Communicating results – the Managing Think Tanks Series

8 April 2013
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

In this blog we have put much importance on communicating research, findings and results as a part of the policy influencing (and research making) process. It does not do much good when, even when having high quality research, you cannot make said work reach your intended audience.

This week’s Managing Think Tanks chapter provides practical guidelines on how think tanks can establish an effective communication program. It uses the term communication rather than dissemination because the former denotes a process that starts at the beginning of the research project with the identification of policy clients, goes on to define products to meet the needs of the various intended audiences and then updates the plan as needed as the project evolves.

The chapter goes over marketing literature in order to lay out seven step for developing a communication plan for a specific product, and how to make them more effective.

The step by step process is as follows:

  1. Identify the target audience;
  2. Determine the communication objective for each audience;
  3. Select the communications channels;
  4. Design the message;
  5. Establish the budget for communications for this project;
  6. Decide on the communications mix, and;
  7. Measure the communications results.

These steps seem straightforward enough, but complications can always arise. In order to avoid them, the chapter provides tips on making the process work. It is important to have experience, for instance, with other public relations officials, journalists and public officials. Clear language is key to communicate the message in the manner intended, both by bringing in a trained journalist that can “translate” the language of the research or to improve the quality of the researchers’ writing. The need for training in TV and radio appearances is even greater.

What are think tanks in developing and transitional countries doing to better communicate their work? Organisations from the former Soviet bloc were interviewed, as well as from Africa. Regarding the Soviet bloc think tanks, most think tank leaders signalled that personal contacts were the basis for their involvement with policy makers. When it came to publications, two-thirds of the organisations reported a 20% allocation of professional staff effort in writing publications, some effort going to research and consulting, seminars, and sometimes training. All of them distribute some form of free publication.

Over 80 percent of the former Soviet bloc think tanks had a targeting strategy for circulation of their free publications:

Sixty-eight percent sent publications directly to policymakers, who were targeted by using a mailing list of officials interested in the topic of the publication, or distributing the publications at seminars policymakers attend.

Several think tanks noted that the distribution and targeting of publications produced with grant monies are governed by conditions in grant agreements.

They generally considered short documents to be the best type of publication to reach policymakers.

There appears to be a noticeable difference between the results for the former Soviet bloc think tanks and the results of the sub-Saharan African think tanks (although the two studies are not comparable). The latter places emphasis on the importance of concise memos among think tanks from this region.

Finally, the chapter addresses who should be involved in developing a communications plan and where the responsibility for the development and execution of the overall communications plan should be placed within the think tank. In larger, Western think tanks, there is usually a separate office for communications that is mostly in charge of both public relations and publications. In smaller think tanks, the communications function can be shared by senior management and the public relations office.

As for when, the communications team should always meet near the beginning of a project – the seven step process laid out above can guide the preparation for the plan.