Credibility and think tank communications

26 February 2018

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review. ]

Credibility is at the heart of all effective communications, and is especially so for think tanks.

As thinktankers, our mission is to turn evidence and ideas into social progress. And the primary way we do this is by communicating our research and inviting debate around it – persuading those who can take action to do so in an informed way.

But there are plenty of other voices communicating with those in power and a crowd of organisations and individuals, often yelling as hard as they can, in any policy debate. Why should policymakers listen to your voice? What makes your communications credible?

I would argue that to build credibility – from the smallest tweet to the biggest website– think tank communications needs to fulfil three criteria:

  1. Be evidence-based. You are making a claim to truth. Back it up with clear evidence, reported in full and presented with care.
  2. Be brand-conscious. Honour the history, positioning and values of your think tank. Make a conscious effort to build consistent arguments over time.
  3. Be useful. Work with and for your audiences. Make your ideas and evidence easy to find and use in research, debate or action.

Be evidence-based

Over the last decade think tanks have sought to engage a wider public in policy debates and new digital tools and channels have given them the means to do so. These are positive developments, but at the same time there has been a tendency to concentrate effort on ever-more bite-sized communications or contributions to public debate, and spend less time on the careful presentation of full reports or evidence sets.

Often this results in reports that are poorly edited, poorly fact-checked, lack clarity or consistency and are badly presented. Or it results in graphs or infographics that are superficial and badly designed – or (the worst sin of all) copied from someone else’s report.

This gives the impression that the think tank does not really value its reports (or audiences) enough to treat them with care. The result is a loss of credibility.

At Soapbox, we often conduct user research on behalf of think tanks. When we talk to media, research and political audiences, they consistently tell us they want to see a full report. They may just skim it, but they want to see that it exists and that the researchers and communications team care about it, believe in it and have the evidence to back up their claims.

Producing your reports and data visualisations with attention to editorial and design standards will give you a firm foundation from which to branch out into punchier communications for wider audiences. This will build your credibility as an organisation and should never be an optional extra.

Be brand-conscious

Your brand is a set of promises that your stakeholders can expect you to fulfil – the ideological and market position you occupy, the experience you bring to the table, the values you represent.

Your brand is also about staking out a piece of intellectual or cultural territory. You might say, for example, “we are the leading centre-left think tank” or “we shape policy and practice in the health sector”. These are claims about your legitimacy and credibility in a particular arena. A key part of building the brand of think tank is establishing a body of work that advances an argument or position over a long period of time.

Graphic designers, like those at Soapbox, use your visual identity – your logo, fonts, colours, templates, etc., as a shortcut to let people know that a particular piece of work carries these promises and belongs in this piece of intellectual territory and body of work. If a piece of think tank communications does not live up to these promises or  is in an area that people do not associate with the brand then it lacks credibility – the whole brand is damaged.

I would push the argument further and say: when done properly, brand, reputation and credibility are virtually synonymous.

Be useful

If people can easily use your work to help advance their own research or argument, or, even better, put it to immediate practical policy use, then they will know where to come next time. This massively boosts your credibility.

Utility can mean giving people a punchy infographic that they can retweet to lend credibility to an argument. It can mean making full datasets available so that researchers can check your findings or reuse the date in different ways. It can mean making report material available in HTML as well as PDF and print so that it is more searchable, shareable and accessible. It can mean transparency around funding or methodology so that users can make an informed judgement about how to best use your work.

Perhaps most importantly, it means approaching your communication products, especially your website, in a user-centered way which makes your work easy to find and easy to use.

Think tanks are getting better at taking UX design seriously and user research is becoming commonplace for bigger organisations. But too often, internal considerations still crowd out what real users are telling us.

Fundamentals of credibility

In over fifteen years of working with think tanks I have observed that those who enjoy the greatest credibility are the same ones who take the greatest care over editorial and design standards in their communications.

These think tanks certainly move with the times, but the fundamentals of credibility are timeless.

Credible think tanks produce carefully crafted reports to underpin their more eyecatching messages. They have a clear understanding of their brand and apply it with consistency. They build a coherent body of research and argument. Most of all, they are attentive to their stakeholders and to those who benefit from their work.