Media for think tanks: four ways to make it work

21 May 2018

Communicating your research to the public is important – and we know that the media can help you do that. But your research is not going to captivate the media right away. Journalists navigate through tons of information from many sources every day. In fact, your research update is the last thing that they are going to open from their inbox.

This makes things difficult, but not impossible. If you are a communications officer or a researcher wanting to use the media as a platform, remember that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Your experience will differ according to the type of research you do, the mandate of your organization and, most importantly, the media climate in your country. Before you start, it is important to know what you are dealing with.

In Sri Lanka, there are some things that I tried, failed, and then tried again. Through this trial and error process, I have learnt some tricks that work, which can also work for you wherever you operate.

Why does the media matter?

To make research relevant

The media can make your work relevant to what’s happening around you. As think tanks, we are able to provide analysis and data to enrich public understanding of issues. For example, imagine that you are a think tank that monitors what happens in parliament. If your country is approaching an election, you can use the media as a tool to share data on how an electoral candidate has performed in the past. This information, which may have been ignored in the past, now becomes relevant to voters who can make more informed decisions when voting.

To hold people accountable

Holding governments accountable for their actions is a complicated exercise. However, the media can help you do this. Let’s go back to that parliamentary monitoring example, except now you want to hold parliamentarians accountable on their election promises. You also have data that can prove inaction on those promises. In this instance, you can leverage the media to draw public attention to these gaps. These parliamentarians may have been ignoring you for years, but it’s harder for them to ignore pressure from the media. Media exposure can impose reputation costs on MPs and public officials. This forces them to act fast, or at least respond to your claims. 

Here are four things you can do

  1. Plug and play
    News production is a hectic process, and journalists will not want to pick up your call while they are in the middle of it. Print media as well as electronic media is as rigorous in its pace as it is in its selection of content. An important lesson I have learnt is to not challenge this environment, but rather plug in where you will be most valued. Editors do not have time to read through a research report to see what it’s about. The trick here is to first understand which part of your research adds value to a particular news story. Once you do this, push the content that is most relevant to them.Think fast and act fast – timing is important to execute this strategy. Recently, the Sri Lankan government tried to ban the sale of alcohol to women. The legal research team in my think tank wrote a brief that explained how this ban would be unconstitutional according to Sri Lankan law. At that time, this was one of the most discussed topics both online and offline – there was a buzz. While my colleagues were still writing this brief, I called up some journalists to give them a ‘heads up’. I knew that they were likely to be reporting on this issue, so I was plugging in our research to give them a new angle to the story. The following day, seven news platforms carried our analysis from the brief. A week later, they invited us to be on a radio talk show. Plug and play – don’t sit and wait.
  1. Build (and maintain) good relationships
    Good relationships are the foundation of successful media engagement. There are different ways you can build these relationships. Make sure journalists get your newsletters and other updates on new research – it’s a great way to be on their radar. One-on-one interaction is even more effective. Invite journalists to your events or invite a group of them to an informal media briefing. Good relationships go beyond just being inclusive. Networking can build relationships, but it’s the little things will help you maintain them. Be courteous and responsive (even if you don’t have what they want).
  1. Offer a “scoop”
    All media value exclusivity – they like to be the first to report a story. I am often asked if an article or infographic was already shared with other newspapers. Offering an exclusive “scoop” on a story might increase its chances of getting published. This approach might seem disadvantageous if your goal is to reach as many people as possible. However, choosing one high-circulation newspaper and offering them an exclusive story can be more effective than distributing your work to a large list of journalists with no guarantee of publication.
  1. Know your value to pitch it
    There will be times when you must pitch the value of your research to a journalist – even when you were not involved in doing the research. If you are ever in this situation, it’s important that you understand the value of the research. What is it about and why should others bother with it? If you are not convinced yourself, you cannot expect someone else to be. If you are a researcher, know what your colleagues are working on and what goal they are trying to achieve. If you are part of a communications team don’t wait for someone to hand you the research. Instead, be a part of the process. This way you will have a good understanding of the subject matter when it’s time to talk to the media. When the time comes to make a call to the media, avoid sounding like you want to get published to tick a box in a dissemination plan. Pitch your value, not your target.

This is not an exhaustive list. Depending on where you’re from, there could be many other ways of engaging the media. Whatever your role is in a think tank, the most important step is to understand the type of media you’re working with and adapt. This, combined with some of the tips I mention, will lead to better media engagement on your research.