Does your think tank embed communications staff in research teams?

12 July 2022

Most think tanks have some degree of in-house communications support. Typically, a centralised team. Some think tanks also ‘embed’ communications specialists within research teams.  

We spoke to four such organisations to find out why they decided to embed communications staff and what they see as the benefits and challenges.

I’m Communications Director for OTT and former communications ‘embed’ in a London think tank. My co-author, Raymond Struyk, is an experienced economist and policy analyst who is new to the idea of ‘embedding’. Thus, we came to this issue with very different assumptions and perspectives… which is always fun! 

Here I present my top takeaways and reflections from the exploration, as well as drawing on my own experience.

Big benefits to embedding, but it’s not enough

Without doubt, the biggest benefit of ‘embedding’ is that communications and research staff get to know and trust each other. 

In my experience, researchers can be distrusting of communications – believing that we will ‘dumb down’ or misrepresent their findings. Or sometimes they just don’t see the value or need for it.

And so, if communications and research staff are going to work together to achieve policy impact with research results, relationship and trust building is a must. 

By being embedded within research teams – physically sitting with the team, joining project meetings, having lunch together and so on – trust and an understanding of where the other person is coming from develops. 

It also allows communications staff to get to know the research area. Or sometimes embeds are recruited because of existing experience or knowledge on the topic. This helps in trust building with the research team, but also enables the communications professional to be more strategic in supporting policy impact goals.

But embedding communications specialists in a research team doesn’t automatically lead to strategic communications or increased policy impact.

We heard frustrations from communications directors that embedded communications staff can lose sight of the overall organisational impact goals. Or become ‘publication machines’ for their teams. Or become tools for broader organisational power struggles between teams competing for resources and recognition, consequentially communications may become more about producing the next flashy digital communications output. Again, losing sight of the overall research or organisational impact goals.

To embed or not to embed?

Clearly there’s no perfect model. This is perhaps best evidenced by one of the organisations we spoke to that decided to reintegrate communications staff into a centralised team after years of embedding, only to re-embed them back into research teams a few years later. 

But in my opinion and experience (in the paper we don’t draw a conclusion on this) the benefits outweigh the challenges.

Achieving policy impact is about embedding strategic communications into research and projects from the beginning. By this I mean, having a clear idea of why you are doing the research? What do you want to inform, influence or change? Working backwards from there to do stakeholder mapping and build a communications and engagement plan. 

To do this, communicators must work closely with researchers. And without the relationship and trust building that comes from sitting in the same team, that’s tough.

But being embedded in a research team doesn’t guarantee strategic communications. Research teams must value strategic communications and work with their communications colleagues to achieve it.

This requires think tanks to nurture a culture of strategic communications for policy impact – from the top down. As we write in the paper introduction, ‘the reality is that many of our research colleagues find technical analysis and discussion much more compelling and satisfying [than policy engagement]’.

Funding is perhaps the biggest perceived barriers to embedding communications staff in research teams. In most of the organisations we spoke to, embedded communications staff were funded by a single multi-year project. While overheads will often fund the central communications team, teams can be reluctant to spend their core budgets on communications staff. 

When I worked as a think tank communication embed, we included strategic communications days in all our project budgets. This was justified to the donor as being distinct from the production services offered by the central communications team. 

By the time I left the organisation, we were funding three embedded communications specialists in our research team. This was more than most other research teams in the organisation. The difference being, I believe, that the research directors genuinely highly valued the communications role and input within the team and projects.

Of course, different organisations will have different funding models, so it’s a question of what works for your think tank. 

We hope that the paper provides some interesting insights and food for thought for policy research organisations considering a ‘embedded’ communications model.