Taking think tank communications to the next level: A preface to a new series

20 August 2013

A “commsversation” between Jeff KnezovichMelissa Julian and the communications team at ECDPM

Over the next couple of months, On Think Tanks is pleased to be publishing a new weekly blog series focusing on key issues for think tanks, research institutions, and programmes of work as they work to strengthen their communication efforts. The series stems from a unique collaboration between On Think Tanks and the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), and will be structured as a conversation between the two organisations.

We hope that, by framing it as a conversation, we’ll be able to marry high-level strategic advice and discussions about key research communication issues with the messy reality of organisational change.

The series explores six key challenges many think tanks and research institutes around the world face when trying to kick their communication efforts up a notch. Broadly, these include:

  1. Figuring out where to beginMany organisations start innovating without having the appropriate infrastructure in place – I call this ‘running before you walk’. These posts focus on getting organised internally to support a programme of change.
  2. Becoming fit for purpose: Knowing that things have to change is one thing, knowing how things have to change is something else entirely. Organisations may have ‘legacy’ outputs that are no longer relevant. And even if the current range of products is reaching the right people, they might not continue to do so in the future as contexts change. These posts help organisations to pause and reflect on their communications offer. The aim is to develop a strategy and a convincing argument for change.
  3. Determining what goes where: There are certain activities that are best undertaken by a more centralised communications function. Other activities are better tackled by teams, projects or even individuals. This set of posts helps organisations to define appropriate roles and to figure out ways to work toward them given common constraints (e.g. limited resources, the need for organisational strengthening in environments where the funding is project-based, etc.).
  4. Securing buy-in from the rest of the organisation: Successful organisational communications requires all hands on deck. But in research institutes and think tanks, researchers – for example – might not consider it of importance and may need convincing. Worse, there may be mismatched expectations of what is actually on offer. Both of these problems require significant internal communication programmes. These posts suggest various tactics to garner internal support for change.
  5. Falling into the planning paradox: While some may argue that there’s no such thing as ‘too much planning’, it is all too easy to become obsessed with it, often at the detriment of doing. At the other end of the spectrum, over-confidence can lead to a catastrophic lack of planning. And sometimes, things go awry despite the best laid plans. These posts look at different levels of planning and how to build in appropriate planning cycles to help find a middle-road.
  6. Demonstrating the usefulness of communications activities: Demonstrating ‘impact’ has become a common requirement among research and development funders. These requirements more often focus around particular projects, but it’s just as important to be able to show that the communications activities are achieving something at an institutional level. These posts consider what sort of things can and should be measured, and how to embed them into organisational working processes.

Melissa and the rest of the team at ECDPM will share their own institutional experience on what that has looked like for them in practice.

About the authors

Jeff’s observations come from working in three different think tanks or research institutes: the Institute of Development Studies (Brighton, UK), the Overseas Development Institute (London, UK), and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (San Jose, CA, USA). In these organisations, he’s worked in a variety of communication capacities. He has been involved in specific advocacy campaigns, was responsible for the communication remit of specific teams within an organisation, helped to strengthen a central communications team working across an organisation, and currently heads up the ‘research uptake’ activities of a long-term multi-partner consortium.

This experience has informed a particular take on the communication needs of an organisation or programme, which is why he is particularly pleased that ECDPM are on board with this series to provide a diverse view and practical feedback as they share their experiences in translating communications theory into practice.

ECDPM is a “think and do tank” brokering effective development partnerships between the EU and the Global South, particularly Africa. They have communicated well with their target audiences for over 27 years. As an organisation that is highly dependent on gathering information, communicating and participating in global exchanges, they must be at the forefront of effective knowledge management, communication and policy brokerage.

Facing evolving global development paradigms and means of communication, ECDPM has had to develop new strategies and target audiences and ways to communicate with them.  In this context, ECDPM looked into new knowledge management and communications (KM&C) approaches (many of which came from the On Think Tanks blog) and developed a new five-year KM&C strategy which aims to further improve it’s knowledge management and external communications. Melissa is the Communications Manager at ECDPM. She, and her Communications team colleagues hope that, through this “commsversation”, they are able to get answers to their questions about how best to implement the new aspects of their communications strategy.

More about the series

Most of the topics covered in this series will be structured in two main parts. The first section will discuss the challenge that has been identified and will articulate a pertinent objective in working to overcome that challenge. The second section will examine some of the critical steps to achieving that objective and important considerations when attempting to do so. ECDPM’s experience and examples will be included in boxes to give operational insights, and raise questions, on how this can be done.

We hope this series will help to build the capacity of other think tanks and research institutions, especially in developing countries, to strengthening their communications and policy management capacity.

The guide might also be relevant to those responsible for setting up communications or research uptake activities for particular initiatives – whether they be flagship activities, one-off projects, or long running partnerships and networks.

Naturally, some of the objectives and steps proposed will be more relevant to specific organisations or to specific contexts. And as much as we wish there were a simple blueprint to taking communication activities to the next level, there isn’t – if you’re attempting to do the same in your organisation, you may skip steps, prioritise different activities, or do things in a different order. In other words, use the advice provided in these blogs at your own discretion!

We encourage readers to reflect on their own experience and provide feedback on areas that could be strengthened or fill in where there are specific gaps. And if you have particularly relevant examples to add, please share them and let’s discuss in the comments section of each post!

Happy reading, and be on the lookout for our first post with proper content next Tuesday, 27 August!