Inspiring policy change through better communications

20 March 2018

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review. ]

Think tanks and research institutes have really stepped up their communications game over the last couple of decades. They have worked hard to make their outputs more accessible, to tailor messages to different audiences, to harness the power of new technologies and to use effective design to bring their stories to life. Gone are the days when a lone publications manager sat in a room proofing and preparing manuscripts for publication, or when mailing a research report to a few dozen people sufficed.

But others have failed to keep up. And yet effective communication is more critical than ever before in a world where information overload is a growing issue, and ‘fake news’ a sad reality – where finding ways to reach audiences beyond the traditional political elite has become necessary.

This is not completely unsurprising. The lack of materials available to guide think tanks is striking. Compared to the wealth of literature on corporate advertising and marketing, there is a real dearth of resources specifically related to communicating research effectively. Aside from OTT’s own resources, one of the only practical guides out there is a new book by staff at the London School of Economics, Communicating your research with social media, which covers blogging, podcasting and data visualisation. 

To fill this gap, and following the success of our short courses, the OTT School developed a comprehensive long course focused on research communications. While we included material on key channels such as publications, websites, events and podcasting, we also thought it was necessary to go back to basics and review the systems, policies and protocols that should be in place to be able to run an efficient (and legal) communications operation. We covered issues like privacy and accessibility policies, disclaimers for blogs and how to create and operationalise the use of templates.

Drawing on our experience of working with a range of think tanks around the world, we also included an overview of the typical communications functions that should be considered when making decisions about resourcing, and provided different staffing model options (e.g. centralised vs. devolved vs. skilling-up researchers).

Organisations come in different shapes and sizes, of course, so we stayed away from advocating a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, we encouraged participants to review their own organisational objectives and resources in order to help them define what combination of staff and skills they might need to enhance their impact. We also reminded them that donors and other funders are no longer happy with top-notch research. They now demand slick products and clear dissemination strategies, and expect knowledge-focused organisations to step up to the challenge.

The eight-unit course was delivered by five highly experienced trainers who put together material based on more than a decade’s worth of experience testing and refining different approaches – discovering what works, when and for what purpose, not to mention which approaches are best avoided. In this way, the course was both strategic and practical.

OTT’s long course, Cutting-edge communications for research and policy, ran from 5 September to 12 December 2017 and included 31 participants from 17 different countries. Course feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with every single participant reporting that the course met their expectations and that they would be interested in taking similar OTT courses in the future. The quality of our trainers and course material was also rated very highly.