High hopes: think tank communications in times of COVID-19

15 June 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

The world changed this spring. And we are all watching it unfold, grieving for the people who lost their lives and hoping that the looming economic crisis won’t be as bad as expected. It’s hard, scary and strange to face this uncertainty. But we can’t let it paralyse us.

We need to focus on overcoming this crisis and do what think tanks were set up to do: provide quality analysis and expert guidance, make sense of complex challenges, stir productive public discussion, and generate social good so we all can get back on track.

However, the task is not only to produce plenty of ideas, but also to ensure that they are within reach of policy and practice. That’s why communications play a decisive role now, and will determine the relevance of think tanks once the dust settles.

This post highlights five strategic communications components think tanks can deploy during and after the ongoing crisis, drawing on our experience at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).

1. Put people first and ensure operations can continue

Internal communications are a critical part of crisis management. SEI is an international organisation with eight centres in five continents, which makes us particularly exposed to the impact of the pandemic and multiple policy responses.

We set up an institute-wide crisis management group consisting of senior managers from HQ and regional offices. This body provides space for information exchange about the situation in our different locations and sets the direction for crisis response. At the same time, each centre has a crisis team, which provides regular updates and instructions about working from home and travel, based on the country policy.

This structure is accompanied by regular staff and unit meetings and an intranet webpage that gathers all COVID-related instructions and policies. It’s worth mentioning that we had been investing in tools for digital collaboration prior to the crisis. These investments paid off and allowed us to operate remotely.

2. Be constructive

Politicians and state actors are under immense pressure to keep health services functioning and minimise economic shocks. That’s why, it’s vital that think tanks do not generate more noise and muddle and let the agencies responsible for the immediate response do their job.

Instead, we need to contribute in a constructive way, providing policymakers with tools and recommendations that are useful and applicable.

SEI communications, together with the Head of Operations and Donor Relations and Executive Director, worked to develop a public statement of institutional priorities that was rooted in our mission. This spoke to our stakeholders, funders and employees. We decided that we will engage with the pandemic by maintaining the momentum for sustainable development.

After that, we asked our researchers and communicators how SEI work could be relevant to dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. This organisation-wide brainstorming made us realise that we have a lot more to contribute than we initially thought.

That is how we came up with our vision for sustainable, just and resilient recovery. Our plan was to provide analysis, policy recommendations and capacity support for emergency response, gradually moving towards setting out an agenda for our vision of recovery and providing specific policy insights to realise it.  

3. Connect with your strategy

Knowing where your expertise would be most useful and contributing in a way that’s true to the core values of your organisation is of great consequence.

First of all, we can’t all turn into a public health and epidemiology think tank overnight. Secondly, the ongoing crisis is so multidimensional that everyone can provide a valuable contribution. Thirdly, we can build alliances to bridge the gaps in our expertise and supply holistic and nuanced insights in partnership with others.

SEI’s 2020-2024 strategy has three impact areas: reduced climate risks, sustainable resource use and resilient ecosystems and improved health and well-being. So, we started to work with the portfolio of projects connected to our impact area on health, producing pieces on equity, green spaces, sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as air pollution.

Our strategy helped us to understand our value proposition for COVID-19 recovery. After that, through discussions and networking, we were able to identify partners who pursue similar or complementary goals and started to form coalitions. That’s how, for instance, we were invited to contribute to the work of the European Commission on the EU green recovery thinking.

4. Manage resources and capacities

COVID-19 blew many policy doors wide open. And science communicators have the skills and creativity to create tailored and impactful outputs to help think tanks take advantage of this policy opportunity. Think tanks can empower their communications staff, and especially more junior staff, to get creative. At SEI, for example, most of our content creation ideas came from the bottom up, like reflections about the ‘build back better’ narrative or social media videos (see here and here) with key messages from our COVID-related coverage.

On the communications management side, we adapted our existing structures, using our weekly editorial meetings to bounce ideas around. And we assigned a separate budget for COVID-response communications. SEI is a project-based organisation, so allocating budget outside of projects gave comms the freedom and resources.

Rolling out internal groups and channels on Teams (or whatever digital collaboration tool you are using) to exchange and share information about the latest policy developments has proven handy too. That’s how, for instance, we came up with the idea and coordinated the production of one of our most popular COVID-related pieces about making the recovery a Global Green New Deal.

5. Strive for meaningful online engagement

Many of us are working from home now, and we’re unlikely to have as many live events in the future. So we need to re-think the way we convene stakeholders and connect with our audiences.

The think tank space has exploded with webinars. But while engagement was high at first, it has subsided (which is only natural, we all receive more than one webinar invitation a day and also have work to do and lives to live).

So, the question is: how can our events deliver a better experience and add value?

First, we need to increase the shelf life of online events, by accompanying them with a range of communications products.

Digital events are shorter and more concentrated than live gatherings, this format also requires extensive communications work, both in terms of technology set-up and content.

Writing up key messages and quotes, recording video insights with speakers and commentators, cutting video recordings into smaller sized bites, extracting audio for a podcast, are all fairly low-hanging fruit in terms of communications products.

And you don’t have to do everything in-house either. For example, we collaborated with the Global Dispatches to create a podcast about climate policy and COVID-recovery, based on one of our webinars. Such collaborations increase outreach too.

Second, get your tech straight. Choose tools with users in mind, ensure you have the right subscriptions, provide communications support and guidance to researchers to organise and execute digital events. At SEI we merged the IT and event functions to ensure our digital events perform smoothly.

Third, and this may be the most challenging but pivotal in the future, we need to ask ourselves: why should people attend our event as opposed to other webinars? It might be content or the format.

Obviously, online events reach out further, but we need to think about how we can make our digital gatherings more deliberative and inclusive. That’s where think tanks can become real champions, not only by supporting well-informed decision making, but also by making it more legitimate and credible.