#dhakacomms workshop: Day 1

26 May 2014
SERIES Communication as an orchestra 7 items

Editor’s note: you can read all the post in the series here: #dhakacomms workshop: Day 1; #dhakacomms workshop: Day 2#dhakacomms workshop: Day 3#dhakacomms workshop: Day 4; plus a learners’ perspective.]


This workshop, held in Dhaka, is part of an effort by SDPICPD, and IGS (now BIGC) to improve their communications capacity. It is funded by a matching fund from the Think Tank Initiative.

The workshop design saw a number of iterations over a period of close to two years. The final design focuses on a slight departure from typical communication capacity building efforts and an emphasis on an objectives-based strategy. Instead, the approach (‘communications as an orchestra’) emphasises the importance of being ready to deploy communication channels and tools on the basis of circumstance, opportunity and capacity.

The workshop started a few weeks before when I asked the participants to provide me with short bios and answers to a number of questions:

Pre-workshop tasks

Before the workshop itself, the participants are asked to carryout the following tasks:


  • Prepare a short bio that includes your role within your think tank as well as a short answer to these questions:
    • What are the main roles or purposes of think tanks? (how do they contribute to their societies?)
    • What are the main types of activities that think tanks undertake?

Channels and tools

  • Read the channels and tools matrix and identify any missing: http://wp.me/pYCOD-zI
  • Identify the tools that your think tanks use and prepare a ‘fiche’ for each (see examples in the channels and tools blog post). You will be asked to present these at the workshop:
    • Name of the tool (Channel)
    • Brief description of the tool: what does it do, what does it look like, etc. (2 lines)
    • The primary audience of the tool and what should the language/level of complexity be like (2 lines)
    • The style/design (2 lines)
    • Who should be primarily in charge of its production; who should peer review it (2-3 lines)

Day 1

Professor Mustafizur RahmanExecutive Director, CPD, opened the session with a few remarks about the importance of communications for think tanks. All the tasks of a think tank, he said, demand strong communications (knowledge generation, policy influence, policy appreciation, and capacity building). Even after 20 years, CPD faces new challenges related to how it communicates its work. Born as a centre for dialogue, CPD has built a strong reputation for its capacity to convene upstream actors (policymakers) but it now needs to work more with down stream actors (activists and the public).

His words were encouraging as he established the central role that communications has in CPD.

Introductions by the participants followed. They presented themselves (name and role) and offered a few words about ideas or interests related to communications (drawing inspiration from CGD’s ideas tour); among them:

  • Akseeb Jawed from SDPI highlighted the importance of video for think tank communications;
  • Raja Taimur Hassan coincided and emphasised the potential that think tanks have to produce their own for-TV content and even the power they now have to broadcast it over the internet;
  • Fatema Yousuf from CPD considered that think tanks have a role in helping to develop a new communications culture that would seek the adoption of new communications media; and
  • Palash Rajan Sanyal from CPD envisaged new think tank apps in the not too distant future.

After the introductions I led us into a discussion about three related topics:

  • Think tanks roles and functions: There are a number of functions that think tanks can fulfil –it is not just about influencing policy. The functions of think tanks will depend on their origins, their mandates, and how these have evolved over time:
    • Political purpose -directly or indirectly
    • Not always a force for ‘good’ -they may represent vested interests
    • Can represent the public
    • They are connectors, “boundary workers”
    • They seek to influence policy -which may be different to informing policy
    • Monitor policy and political actors
    • Train the future generations of policymakers, analysts, politicians, specialised journalists.
    • Educate the public –in particular de elites
    • Political and intellectual stability
    • Create and sustain (and inform) spaces for debate and deliberation
  • Communications teams within think tanks: Communications is at the centre of all these functions. The exact role it can play can be best explained by the set up of the communications teams within the organisation. Using a combination of a few think tank models I described the following set ups:
    • Small and junior central team/person but researchers do most of the communications
    • Larger central team with senior researcher in charge
    • Larger central team with senior communicator in charge
    • Large/medium central team with communications officers in each programme or research area
    • Entirely decentralised team: each programme has its own communications officer or team (with some central coordination)
  • A number of challenges arise with these models that think tanks need to consider:
    • Between speed and accuracy;
    • Between how much is published and how much is published by the think tank experts themselves;
    • Balance between a communications team that is too weak and one what is too strong;
    • Few opportunities to practice and learn–and get better with time; and
    • Balance between ‘flexibility’ and ‘messiness’
  • Funding models for communications: Constraining the development of the communications team, and therefore what communications can do for the organisation, is the question of funding for communications. Think tanks seek to fund the communications work through different models (often more than one is used) and is closely related to contracting issues:
    • Institutional funds –own fundraising activities or from funders;
    • Overhead from projects –some of which can be allocated for central communications activities;
    • Building communications into the budgets of projects –thereby each project funds portions of an individual and/or specific activities and outputs; or
    • Using communications resources from large programmes to support central communication needs.

