In conversation with ‘the interested public at large’

13 March 2019
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2018: Public Engagement 18 items

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review. ]

At Soapbox, we receive a lot of invitations to tender for think tank campaigns and websites. The following is a direct quote, but they nearly always say something similar:

Our primary target audiences are:
1. Policymakers
2. Academics
3. Civil society organisations
4. The interested public at large

The first three audiences need some unpacking. Do you mean local, national or multilateral policymakers? Do you mean university academics or other think tank researchers? Can we talk to, or survey, some of your target audiences?

By asking the right questions we can start to understand these users better, maybe create personas for them and map the places and contexts in which they come into contact with think tank communications. We can design great content targeted at the right channels to reach them.

If we were just interested in the top three target audiences in the list, well, that would bring a lot of clarity to our work.

But that fourth category – the interested public at large – now that’s different matter…

Why talk to the public?

Not every think tank necessarily needs to talk to the wider public. If you can pick up the phone and get a meeting with a minister or a committee chair, you might be able to accomplish your goals without a broader outreach campaign. After all, those outreach campaigns are often a means to an end – a way of mobilising or shifting public opinion to increase pressure on policymakers. If you can’t get a meeting with a minister, a public campaign may be your best chance to make that happen.

But public engagement isn’t solely of instrumental value. For us, public engagement is also about intrinsic values. This position is well set out by Robin Niblett, Director of Chatham House, in his recent speech on the future of think tanks. In short, the route to social progress runs through the participation of an informed population. Peace, prosperity, democracy and sustainability require civic debate around ideas and evidence.

Think tanks have a strong role to play in providing the intellectual foundation for those ideas, originating and analysing the evidence and kickstarting the debates. Equally important is that these debates are framed using values and metaphors that resonate with the public and promote progress. Think tanks have an underestimated role to play here as well.

At Soapbox, we believe that communicating and engaging with ‘the interested public at large’ is an intrinsic part of our mission – and our clients agree. They are sincere in their desire to talk to the public and, crucially, they have often made that strategic decision to prioritise public engagement.

But many think tanks are behind the times and most lack the resources to do it well.

How to talk to the public

The idea that think tanks should communicate widely is not a new one. When we worked at the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research in the early 2000s, we talked to the public through newspapers, television and radio. Thanks to media managers like Richard Darlington, we were pretty good at it.

We informed the public by going where they were already accustomed to getting their daily fix of information. And traditional media provided a convenient shorthand for segmenting the wider population into more useful chunks. Want to reach Daily Mail readers? Well the answer is obvious…

But, as we all know, mass media has declined in importance as a source of news and information – so we’ll need to go to where the ‘the interested public at large’ are now. And that means social media and Google.

How do we do that?

First, we need to create content that’s tailored to digital channels. Think tanks have made a lot of progress on this in recent years. Informative, well-designed and well-produced think tank content that is easy to find and share is becoming more and more prevalent. But there’s much more to be done – especially on making content more modular and efficient; on discipline around framing individual issues; on the personalisation or localisation of content; and on how we strategically plan and coordinate campaigns over long periods of time.

Second, we need to get more comfortable using digital channels to their fullest capacity. That includes using paid online advertising and the wealth of data available to digital platforms to break ‘the interested public at large’ down into more useful segments based on interests, location and other demographics. Progressives may balk at paid advertising. But the truth is that think tanks have always paid for content distribution – be that in printing and postal charges or in the wages of staff to write press releases and cultivate relationships with journalists. The shift to digital advertising requires serious internal conversations about budgeting and about the transparency and ethics of targeting particular groups with policy-based content.

Our third point is that the current debate around online privacy provides a window of opportunity for think tanks to engage positively with tech giants like Facebook and Google on creating a framework for presenting and prioritising evidence-based content and public policy ideas online. That’s an opportunity in which we are pretty well positioned to help.

Now what?

Once we have the attention of the public what do we want to do with it?

Businesses, charities, and political campaigns spend small fortunes understanding user journeys and tweaking their digital offers accordingly. They want to funnel users towards an action (buy something, sign a petition, donate, vote) and from there, to become an advocate for that brand, cause or candidate.

It’s a tricky model for think tanks to emulate. We want to encourage advocates for our policies, but there is no single action, no final click, no point of purchase that we are looking for.

News organisations and content publishers provide another model. They create compelling content which drives repeat visits and encourages users to read more each time. They turn these added page views into advertising revenue and brand loyalty.

But again, the model doesn’t quite fit. We want to build our brands, but we don’t want think tanks to be slaves to the news agenda or our researchers to churn out content for its own sake.

Think tanks create public content for the public good. Certainly we want to shift mass opinion as a way to influence policymakers, but I believe that to understand why and how think tank communications should engage with the public, we’ll need to get to grips with a more fundamental purpose of our work – what Ruth Levine has characterised as the moral dimension in evidence-based policymaking.

What do we want from public engagement in think tank communications? Here are four ideas:

  1. To frame the public debate: helping the public to understand issues in ways that will reinforce values and metaphors to promote social progress. This means discipline around messages and simple impactful communications products. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s work on poverty shows this approach in action.
  2. To inform the public: because, once we have framed the debate, empirical knowledge will be an essential element in making progress towards a just society. This means content that seeks to inform, not obfuscate, and it means transparency around data and methodologies for those who want to dig deeper. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ work on tax and spending over many years is a good example.
  3. To encourage public participation in policymaking: because this will create more enduring, more widely supported and more innovative solutions. This means widening the ways that the public can participate in research, increasing the reach of our content and increasing capacity to moderate and engage with this participation. The Chatham House Commission on Democracy and Technology will be an example of this kind of deliberative research.
  4. To measure success in public engagement: investing capacity and studying public attitudes and levels of knowledge around issues. These kinds of impacts are hard to measure, so we need to commit to both qualitative and quantitative surveys over long periods of time as well as ambitious goals for public engagement with our own digital content. Support for longitudinal surveys like NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey will help here as will purpose-built tools like the On Think Tanks monitoring and evaluation dashboard.

Think tanks need to make the explicit choice to engage with the public and to stand up for basic values. It is a choice that will have a profound effect on communications priorities.

These four dimensions provide the framework we use at Soapbox to help leading think tanks deepen their public engagement. We would love you to join us on the journey.