Social Media and think tanks: lessons from London Thinks

18 June 2012

Conversations about the use of social media bear more than a passing resemblance to teenage chat about sex –we’re all talking about it, a few of us are doing it and even fewer of us are doing it well. That’s the verdict of Cicero’s Chris Jackson which was just one of a few thought provoking soundbites at the London Thinks summit on social media convened by the EU Parliament. Other notable one-liners included: the fact that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more members than all of the major UK political parties put together, that more young people are registered on Facebook than are registered to vote, that we are shifting from a news cycle to a news stream, what happens on Twitter doesn’t stay on Twitter, social media is the best market research you never commissioned and last but not least the fact that if you were to read the UK Cabinet Office’s new social media guidance for civil servants you will see a small note of thanks to a green and purple dragon fairy.

So, an entertaining day, but what are the lessons for think tanks? For me there were three despite the fact that only a handful of panellists tailored their remarks to think tanks.

Stay true to your mission

Social media specialists are adept at communicating a positive story of engagement, learning and dissemination through web 2.0+ but the real challenge for research communicators is to identify how to use the raft of social tools at their disposal to help meet their mission.  For many think tanks their core business is to influence a small number of decision makers with a large amount of knowledge

Therefore it is equally important to define the limits of social media as it is to realise the potential. By which I mean:

  • Be wary of signing up to every new gadget or gizmo (a few of which are collated here) in a quest to grow your audience when actually you already have the right audience and none of them use the platform you are investing time and effort in.
  • Avoid the temptation to equate social media noise or buzz with genuine engagement. Just because your latest report got a few Re-Tweets doesn’t mean anybody actually read it, you have to check your web statistics to know that.

Under these circumstances stories about airline PR disastersBank of England strategy and draconian local governments are interesting as part of the bigger picture but largely irrelevant to the daily business of a think tank. Equally, monitoring services such as Radian 6 are beyond budget for most and deliver little that can’t be replicated for next to nothing. My colleague Nick Scott has already offered his take on this and much more in an excellent and comprehensive blog on how digital communications can be monitored and evaluated.

Social media must be mainstreamed

This point was made by Richard Darlington of IPPR and it is simply that for think tanks to use social media effectively then its use cannot be restricted to the communications team, it must be mainstreamed throughout an organisation. Something I was reminded of when Dr Michael Harris of Guerilla Policy spoke about the EU and many governments consisting of ‘smart people in dumb institutions’. If social media is, or has the potential to be, a digital mirror on society then it won’t fulfil its potential without broader participation than it currently receives, meaning that the slow process of pushing cultural change will be the quickest route to long term success. This is something we have recognised at ODI and have sought to address through the use of internal workshops on Twitter and digital strategy. We have met with mixed success, increasing the number of researchers on Twitter but little pick up in more senior reaches of the organisation. We also learnt the importance of having a clear policy for staff on guidelines for Twitter (see here for insight into how to go about this).

In the world of the researcher where sometimes the only audience that matters is fellow researchers, unless social media engagement is owned by researchers themselves it won’t take hold.

What does social media offer researchers?

  • A broadcast channel for their work – by producing digital outputs including blogs, data visualisation, short videos (hosted on You tube) or podcasts (via Audioboo or Soundcloud) researchers can help audiences engage with their ideas.
  • A research tool – using searches and monitoring tools Twitter provides an excellent source for opinion monitoring or a new way of identifying contacts and emerging issues across the globe.
  • A discussion forum – conversations about early research findings, conclusions, methodologies and more are all possible as part of digital communities.
  • A personalised newspaper – Twitter puts you in charge of choosing the people you want to source news and ideas for you, offering 140 character headlines and full articles just one click away.

Twitter is now at the heart of news production

Of course on the rare day when you have produced the sort of research that can kick start public debate then different rules apply. The session on media convergence with The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow was informative with the political journalist of the year revealing that amongst his colleagues Twitter is now the primary news source – eclipsing phone or email. He even quoted a joke doing the rounds in Kings Place that the quickest way to get hold of their own news desk was to put something out on Twitter. For those in the business of linking think tank work to the news agenda then effective use of Twitter in particular seems essential.

Its notable how often social media conferences end up focusing on Twitter, but a Twitter strategy and a social media strategy are very different things. For a full overview of how to build a comprehensive social media and digital strategy this series of blogs on ODI’s 3 pillar approach is essential reading.  There is real potential in social media for changing the way think tanks communicate but it is only a part of the package. Getting it right may make your ideas more powerful or more memorable. Doing it smartly may increase your media presence.  On occasion it may help to alter the public mood and empower you and others to drive lasting change. But it won’t ever replace the need for robust research, astute contact management and sharp messaging when it comes to having influence.

Readers interested in a breakdown of UK think tank social media presence can see the EU’s table here.