Communications as an orchestra

After lunch we delved into the idea of communications as an orchestra. A couple of years ago I developed a matrix of channels and tools that think tanks used to communicate (the numbers refer to the degree of difficulty):

Publications Online/digital
Academic journal (5)Academic paper (2-3)

Semi-academic magazine (4)

Working Paper series (3)

Research Report (1)

Background Note (on a policy issue or methodology) (1)

Project Briefing (2)

Policy Brief (1)

Draft legislation (3-4)

Opinion (1)

Workshop or Event Report (2)

Reading list, Annotated Bibliography or Literature Review (2)

Emailed Newsletter (1)Organisation’s Website (1)

Blog (1)

Twitter Account (plus staff accounts) (1)

Facebook Page (1)

LinkedIn for staff profiles and recruitment (2)

Youtube channel for videos and MOOCs (2)

Ustream for ‘webstreaming’ (3)

Flickr or Picassa (2)

ITunes for podcasts (3)

Scribd for documents (1)

Google Drive or Dropbox for intranet and sharing documents (1)

SurveyMonkey (3)

Eventbrite (2)

Wikipedia (2)

Data visualisation (2-3)

Media Events
Op-eds (2)Press release (1)

Media ‘Q&A’s (2)

Media Awards (5)

Media training (3-4)

Media partnerships/subcontracts for features and analysis (4-5)

Media face-to-face briefings (2)

Workshops and trainings (2)Seminars (and participation in seminars) (1)

Webinars (3)

Public Events (debates and presentations) (2)

Public Event Series (2-3)

Private meetings with key stakeholders (2)

MOOCs (3-4)

Think tanks in developing countries face a difficult challenge to overcome. Their funders (often via consultants or northern based NGOs or international development think tanks) demand certain communication outputs from them –based on the format and styles that work for their own audiences. If they comply, think tanks find themselves with such a range of communication outputs that prevents them from developing a consistent and recognisable style.

After all, communications is as much about engagement (this I take from Goran Buldioski) and branding as it is about helping think tanks to influence. A logo, a colour scheme, a working paper series, a publication, a type of event, and even a rule can be powerful tools in think tanks’ efforts to build a reputation.

The traditional approach to supporting the communication of think tanks demands setting very clear objectives (behaviour changes of key policy players), defining very specific actions to achieve these changes, developing a plan of action and a monitoring and evaluation system. This assumes that the objectives can be met within a period of time –coincidently, the same period as is contemplate by the project funding (I wrote this sarcastically). [Note: This should NOT be (mis)interpreted as my saying that think tanks do not need objectives. This is a commentary on typical communications workshops or capacity development projects for think tanks. They then to focus on getting think tanks to influence policy objectives via communications. This is what I am challenging, here.]

In reality, think tanks have to respond to events. They may have plans (and objectives) but their circumstance defines what they can and cannot (or should not) do.

The metaphor of the orchestra refers to the image of the conductor who has to manage his musicians and their instruments to achieve a desired result on his audience. The conductor follows a music piece and each musician has a partiture but he or she still has control over how the music is played.

Source: theamericanprize.blogspot.com

Imagine the head of communications deploying communication tools in a similar way: Events and publications, more events, more media, introduce a bit of Twitter, less Twitter, more Facebook, more events, more Twitter, more Twitter, etc.

To follow this approach, think tanks need to:

  1. Identify the universe of channel and tools: that is, all the tools that may be available to think tanks drawing from practices from around the world.
  2. Define which are applicable to them: that is, what is appropriate for the think tank’s context, what it has the resources to deliver, etc.
  3. Develop ‘rules’ to know when to combine them for maximum impact: after all, it is in their combination that music happens
  4. Assign responsibilities –for each channel and for ‘conducting’
  5. Test and learn by doing to improve each tool, the rules and the ‘mix’

As a way of starting the process I asked the participants to go over their organisation’s tools and to write them down on paper cards.

After lunch we pinned the cards on a wall in the room developing a ‘universe’ of tools that includes examples from CPD, IGS, SDPI, IDS and others.

photo 1

photo 3

photo 2

The actual list is below:

PublicationsSDC anthology

Training manual


Volumes (books)

Mega event proceedings

Brochures and other PR material

Policy Brief

Policy note

Briefing paper

Rapid response briefing




Research report


Event report

Baseline studies

Methods document

Strategy paper

Consultancy report

Project report

Evidence reports

Discussion papers

Annual report

Background note

Literature review

Annotated bibliography

Opinion Piece

Practice paper

Working papers

MediaPress briefings


Journalist forums/groups

Press releases

Media ethics seminars

Interviews in TV, radio, print media

Media training

Feature articles

Campaigns through radios

Expert comments with press reports

Live telecast (TV)

TV talk show

Research grants for journalists

Media competitions

Media advertisement

Informal media briefings (one on one)

Online versions of media: blogs, etc.

Web radio


Letters to the editor

EventsSeminar series

Distinguished lecture series

Local dialogues, in-house dialogues, regional dialogues, international dialogues, national dialogues



SDC conference

Launching ceremony


Participation in other’s seminars/events

Lectures for students

Women of substance lectures

Living legend lectures

Roudtable meetings

Public lectures

Public events

Expert group meetings (for projects)

Events in parliament

Events in third party events/conferences

Special briefing session for diplomats

Parliamentarians capacity building

Capacity building efforts



Live streaming of events





Facebook page




Video case studies

Talking heads



Digital stories







Data visualisation



Survey monkey





Video documentary/interviews

Resource centre web portals

Monthly updates





MOOCs Webinars







Google Drive

Early the next morning we had a recap session. The participants considered the following as interesting and important issues learned or discussed during the first day:

  • Preparing materials in advance: Project cycles do not always coincide with policy windows. Think tanks need to prepare the tools they need to bring about the changes they aspire to even if they don’t use them right away. They can sit on them to deploy when the moment is right.
  • Brand through content and style: Far from just being an exercise of logos and colours, the content and the style of communication outputs can define the strength of a think tank brand.
  • Models of communication teams –is there an idea? My view, and this is something I have written about on my blog many times, a communications team has to be led by a senior communications manager/coordinator/leader and include at least a small team of communications officers (each one in charge of one or more channels, and, if the size of the organization demands it, acting as ‘client manager’ for each programme or group).
  • Coordination is crucial: To ensure that overlaps do not backfire on the organisation communications need to be coordinated by an individual or by a senior level committee (that include the head of communications). Communications is about prioritising: choosing the 3 or 4 themes that will be featured even if others are relegated.

Next post here.