The most recent meeting of Latin American think tanks held last month in Rio de Janeiro was a moment of reflection on the challenges and opportunities that think tanks in Latin America face when trying to impact and influence the development of better public policies for the region.
Posts by Leandro Echt
Latin American think tanks have been meeting each other and sharing lessons for a very long time. In the last decade, a number of efforts have slowly helped build a community of practice that is, now, coming of age. The future of think tank collaboration in the region looks bright.
In this opportunity I interviewed Monica Galilea, formerly responsible for communication at the Centro de Analisis y Difusion de la Economía Paraguaya (CADEP), a think tank in Paraguay. Monica tells us about the process that led to the institutionalisation of communication processes within CADEP, why they decided to create a communication area and what were its attributions.
This discussion with Dolores Arrieta, Coordinator of Communication at CIPPEC, reflects on the process CIPPEC follows to improve the quality of its production.
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.
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.
[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.