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Posts tagged ‘media’

Thinking strategically to ‘Catch’ the Media’s Attention

Arushi Sen writes about CSTEP's experience working with the media in India. She argues that the media is a political and economic player and that a think tank's strategy towards it must take this into account.

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Playing to the Gallery (and the uses of typologies)

Some think tanks, like artists, prefer to be recognised only by their peers. They do not care much for recognition beyond their own industries and even look down on colleagues that do. This slightly light-hearted typology of think tanks may help them think about their place in their societies.

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Think tanks and their key audiences: what do they have to say?

In this event, co-organised by On Think Tanks and IEP in Peru, we ask think tanks' audiences how they prefer to access information and knowledge. A politician, a journalist, and a researcher provide their opinions and experiences to inform think tanks' strategies.

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The onthinktanks interview: Mónica Galilea, CADEP’s former Director of Communications

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.

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Think Tank Initiative 2012 Exchange: Sustaining quality in social policy research – lessons learned from institutional approaches

This is the third set of videos from the TTI Exchange sessions. This panel was about reviewing the lessons learned from institutional approaches on sustaining quality in social policy research.

First up was Rajeev Bhargava of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

Rajeev points out several factors that help nurture quality research. Some of these are creating a milieu that acknowledges that academics “get it right”: they grasp what is going on and strive for internal goods such as truth and plausibility. However, research also produces external goods, such as power, and think tanks can be lured by these goods, which is why they should not become the aim of research practice. He also emphasizes evidence based research and the importance of pluralism in any good institution.

Watch Rajeev’s talk:

Next was Mahmood Mamdani of the Makerere Institute of Social Research

Mahmood points out that while think tanks’ goal is to generate public debate on issues of public policy, researchers cannot assume that there is a causal relationship between policy makers and researchers. Academics must also not forget that the relationship between think tanks and policy makers stems from the understanding that think tanks are autonomous, and that the public agenda is not defined by the existing scope of public policy.

Watch Mahmood’s talk: 

Sukhadeo Thorat of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR)

Sukhadeo stresses that sustainable policy demands that all policy suggestions are based on a realistic understanding of the issue at hand. Research is understanding, and policy is action based on understanding. This is why methodology is also an extremely important factor in research. He also states that ideal solutions may not be politically acceptable, so research should always try to offer more than one solution.

Watch Sukhadeo’s talk: 

And finally, Roxana Barrantes of the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP) 

Roxana first gives an account of the history of research institutions in Latin America, particularly in Peru, to point out that for strong academic contribution to knowledge, you need strong academic leadership. She mentions a couple of well known Latin American intellectuals and their impact on research and policy, and also emphasizes the importance of attracting young talent from universities.

Watch Roxana’s talk: 

Digital tools for think tanks: videos

We have put together some examples of the types of videos that think tanks can use for several purposes, as part of an initiative to illustrate the array of communication tools available. The videos have been taken from several well known think tanks, such as Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as from universities such as Stanford. In addition, the Igarape Institute has shared some of its own experiences: Video and data visualisation examples for think tanks, from the Igarape Institute.

Types of videos

MOOCs: Perfect for academic think tanks or think tanks associated to universities

The first type of video that a think tank can use is a MOOC – a massive open online course. Stanford’s School of Engineering has been offering these types of courses since 2011, as part of a program called Stanford Engineering Everywhere. MOOCs not only entail videos but other course material such as handouts, assignments and exams, which can be downloaded. MOOC videos are usually in lecture format, and include charts, graphs and text, to help emphazise important ideas. Their target audience is quite broad, as they are directed towards anyone who wishes to take an online course from these universities.

Recently there have been several initiatives and projects to spread the use of MOOCs. In May of this year, Harvard College and the Massachussetts Institute of Technology launched edX, a site that offers free online courses taught by Harvard and MIT professors. They were later joined by the University of California – Berkeley. Another such project is Coursera, also launched this year by sixteen universities including Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and Princeton University. Coursera offers, to date, 116 courses on a wide variety of topics.

