, when a political actor wants to give legitimacy to a certain measure he thinks of think tanks, and ten years ago he wouldn’t have because he didn’t know any. Think tanks are the “voice of expertise”, even though political actors know who to call upon according to what’s most convenient for them. Another opportunity is the use of technology for certain campaigns. This hasn’t been explored much yet at CIPPEC; but it is a strong objective for my term at Chequeado.com.

LE: What similarities and differences are there when working for the press, the private sector, the government and civil society organisations?

LZ: I sometimes get angry at some of my colleagues’ criticism at politicians or journalist claiming that don’t pay attention to think tanks. In the majority of these cases, we must first think about what we are doing wrong, because the need for information exists: either we’re too slow about it, or it’s in the wrong format, or it comes from the wrong place, or we fail to call their attention. It’s not that think tanks are diamonds or gemstones and no one sees them or understands them; it’s us that don’t let ourselves be seen or understood. I always say that the advantage of these organisations is that the media and the majority of political actors think that when you talk to them from a think tank, you’re the voice that personifies the “public good”. However, we don’t always defend the public good, but a particular cause. For example, when we lobby for a law, we don’t fight for everyone’s interest, but that of a certain sector, and that isn’t always made explicit.

However, in the minds of journalists, when a think tank announces something, they trust that information. So you jump the first barrier. If I, as a journalist, get information from the government, the first thing I think of is what they’re withholding from me. If I get information from the private sector, the first thing I think of is that they want to make a profit by looking good. But when I get information from a think tank, the first thing I think of is “these people have exhausted themselves researching for so many months, and they’re telling me something that’s worthwhile and that serves everyone”. In any case, if I have misgivings, I think about who’s financing them, why they’re doing it, etc, but that’s a second barrier and in general I the think tank would have had to previously have done something wrong to that actor or journalist for that distrust to appear. So, the main advantage is that think tanks have an “aura of innocence” around them, and if they know how to use it, it can allow them to convey information without obstacles.

On the other hand, the main disadvantage, though manageable, is that you generally have few resources for communication, compared to the private or public sectors. I feel that at CIPPEC we wasted infinite opportunities for communication, not because we didn’t have ideas or content, but because we didn’t have the capacity for it. It’s easier when you have a team of twenty people instead of five. Or, for example, it’s better to hire a producer to make a video than to make it yourself. But I feel that this is all manageable, so long as the organisation has a certain social value because with donations from the private sector or associations, you can overcome this: there are many examples of campaigns donated by publicity agencies, but you have to find these opportunities, you have to know how to jump the barriers in your way. This is usually a problem for new organisations, the problem of the chicken or the egg: if you haven’t done anything relevant yet, your name doesn’t stand for anything, and it’s hard for a big agency or a trained professional to do anything for you, because they have a lot of other options to dedicate their time to. For organisations such as CIPPEC, resources can be gathered through associations or donations, but think tanks that are still relatively new have to figure out other ways.

LE: Which aspects of communication are specific of public policy research institutions?

LZ: I don’t think there’s an aspect that’s specific to research institutions. The first thing that comes to mind is that you must communicate something complex in a very simple manner. But this is something that must also be done in the private sector (for example, when a mining company has to convey the impact of open exploration, etc) and in the public sector (for example, when implementing a certain policy that is sensitive matter in terms of public opinion, but that has many long-term benefits – if explained in an inappropriate manner, it can fail). The same goes for internal organisational culture and processes: the challenges are the same in all sectors. I wouldn’t say that research institutions have a unique way of communicating. That’s why while looking for my replacement we didn’t think that it was essential for the person to have experience in think tank communication.

LE: In what way and how is communication linked to impact on public policy?

LZ: Communication and impact are intimately linked, much more than what many actors will admit. Discussing this is like discussing the role of communications in politics: it might not be clear that the role of communication is central, but it is.

Looking back at the experience and some mistakes made at CIPPEC, generally when we weren’t efficient in making an impact on policy it was because we didn’t find the way to get through to the right person. If you have serious research, with evident quality, the main problem is that you may not have the resources; the time or the energy to do everything it takes to get to the right person and in the way that they feel is convenient. And sometimes the person you get to is not the one that makes the decision. So, your impact could be presenting information to the government’s opposition so that the quality of debate improves even though they later lose, or presenting information to the government so that discussions with the private sector are less biased on economic interests. I consider that communication and impact are linked in a direct manner: in my eight years at CIPPEC, we never had impact with bad communication. In any case, there might not have been public communication because, of course, communication can also be done behind closed doors in a meeting with the advisor that the person who makes the decision listens to the most, and that can be your communication strategy.

One must not confuse good communication with public visibility. Sometimes communication is not public.

LE: What kind of strategies or tools have resulted most effective for CIPPEC when communicating with key actors in the public policy making process?

LZ: Since CIPPEC has a large range of programs, the relevant actors within each sector are diverse. Among the tools that have resulted most effective are policy briefs: brief documents, with an executive summary, that have to do with current and central national events. But going through CIPPEC publications, one can see that the programme that has had the most impact in the history of the institution, the Education Programme, has generated very few policy briefs. So it seems that something is not being considered here. One cannot talk about the state as if it were one. For example, the Ministry of Education’s employees are most likely to read a paper than the Ministry of Security’s employees, or the Justice’s employees. So, the most effective thing is to have a wide range of tools that, taking into account who you want to get in touch with and when, will let you transform your research into diverse formats.

