Communications for policymaking organisations: an interview with Anya Pearson, Sophie Hall, and Tom Hampson from Soapbox

18 October 2016
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

Soapbox is a policy communications agency based in London. Founded in 2008, their experience spans projects including publication design, branding, animation and film, and research and strategy for over 150 clients. Their team is composed of designers, filmmakers, developers, communications advisers, production managers, and editors.

I had the opportunity to visit Soapbox in June and meet their policy communications team: policy communications advisors Anya Pearson and Sophie Hall, and partner Tom Hampson. Before joining the team, Anya worked at the Fabian Society, a London-based think tank. Prior to that, she worked in a variety of policy research roles at other think tanks, including the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank. Sophie joined Soapbox in May of this year and previously worked at the Overseas Development Institute in a publications and communications role. Before that, she worked at the International Labour Organisation. Tom is a partner at Soapbox, and is involved in the new business side. He comes from a background of working with think tanks, such as the Fabian Society and Demos, and communications design work.

“The role of policy communications advisors, as for a few of the rest of us, is to add value to the services we offer our clients,” Tom explains. “It is very important for us to engage with clients at a deeper level, and understand at a very contentful level their research, their ideas, and their data.”

EPL: What is the role of the policy communications team at Soapbox, and why is it important that policy communications are involved in the early stages of a project?

AP: Our role can vary depending on the project and the people we are working with. We get involved in a project right at the beginning, from the moment we get in touch with an organisation or they get in touch with us. We become a sort of internal representation of the client, making sure that their brief is being followed and their views are represented. We act as the intermediary between the creatives – usually a few designers and developers – and the client, communicating between the two throughout a project, and we keep in touch with the client after the project is finished.

SH: The follow-up process to each project is fairly qualitative. We do measure analytics for websites and that kind of thing, but it’s more about checking in with the client and finding out how these communication activities have added value to their work and achieved their objectives.

TH: In terms of the organisation of a project, it’s really important to factor communications in early on. Apart from everything else, think about it in terms of budget. As we all know, communications is something that will very easily get squeezed out if you don’t think about it until you’re too far down the line – it’s often the first thing that gets removed from a project. So, it’s quite important that it gets planned in quite early on. Also, slightly deeper than that, the discipline of thinking about your audience – who you are engaging with, how you are going to communicate things with clarity and simplicity – is a very useful way of ensuring that you have clarity throughout a project and that communications isn’t just an add-on at the end.

AP: We’ve been thinking a lot about how early communications interventions can lead to better shaped messages, and a sense that a whole organisation knows very clearly what is trying to be communicated from the start. It clarifies internal discussions and thinking before it’s too late to change path.

SH: When you’re nailing down your communications subject, it’s a good chance to see what everybody in the project – researchers, programme staff, even external partners – are thinking, what their objectives might be, and agree on a set that you’re going to go forward with.

EPL: What do you think is a successful process for producing communication products?

TH: In our experience, collaboration is the most important part, and that works in both directions. We only employ designers and developers who have great respect for our clients, who understand and respect their expertise. Similarly, our advice to our clients is to understand and respect the expertise of our people. As soon as you get that trust in both directions, really good creative collaboration can happen.

SH: It’s also about setting your objectives and aims at the beginning of a project. That’s not just the communications people and the team here doing that, it’s a consultative and collaborative discussion to ensure that you have a set of objectives that suit the overall aim of the project. It’s equally important to look at what “great impact” would look like and decide on some metrics for that. That might not just be about statistics and analytics, it might also be more qualitative. This could involve getting out there and finding out who’s discussing the report or if you’ve fed into a debate. It might even be about setting some benchmarks based on other projects that you’ve done that can help to measure the impact.

TH: Clients that have a strategic take on their communications are getting really good at putting packages of work together, involving branding work, maybe creating a microsite, and also infographics, all as part of one project. For example, a year or two ago now, we rebranded the International Growth Centre, which is a mix of the LSE and Oxford University. As part of that project, we developed their website, produced a set of publications templates, infographics, and so on. We did a similar thing for Lankelly Chase, an interventionist small charity. There’s a lesson there for clients as well: often the most impactful, well-planned, projects are ones where the people involved decide what the communications package they want to put together looks like, who the audiences they want to have an impact on are, and what kind of vehicles they need.

EPL: How is communications for policy or research institutes different than other types of communications? Does working in this field require a particular skillset?

TH: I wonder whether the easiest way of framing this is the distinction between policymaking organisations and campaigning organisations, which are obviously very close in some ways, as they are often dealing with very similar sectors, subject areas and audiences. For me, the distinction there is that in policymaking organisations, the communications are taking place in the context of an ongoing debate, conversation and interaction with audiences. You’re often making a case for a particular point of view, but within an area that is really up for grabs or is yet to be decided. Campaigning organisations, on the other hand, are approaching it in a very different kind of way; they usually have a very clear, decided, position that they’re taking and they’re trying to convince people of that. That’s a very different dynamic within the communications.

Two really distinct things that pop out for me in terms of skillset are, firstly, that often you are communicating to expert audiences who maybe know a lot about that subject area already, and, secondly, there’s often a lot of data, particularly with more academic policymaking, so there’s some really nice opportunities to do data visualisation and information illustration – infographics and so on. Those are two things that are probably a bit more distinct about the policymaking or research communications than other kinds of communications.

SH: In terms of skillset, I think that most of our designers work a great deal in data visualisations. They also have quite a strong understanding of the sector we work in and what’s happening in the policy world.

AP: I’ve noticed that every single designer and developer here really cares about the issues that the clients we work with care about; they talk and think about those issues as well. They’re politically driven, they keep up with the news, they passionately want to communicate these ideas – that’s why they’re here and why they wanted to work at Soapbox in the first place.

EPL: What do you think is next for communications in policy research? What sort of work do you do at Soapbox that should at least be explored by different communication teams?

SH: We’ve done quite a few long-form pieces: digital first, online presentations or articles. Anya and Stuart, our lead front-end developer, published an article at On Think Tanks a few weeks ago discussing how long-form outputs are progressing across the sector. I think this is becoming a more popular and affordable option. They can also be a great way to use your assets: infographics, photography and film. I think that we’re going to see more of those in the sector.

AP: I think there’s a lot of untapped potential with virtual reality, and I’m really interested to see what its development will be in the next six months. I recently went to Sheffield for the annual documentary festival, and there was a huge display of virtual reality installations. Many were by NGOs and organisations that traditionally would have put together a PDF report, yet suddenly they’re investing quite a lot of money in these experiences where people can immerse themselves in different places. At a time when more and more people are getting hold of devices that allow them to experience things through gaming, why not use this moment to create some real policy impact?

TH: I think that’s a really positive thing. We’re running a set of breakfast club meetings every month or so with WonkComms. These are run according to the Chatham House rules, so they’re relatively confidential. They’re places where policy communications professionals can share things that have gone well, things that have gone badly, and improve their practice. This trend of knowledge sharing is going slightly against the bigger trend of greater competition, but I think it’s a very healthy thing.

SH: I think there’s a need for communications professionals to have these spaces as communications is becoming more valued and invested in. I know that there are certain aspects of research that suffer from tight budgets and communications is often the first thing that gets slashed, but generally I think there is a much greater appreciation within the sector, within research institutes and think tanks, and this is being seen in greater professionalisation and skills sharing.