Promo: better than a static ‘about us’ page

The second type of video is promotional. These are meant to provide viewers an overview of what the think tank is about, and what ideas the institution will put foward. The Council on Foreign Relations has an interesting promotional video (with celebrities included) that explains the importance of an institution of its nature. Each speaker gives his or her opinion on why paying attention to world affairs and global politics is important, and how the Council on Foreign Relations contributes to knowledge and policy on these topics.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) also put together a series of promotional videos for their 50th anniversary, in which they ask ODI staff members or directors of other think tanks and institutions what they think has been ODI’s greatest contribution to the field of development, and what changes would they like to see in this field by 2050.

Animations: excellent to get the main arguments of a study across to a wide as well as a more focused audience

The third example is an animated video. Animations must be visually atractive, and have the purpose of explaining complex processes in a simple and engaging manner. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), a British charity that supports innovative research and development projects, has a series of animated videos discussing topics such as the financial crisis. These kinds of videos may be used to target younger audiences in a less academic format. In the example below, they discuss whether or not the world should begin considering another type of economic model, considering the recent global financial crisis:

The Argentinean think tank Centro de Implementacion de Politicas Publicas para la Equidad y el  Crecimiento (CIPPEC), alongside Nitaplan, a Nicaraguan institute focused on local, urban and rural development, created a series of animated videos (in Spanish) explaining issues such as the wood industry and its relation with poverty in Nicaragua. Unlike RSA’s videos, these are directed towards a more technical, academic audience.

CIPPEC also has animated videos that explain problems in national issues such as the Argentinean health care system, public transport, and the public education system.These videos are also directed more towards individuals who have interest in academia and public policy.

Talking heads: why not have the researcher say it him or herself?

There are also videos of interviews and debates on particular topics. Interviews are usually in ‘talking head’ format, meaning that the camera focuses only on the speaker while they are giving their view on an issue or explaining a topic. Brookings has many such videos of known public service officials, politicians and intellectuals:

Think tanks can also illustrate the impact of certain policies that they may or may not support by interviewing those individuals affected by said policy. The Centre for American Progress conducted interviews of young Americans asking them what no cost birth control, as upheld by Obamacare, meant to them:

Or simply use the video to give the researcher an opportunity to present his or her ideas directly to the reader. This is an example of a video made with very low tech by the new Policy Monitoring and Research Centre in Zambia:

Debates and events

Debates and events can also be recorded, as well as press briefings. The latter are used to announce research results that may have a possible impact on policy, such as this video by the Centre on Strategic and International Studies on its report delivered to Congress on U.S. posture strategy in the Asia – Pacific Region:

Debates and events can be broadcast live and may be recorded so that it is more available to those who could not attend. Ustream is a great tool for this and can be set up rather quickly. Your laptop’s webcam will be enough in most situations.

What do do with the videos?

It is necessary to consider the best way to transmit academic knowledge through videos. Format and length are important, since the goal is to hold the attention of the viewer. However, academics can’t solely rely on charisma and trust when communicating to online viewers. Even though traditional academic teaching methods aren’t suited for video format (except, perhaps, MOOCs), we are still dealing with knowledge that must be backed up by evidence, something that short videos do not always allow. If  veracity is an issue, then think tanks should employ additional materials that provide supporting evidence for what they transmit through video.

There are several distribution channels available that think tanks can use. The two most used channels are through the institutional web page, as a separate page, or through a YouTube channel. Most of the examples in this blog came from the organisations’ YouTube channels, and these could be found on links in the institutional web page or through a YouTube search.

Other distribution channels are, for example, Storify, Socialcam and Vimeo. Storify is a very interesting tool that allows organisations to create narratives by bringing together media that is found across the Web, and embed them on other web pages. Think tanks could make their videos even more attractive by adding Twitter conversations and photographs that are relevant to the video content, thus creating a more compelling story. Storify offers a tour to teach users how to use its service.