For example, we used to publish more books than we do now, because we’ve decided that we’ll only do books when they generate value, whether that is in terms of innovation or if they’re the culmination of a process. But if you’re going to write a policy brief and you know that the community that makes up your audience will want more than a four to ten page document, you need to be backed up by an academic article or a book. The policy brief can be the tool that you can attribute the most impact to, but it’s only because there’s something behind it that supports it: when an actor calls you up to ask questions, you can answer him or her. The same thing goes for the short videos that CIPPEC is developing at the moment. Generally, CIPPEC’s public is made up of decision makers, journalists and donors.

For the elections in Santa Fe a film meant for the province’s voters was made on the Boleta Unica and it was very effective because that audience was more interested in getting informed about it with a 3 minute long film than by reading a document, even though it was only ten pages. A press release is also tedious if it’s a list of steps you have to follow to vote. So, making films is a good choice, but it’s not just the film: if someone was interested in it you can link them to a document, an academic article or a book, or you can contact that person with someone from your staff that can give him o her more information about what the film presents.

We are also conducting, alongside Enrique Mendizabal and the Politics and Governmental Administration Program at CIPPEC, an exercise on reflecting on how to communicate complex ideas, what the obstacles are, through the Boleta Unica case, for which CIPPEC is trying to convince that, besides its implementation, this program has to have certain particular characteristics. While doing this exercise we realised that there is a point that CIPPEC did not develop: when CIPPEC decided not to have more public visibility, because it got to the point that it’s more effective to have individual meetings with key actors, in this meetings it’s not the policy brief the tool that’s most effective, because the political actor in question isn’t going to read a ten pages paper. Perhaps with the policy brief you managed to identify who’s in favour and who’s against your proposal, but it doesn’t work for the meetings when you have to communicate complex ideas: a new way of presenting complex information must be found, which permits, for example, the synthesis that Prezi allows instead of Power Point, in which ideas aren’t chronological. What is needed is a tool that permits questions that can be answered and yet generate other questions at the same time. When this is developed it will be most effective.

LE: How can think tanks make the most of the opportunities that the internet gives in order to be more visible and to involve other actors and audiences in their proposals?

LZ: In CIPPEC we have conducted studies, along with Nick Scott, an expert on digital communication from the UK, who was working at CIPPEC for a few months. What we found is that, if the think tank has limited resources, the internet will not provide much, in the sense that designing a good 2.0 strategy is very intense in terms of human resources, since you must have a senior or semi senior member on call at all times. But if you don’t have the resources, when choosing whether you’ll use two hours per week of a director’s time for him to write in the press or appear in television instead of writing on the internet, you’ll go for the former because you can reproduce it on the web.

So, in order to make good use of digital communication you must think as a 2.0 organisation such as the Ciudadano Inteligente Foundation, whose logic is to reproduce discussions all the time on social media and the internet. And for that you must involve an online senior manager, but this must be an institutional decision, since you’d need the whole organization to respond immediately, meaning, it signifies a change In organisational culture (for example, it implies involving all of your directors and the Executive Director in the use of social media and the internet). But if you’re not going to make that decision, a good choice is to map how the internet works in your country, and later associate yourself with those institutions, mediums or individuals that can make your research visible at the opportune moment.

For example, one of Chequeado.com’s founder’s ideas was that, having the organisation the capacity to communicate, it could become an ally of other organisations that do not have all of the resources for this task at their disposition. There probably is, in any country, an institution, medium, journalist or intellectual that can be an affiliate of think tanks on a specific subject, if the communications team did not think itself as 2.0. Just like, a couple of years back, we thought that if we wrote an academic article or a book, the prologue should be written by somebody relevant or it should be co-authored with somebody senior, now you can think about associating yourself to an institution with the capacity to communicate your research via social media and the internet.

LE: Why should a think tank make a strong investment in communication?

LZ: Because supposedly a think tank does not produce knowledge for the pleasure of it, but to modify reality and impact on it. With this objective, not investing in communication is a contradiction. Even if you’ve discovered a great idea, if it stays on your computer’s Desktop you will have no impact. It will give you personal satisfaction if you’re a nerd or a computer rat, but it won’t have an impact.

Besides, from a more utilitarian point of view, I’m convinced that everything that a think tank invests in communication will return to the institution. What that means is that for many it may be difficult to enlarge the communications team instead of other teams, but I think that it’s convenient because good communication will surely bring more moneyin terms of individual donors and will leave the donor much more satisfied, because with good communication it’s more certain that the impact of a project will be larger. Unless it’s a donor that doesn’t care about impact, you need to communicate. Again, I’m not talking about communication in terms of public visibility, but that it can also be meetings with key private sector actors on the subject that you’ve researched, since they might be the ones that will have to bring up the proposal to the government and not you as a think tank.

Having a good communications team means having one or more individuals thinking about what to do with the results of the studies, the way to exploit them and not let them be forgotten by getting immediately involved in other projects. This is why I’ve insisted that all proposals must have a communications/dissemination phase before closing the project, so that the product reaches the intended audience.  Even if it’s four academics; if you don’t get to them then, the project will have been for nothing.

Next week: part three of the interview.

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