Today, most policy research organisations have some degree of in-house communications support. Typically, this is a centralised team. However, in some organisations communications staff are also embedded within research teams.
We spoke to four such policy research organisations (PROs) about their motivations for embedding communications staff in research teams, and the practicalities, benefits and challenges of doing so.
Below is an edited summary of findings and reflections from the study. Download the full article.
A non-trivial model
While we only spoke to a small number of organisations, embedding communications staff in research teams seems non-trivial at least among larger organisations. In researching organisations to speak to for this article, we came across other examples of organisations with embeds too.
All our PROs seem to agree that the embedded communications model has many benefits. From the practical ability to meet a research project or team’s communications needs to enabling research and communications staff to build the mutual trust and understanding of each other’s work that ultimately is required for effective strategic communications to support policy impact.
Issues to watch
When research teams have embedded communications staff, they become more self-sufficient and can start to see themselves as an independent entity. This can generate tension between the research teams and the organisation’s leadership and central communications team.
Maintaining a sense of a cross-organisational communications team seems to be particularly important for the professional development of communications staff, standardising approaches, introducing new tools, sharing best practices and learning.
Funding plays a big role in whether or not a research team has embedded communications support. Funding levels and sources often differ between a PRO’s research teams. For example, a team may have a large integrated grant, or win a big multi-year project that enables them to fund designated communications staff.
One of the organisations we spoke to presents a particularly interesting case for reflection. After years of an embedded model, the communications director decided to centralise in an effort to reprioritise the organisation’s communications to be more strategic – to focus on how research and analysis can contribute to policy impact, rather than focusing on publications as the end goal.
It was also an attempt to create more unity within the communications team – to offer clearer leadership, and career development opportunities, and to build respect for the professional expertise of the communications staff.
Ultimately, this decision was reversed, and communications staff were re-embedded because research teams were reticent to cover what they perceived as ‘central’ costs, which contrasted with the willingness of most to cover the cost of their own embedded team communications staff.
Thus, it would seem that there is no perfect model. While PROs, by definition, seek to inform policy decisions and processes, the bigger challenge is that in practice PROs and research teams are still often not fully committed to ways of working that support meaningful policy engagement.
Funding (or lack thereof) is often cited as the reason for (not) being able to finance dedicated communications staff. Research directors including a request for funding for their embeds, therefore, is a clear indicator that they believe they are getting value for money from them.
Smaller organisations can consider different communications staffing plans that include embeds to a limited extent. There may be one major, multi-year project that envisions the equivalent of a full-time communications person. One of the PROs has been embedded only for three such projects while the bulk of the overall communications work is done by those working in the central office.
In sum, this is a staffing arrangement that can be creatively adapted by comparatively smaller PROs as opportunities present themselves.
Even though embeds have been part of the PRO scene for a decade, it may still be news to many in the PRO community. We would welcome learning about the experiences that you have had over the years and look forward to hearing from you.
This post is an edited summary of ‘Embedding communications staff in research teams to increase policy impact‘ by Raymond Struyk and Louise Ball. It is part of the OTT Best Practice Series.