Socialcam is a smartphone app, similar to Instagram but for videos, that allows the user to upload videos from their phone, edit them, and share them with other Socialcam users. Finally, Vimeo is another video sharing site, whose main difference with YouTube is that it allows uploading unlimited HD videos for a monthly fee. Vimeo, Storify and Socialcam all allow sharing on Facebook and Twitter.

Do you know any other examples of the types of videos that think tanks can use to communicate to their audiences? If so, please add them below.

Explaining controversial issues to the media and to the public: a practical guide.

Robert Ward has published a quick practical guide (in Spanish) on the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) on how academics and scientists can explain controversial issues to the media and to the public. Every so often research findings may cause controversy regarding their implications, especially when they imply having to change people’s behaviours, and thus researchers must know how to explain these findings with clarity, honesty, and ease.

The first step is to identify beforehand what interests the public and the media, so it is useful to anticipate the questions that they will have. These two audiences are usually most interested in the implications that the research in question will have on the lives of the public. If this is not entirely clear to academics or scientists, they should to ask other specialists such as public policy makers, who may have more experience regarding the potential impact that the research findings could have on the public (if it were to be implemented). If the implications have not been considered, it is best to admit to this rather than speculate.

Researchers must also practice how to speak about the controversial issue with the public and the media. Technical language should be left aside. Conflicts must be acknowledged and their existence thoroughly explained, even if the researcher is trapped in a potential conflict of interest.

A journalist that senses that a scientist is not being completely honest about a controversy will usually feel compelled to further investigate, and may cause dispute among those who have a stake on the consequences of the research findings.

Questions regarding security and risk are of particular importance. Sometimes, researchers who do not want to compromise themselves with these types of questions cause controversy without meaning to. If qualified to evaluate risk, for instance, researchers should try to do so going beyond a simple yes or no answer. However, if they are not, they should say so and suggest somebody who is capable.

Finally, it is important to practice discussing issues that may cause debate or polarization. Researchers should consult with communications professionals, but must always be sure that whatever is presented to the press is expressed in a way that is not inexact or deceitful.

Furthermore, we should not forget that the media has its own agenda; it is not a passive actor waiting to be ‘used’ (researchers are unlikely to ever be able to ‘use’ the media). For example, Chile’s El Mercurio developed a strategy to influence the Chilean government that any researchers wanting to work with the newspaper would have taken into account.

More manuals and guides can be found here.

Add salt to your communications strategy

Think tanks and research programmes are increasingly turning to the web as a channel of communication. They are setting up blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and signing up to as many social networks as they can in the hopes of reaching hundreds or thousands of readers. But how likely is it that their followers will be in the thousands rather than the hundreds?

For VoxEU, an initiative of CEPR, hundreds of thousands is more accurate. Some of its posts have been read well over 500,000 times.  But VoxEU is the exception to the rule. To begin with, it is an economics opinion site and economists are everywhere and always keen to read about economics; furthermore, even non-economists like to read about economics; it was launched right at the time of the financial crisis; and some of its contributors are columnists for mayor publications who help to keep up the site’s popularity.

But what chance does a biologist or a food safety expert have of consistently getting more than a few hundred web hits on their personal or organizational blogs? Not much.

The same goes for most social scientists. Research on migration, culture, livestock, sustainable development, local economic development, and other such issues can be, let’s face it, rather boring for the general public. And making it ‘sexier’ for mass consumption is probably not the best use of a researcher’s work or time.

Enter The Salt. The Salt is a food blog at the National Public Radio launched in september 2011 that, according to Host and Reporter Eliza Barclay, seeks to:

connect the dots between issues like food safety, the livestock industry, the meat labels in the grocery store, and the hamburger you actually eat.

Blogs like The Salt may offer an opportunity for scientists, veterinarians, economists, sociologists, and many other hard-nosed researchers to get their research out there and into the public eye.

The Salt is not a typical food blog. Its reporters generally do not write about trendy new restaurants or foods. Instead it reports on the political economy of what we eat. And because it is in effect a media outlet it tries to be interesting, accessible, and has the potential to reach millions.

