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

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

There can’t be effective research without communication

Leandro Echt: What is the value of evaluating policy impact from a communications point of view?

LZ: The value is quite high. At the same time, it’s also a weak point that many think tanks have. Since we do not have all the resources in the world, and until now we haven’t found donors interested in properly evaluating the impact of those projects they finance, it’s hard for an organisation to invest institutional funds to evaluate impact, because it has other priorities. So we evaluate in an amateur manner: we think that it works and we get on with it. It’s like in life, one keeps doing what one feels is successful. But sometimes it’s useful to stop and think about why we keep doing something. At CIPPEC, those who are most critical regarding communication are the team members themselves, because the team is aware of the communication possibilities that are lost every day.

When planning communication at CIPPEC metrics are established: one time they were more quantitative and now we have more qualitative indicators. If at first we would measure just the amount of mentions in the press, later we realized that if you have 1000 or 1500 mentions it’s really the same, but what you have to measure is how many of these mentions are in favour of or against the government, how many of these mentions are supporting an organisation that has value or prestige, etc. We made it more sophisticated within the team, but we never had an external evaluation that could help us tell researchers that, while their work was of high quality, it had medium to low impact and that they should stop investing human resources in that strategy because it wasn’t working. So, even though the value of measuring impact is high, so far at CIPPEC we have evaluated much less than what we could.

LE: What is the most appropriate balance between research and communication in a think tank?

LZ: In a think tank, there can’t be effective research without communication. But there is not one unique, appropriate balance: it depends on the research’s objective, on the results, on the context and opportunities. For example, a train accident can give you the opportunity to show case the evidence you came up with a few years ago on the Argentinean transportation system. The researcher will tell you that he has to update the research data, which is fine and would be ideal, but if the tendency or conclusions of what you researched didn’t change, then its best to communicate it as it is.

On the other hand, sometimes researchers arrive at interesting findings and sometimes they don’t, and one has to know when to give up and recognise that if a certain research didn’t produce anything interesting, the best thing a think tank can do is conduct “low intensity communication”: if you’re saying the same thing, if every academic read ten papers on the subject, then don’t do it, especially if you’re going to do it in the same format. It’s best to send it to the experts, with a low profile, telling them there’s nothing new under the sun and consider it over.

LE: What are the advantages of planning communication?

LZ: The advantages are huge, because communication is intrinsically linked to current events. Just like politicians are always dealing with “urgent matters” and not what’s important, the same goes for communication teams. Planning lets you have clear goals, and so you will only hasten work if it fits into these goals. If you don’t plan communication, the use of resources, which in general are scarce, is bad because you will always be adjusting little things in a very instrumental sense. For example, a programme asks you to help in designing an invitation for an event, but it turns out that they’ll only invite five donors. The communications team must know if it’s more of a priority to fix the invitation’s format or, for example, putting together a policy brief for another programme aimed at the whole political class. If these things aren’t planned, you run the risk that, in order to “play nice”, you end up using your time ineffectively.

LE: How do you handle the institution’s reputation when dealing with governments of a different political orientation? How do you maintain independence?

LZ: I’m convinced that you cannot communicate things that aren’t true. It only lasts for a while. You cannot appear to be independent if you’re dependent, or appear to be plural when all of your staff is the same. The first thing is to be consistent. It’s the same with governments as it is with journalists. A good idea is that, if you’re going to write an email, title it or begin the first paragraph with something from the research that will seem emphatic to the recipient. And then in the third or fourth paragraph, or after ten minutes into the meeting, let them know that, besides the results that they find convenient, the research gave other results, and ask them if they have something to say about it.

If you have quality research (which depends on having good staff) and if you’re really independent (that is, if you have diverse sources of funding and you’re willing to work with governments that have different political orientations), even though the government may criticise you for saying something in favour of the opposition and vice versa, your reputation is safe. This happens in reasonable contexts.

In polarised contexts, however, the think tank must be balanced at all times, and must calculate the moment and opportunity to communicate.

On the other hand, in order to take care of certain aspects of your reputation, in CIPPEC we have the Executive Committee, made up of the Executive Director, three program Directors, the Institutional Development Director and the Communications Director, in which a pros and cons analysis is done regarding sensitive subjects for finance or public positioning, and is discussed as a group.

