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Supporting think tanks to develop their communication capacities: organisations not projects

Over the last 6 months or so I have been working with four Latin American think tanks helping them to develop or strengthen their organisational communication strategies. The approach taken is based on a review of several recent experiences about which Martine Zeuthen and I wrote back in January 2012.

If I had to summarise the process I’d say that it is focused on the organisations (and not on projects) and is led by the communication leads (and not the consultants (me, in this case) or the funders/clients). 

Last month we met in Buenos Aires to take stock of the experience so far, help each other, and plan the next phase of the process. I want to use this blog post to reflect on the last 6 months and the day itself as well as share whatever lessons I think we’ve learned.

First, a short recap. This initiative suggested a few changes to the usual approach:

  • Instead of working to develop the communications of a single project (the project paying for part of my time) I have worked with the think tanks to develop first their organisational communication strategies and then, and only then, communication plans for the project. The idea is simple. If a think tank has a strategy: with clearly identified channels and tools, it can use these for any project it is working on without having to reinvent the wheel every time.
  • Instead of workshops I suggested that we worked over a longer period of time; with them on the lead and me helping them with information, advice, contacting them with relevant people, looking for examples, etc. The meeting last month was the first ‘workshop’; but there were no models, no frameworks, no tools, no flipcharts, no colour markers… thank god.
  • I assumed that they were already communicating and that what they needed was to build on their strengths.
  • Instead of doing most of the work myself, I made them work quite a lot. The initial diagnostic I sent them was really long. In a way, if they had not filled it up then it would have been a clear indicator that they were not that interested –or just did not have the time to go through the process I was going to ask them to go through. And even then, the diagnostic was not the first step in the process. I talked to all of them and discusses their needs and process before I signed the contract and agreed to work on the project.
  • It was also quite clear from the beginning that there had to be a leader in each organisation. They had to lead the development of a strategy for their organisations; that could never me my job. But it was also quiet clear from my conversations with them before starting that they were perfectly capable of and committed to a significant reform.
  • I tried, as much as I could, to make it clear that I was working for them and not for the project –and it helped that funding for my time and support came from three sources: a GDN/R4D led project, GDNet who are focused on organisational development, and my own resources which I dedicate to the study and support of think tanks whenever I find something interesting and worth my while.  I think this helped.

So the approach, step by step:

  1. First, as I said, I talked to the think tanks. FUNDESA, CIEP, CIUP and CIPPEC. CIPPEC has a pretty solid organisational strategy (although it does need to pay greater attention to its online communication efforts –but this is something that it is doing already) and so my work with them was less hands-on than with the others. In fact, I drew quite a lot of ideas and support from them for the other think tanks. Anyway, the conversations with the think tanks focused on trying to understand them, to explain the approach I was going to put forward, the work that I was going to expect them to put into the process, etc.
  2. Then I emailed them with my proposal (this is before signing and contract, by the way). They commented on the proposal (for the support process) and only then I submitted it to the project managers, GDN and R4D.
  3. After signing the contract, the project-proper started with a diagnostic. I had prepared a draft already for a couple of reviews of think tanks I had done and so worked a bit more on it for the Latin American think tanks. I already knew a bit what to expect. I knew, for instance, that CIPPEC was going to take quite some time to complete it as its communications strategy is rather developed. If I am honest I thought they were going to tell me that they were too busy for it; but I was wrong. This was a good sign that they were interested and committed. All the other counterparts completed their diagnostic questionnaires and we then had a few follow-up conversations to fill some gaps and answer some questions I had.
  4. Based on the diagnostic I then suggested a slightly adjusted process and some ‘products’ that I was going to offer. I had to try to develop economies of scale due to the limited time I had to offer but I think that in the end having something that I gave all at the same time also made it easier to focus and to keep up the links with all throughout the process.  The products to deliver where:
    1. A list of channels and tools that think tanks can use in their communications and some guidance on how to choose the right mix for an organisation
    2. A review of types and the use of videos for think tanks
    3. A review of types of digital/online semi-academic publications
    4. Reserved places on an online workshop on research communications for them or someone else in their organisations. The workshop is managed by CIPPEC with GDNet.
    5. And, although this is slightly outside of the scope and ‘if’ I can get extra resources, a monitoring dashboard.
  5. The idea was that these would help them to develop their organisational strategies and once they had done this they would choose the right sub-set of channels and tools for the GDN/R4D project. This way, if they developed a new policy brief template, or a new video format, or a new website, etc. it would be consistent with the organisation’s strategy (objectives, approach, branding, etc.). They would not end up with yet another unrelated set of communication outputs that the centres were unlikely to use ever again.
  6. In practice, the centres sort of worked on both at the same time and some were already in the middle of developing and implementing changes to their communications so the process simply strengthened what was already going on. All now have at least a draft communication strategy for the organisations and are taking steps to implementing them. And this, it must be stressed, as been done by the communication leaders in each centre; not by me.
  7. The event in Buenos Aires was simply an opportunity that arose out of the broader project cycle. We had discussed it but had not been planned. More on this below.
  8. The plan for the future is that the centres will be implementing the strategies (for the project) in a way that helps them to develop their communication capacities (for the organisations). Over the next few months then I will try to help by contacting experts (e.g. Nick Scott is going to talk to all the four think tanks’ communicators on how to develop an online communications strategy in November) or simply offering to review their progress. They too will be helping one another by collaborating on specific communication products and reviewing each other’s work.
  9. Implementation will continue until about March 2013 so at some point in the new year we should organise an After Action Review that I will facilitate. This will help identify and share lessons with the wider project (the GDN/R4D project is also being implemented in Africa and Asia) and, of course, other centres. Already some lessons have been shared with think tanks and funders and I think that they have inspired some to try new things themselves.

The meeting in Buenos Aires

I should start by saying that the meeting in Buenos Aires was one of the most interesting ones I’ve had the chance to be a part of. In general, I have a good time working with Latin American think tanks: it is never boring.

The agenda for the day of communications and policy engagement (the previous two days had been focused on the research components of the project –going over the studies with peer reviewers and discussing the methods and findings) was as follows:

  • Presentation of the strategies (organisational level and project)
  • Discussion on communication challenges for think tanks or policy research institutes (it could continue into lunch)
  • Working lunch with CIPPEC’s communications team
  • Presentation and feedback on the research communications course that CIPPEC is developing.
  • Open discussion and next steps -including further support requests, etc.

There weren’t any tools, flip-charts, coloured markers, or exercises. We simply went around the room presenting plans and ideas; questions were asked; and lots of experience was shared.

In the end, I have the impression that each of the communication officers or leaders were able to get feedback on their strategies and even answers to specific questions they had. In response to these, Leandro Ecth and I prepared the following lists of resources (edited to focus on the links):

From me:

The following are links in Spanish provided by Leandro:

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