The Salt’s approach works well for other concerns of the international development community -and of many think tanks: Pro-poor tourism, for example, could be a great topic to tackle. Not a travel blog but a blog about the political economy of travel that makes use of research on value chains, the roles of indigenous communities, the sustainability of use of resources, security, climate change, taxation, trade in services, etc. Rural development could consider blogs on global trends such as coffee or or cacao as ways to capture people’s attention. I went to London’s Coffee Festival last month and there were opportunities to discuss the science, politics, economics, and social dimension of coffee at every corner. But all brought tot life by the baristas demonstrations and the smells and tastes of coffee.

DFID and the Gates Foundation fund a great deal of research on health. But as hard as they try, single organisations or programmes will always struggle to get beyond their immediate professional networks (with the exception of maybe one or two articles in the press). But what if all this health research found an outlet in a sort of Health Vox or a Health Salt? Health is an increasingly compelling issue across the world and particularly for middle classes in the developing world: healthy living is a perfect hook into the realities of health and health services in many developing countries and a blog that tackles these is likely to capture the attention of a growing audience.

A word of warning, though: The Salt and VoxEU work because they are focused on the content and not on the cause. Their mission is to inform and not to promote any one position or view. Reporters at The Salt are free to seek out and develop their own stories, which are driven by a number of factors. According to Barclay:

We find stories on other blogs, other media outlets, news events, Twitter, and also our own intellectual musings. My bacon post (which I did for our health blog before The Salt existed) is a good example of that. University communications people pitch us ideas from new academic research or sometimes they repackage old stuff… we cover some of that, especially new health and science findings related to food, health, nutrition, agriculture, etc.

The relationship between academia and journalists is important for this to work. And this is further facilitated by the specialisation of the journalists. Eliza Barclay, for example, has an undergraduate degree in science and a master’s in  science journalism. She and her colleagues at The Salt are all part of the NPR’s Science Desk. As a consequence, The Salt blog is more science-based than other food blogs. This makes it distinct and allows it to dive in and cover a lot of issues that are probably missed by others.

When thinking of how to communicate their work think tanks and programmes ought to consider if media such as these already exist. If they don’t why not help develop them or even rebrand their blogs along those lines?

Communications handbook for research programmes

I often say that when it comes to communications, just like with any other activity, one should rely on professionals -or at least those who know and have the experience. It is often tempting to add ‘capacity development’ to a proposal in the hope that the donor will prefer to fund us: after all our project would not just communicate research but also build the capacity of researchers to communicate their research in the future.

This is ok but the fact is that most researchers in the centres that excel at communications don’t do much themselves -other than directly engaging with their networks and contacts (which is crucial but not what this is about). They have teams of professionals to do it for them. At ODI, I had Jeff Knezovich to do most of our ‘professional comms’.  Getting things right in those circumstances is therefore not very difficult.

But when the organisations are small and there aren’t any communications professionals to help some new skills may have to be introduced. One thing that the lead organisations (in the case of large research programmes) or the funders could do right at the start is develop a handbook describing the range of communication tools and channels that researchers in the project may want or need to use.

This is what a DFID project focused on health in developing countries has done. Communications manager, Lara Brehmer, has written a Field Communications Toolkit that covers most of the tools that are usually used in these types of programmes. And they are also quite relevant for many think tanks regardless of whether they are focusing on health research or not.

View this document on Scribd

The toolkit covers quite a lot and is quite clear and easy to follow. I would encourage you to give it a go, and maybe even edit it with examples from your own context and sectors. There is no reason why you should not use what has already been done: and there are plenty of manuals and toolkits that can help (reference them of course).

You can also download the document here.

A pragmatic guide to monitoring and evaluating research communications using digital tools

M&E of research communications isn’t easy. Given the complexity of policy cycles, examples of one particular action making a difference are often disappointingly rare, and it is even harder to attribute each to the quality of the research, the management of it, or the delivery of communications around it. This blog outlines some of the lessons I’ve learnt in the process of creating the dashboard and investigating the data, a framework I’ve developed for assessing success, and list some of the key digital tools I’ve encountered that are useful for M&E of research communications.

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