I’m convinced that one of the virtues of CIPPEC is that it has people who think differently, and this difference, far from being a problem, is what gives it value. If we can overcome this collective barrier, externally there aren’t many other people different from us, at least not among the relevant actors.

Besides, independence is achieved by knowing when to say no. There might be projects that seem very relevant in the short term, but one must ask oneself how one will look in front of other actors, even if things go well. If the answer is that the independence of the institution will be compromised, then the answer should be no. But for that there must exist processes that analyse projects and raise questions; if you don’t have them, if in your organisation the projects only come to be because the Executive Director orders so after a meeting with a relevant actor, no matter how much of an expert that Director is, he might not realise the negative effects that programme may have for the organisation. For example, if someone from the media wants to convince you to strike a deal to write for it, one must think how other media will read it, what is won and what is lost, etc.

LE: When it comes to organisations with several different programmes, what do you consider is the adequate balance between centralising communication and leaving it up to each programme?

LZ: I do not believe there is one answer to that question. It depends on the size of the organisation (the amount of people it has), the level of seniority and the quality of the programmes, and on how diverse the institution is and what kind of leaders it has. For example, if your organisation only focuses on social development topics, even through different programmes, but with different approaches to the subject, you´ll worry less about centralising communication. CIPPEC’s particular characteristic is that it has different themes, with very different approaches and with different types of Directors in ideological terms. Not centralising communication in this case can lead to losing coherence as an institution. If you let each one do what it feels that is best for its sector, it may not be the best thing for another sector. For example, the Education Program could be working with a Ministry of a certain province, and at the same time a project on subsidy transparency in that province comes up and creates a huge problem for the Governor. In that case, you need to coordinate communication. As for the quality of the programs, CIPPEC has programs that work with different standards of quality. As Communications Director I have to admit that for some programs communications centralisation was a drag, because they would probably do very well without the communications team, with acceptable standards of quality, or even superior to other programs that count with the communications team’s support. But when you have different standards of quality within the organization, centralising communication guarantees a certain base.

LE: What audiences should research institutions focus on?

LZ: It depends on the organisation, if it’s geared more towards academia or towards public policy. For example, if you work towards positioning certain issues in the public agenda, your key audience might be journalists or social media. At CIPPEC, we spoke more with the media than with politicians at first, because the latter didn’t pay us attention, and so we communicated with them via the media. Afterwards, when the political actors began to get to know CIPPEC more, we began addressing them directly. But at first, politicians would only answer the phone after you published something in the press. The logic then would be “tell me in what phase your institution is and I’ll tell you which audience you should focus on”. If you’re not a known brand, your objective will probably be the press or the population (if you’re looking towards mobilisation). If you’re already inserted in the public arena, your main audience will probably be relevant political actors for the issues you’re focusing on. And only later would I include academia and mass audiences. Also, it might be more beneficial for an institution to associate itself with a prestigious academic centre in countries with a strong, legitimate academia.

LE: What audience is more difficult to reach?

LZ: I think there are no audiences that are impossible to reach, you always have to find the window. But in the case of Argentina today, it is difficult for CIPPEC to engage the National Government because it has the power, many votes and doesn’t need evidence to justify their decisions. But there were probably things that we should have done ​​to find the right direction and we haven’t done yet.

LE: What should be the middle ground between external and internal communications?

LZ: When I began my job at CIPPEC, I was the only member of the Communications department; therefore I didn’t have the time to focus on internal communications. We had a weekly bulletin put together by the whole organisation and distributed by the Communications department. The Executive Director would also call a meeting once a year in order to work on internal communications. However, it is impossible to develop sophisticated internal communications strategies if there is not a team in charge of doing so.  Human resources are of vital importance, especially in a research institute, because they will not be able to work in an efficient and effective way if they feel unmotivated. In this way internal communications are important. Nonetheless, if you have a small team they should focus first on having good public relations.

LE: If you could give three main points of advice to the leader of a communication team who wishes to improve this process in their organisation, what would they be?

LZ: First of all, I would advise them to plan their work. They must also be fully committed to their team, since 30% of 40% of the time every action they make will be based on the current situation. Therefore, you need a flexible plan in order to be able to take advantage of the different opportunities that may arise. If this is not done, then they won’t be able to build effective communication strategies.

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