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3 lessons from working with African think tanks

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[Editor's note: Richard Darlington (@RDarlo) is Head of News at the UK domestic policy think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in London and a founding member of the WonkComms global network.]

  1. World-class communications is within your grasp
  2. Having your own network can really help
  3. Only when you’re five thousand miles from home, can you see where you’re going wrong

Earlier this year, I spent some time in Nairobi with think tanks from Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia, discussing their communications challenges. Here are a few things I came back having learned.

World-class communications is within your grasp

Before you visit Africa, you already know that the continent is home to some of the fastest growing emerging economies and that African’s are skipping stages of development. Rural homes that are ‘off-grid’ are powered by solar panels. Entire towns that only ever had a hand full of landline telephones now have hundreds of mobiles phones. While Europeans queue at high-street bank branches, Africans enjoy mobile banking.image001

And so it is for think tanks. The digital communications revolution allows African think tanks to skip stages of development but few are making the most of the opportunities.

You meet people who are frustrated by their sense that the only way to get their research report covered in newspapers is by putting on a lavish lunch in a high-end hotel and hosting an expensive launch event. Others tell you that there is no point sending a journalist a press release without also sending a payment, not just for them but for their boss and even their boss’s boss.

But on the same trip, eyes light up when you show clean and clear info-graphics that you produced in house, short animations that you commissioned quickly and simply and high definition videos made by freelance camera crews and editors who do regular shift work for international TV broadcasters.

Digital is a leveller for think tanks. But only think tanks with a strategic approach to communications are able to make the most of the opportunity.

An African think tank can create a Wall Street journal quality data visualisation. An African think tank’s YouTube channel can be CNN standard. And a think tank’s reports can be as accessible as the latest issue of The Economist or as creatively engaging as a classic graphic novel. It’s about getting the right communications vehicle to deliver the right message to the right audience.

Ruthless and strategic prioritisation of your key audiences must come first. Message development, combined with testing and evaluation, comes next. Only then should you get digitally creative. If you really know who you want to reach and think hard about the best way to reach them, you can’t be ignored. Today, world-class communications is in your grasp.

Having your own network can really help

There are lots of information exchanges, conference, meeting and wimage002orkshops you could attend. But you’ll get the most out of them if they are either part of an ongoing network or they lead to the setting up of a network.

Back home, I gave a talk on ‘the future of think tank communications’ back in 2013. Two colleagues at other think tanks spotted the live tweets. Together, the three of us repeated the event and our hashtag (WonkComms) began to trend. At the end of the event we were mobbed the audience asking us when the next event was going to be.

So in Africa, when I led a workshop on strategic communications, I picked a hashtag before we began and we formed the network on the day. Before we were done, we’d decided how we would stay in touch and when we would next meet.

Strategic communications is an ongoing conversation, not a final destination. A communication plan is a process, not a document. And a network of fellow professionals around the world can become a more valuable community of practice than the one you share with your colleagues in your own office.

Alongside research and development, don’t be afraid to ‘rob and replicate’. You should never need to reinvent the wheel. Having your own network can really help.

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Only when you’re five thousand miles from home, can you see where you’re going wrong

We’re all really busy. Often, we’re on auto-pilot. But when you’re five thousand miles from home, you need to explain why you would automatically do something the way you always do it. You’re forced to justify your advice. You’re challenged to reflect on your practice. And that helps you see where you’ve been going wrong.

But you can’t pretend to be an expert in everything. And that’s fundamental to me. Because my day-to-day job is at a domestic policy think tank, rather than an international development think tank, I don’t have an agenda. All I want to do is help think tanks in Africa get better at what they do. I don’t want to tell them what they should be doing.

It’s a catalytic experience. In time, I’m sure all think tanks will go through this process; become more strategic and embrace the digital communication revolution. In the meantime, I’m keen to help speed up that process.

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