Taking think tank communications to the next level: Determining what goes where (Part 1)

8 October 2013

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

Unless a think tank is comprised of only one person, it’s unlikely (and perhaps unwise) that each person in a team has exactly the same skill set. In a similar way, various parts of a think tank or research organisation must specialise in specific functions and skills – a Durkheimian ‘organic society’ writ small. For such a society, Durkheim observed that they were more likely to have laws and regulations that facilitated cooperation rather than those that punished individuals. Kicking communications activities up a gear within an organisation requires a similar approach: rules (however formal or informal) that facilitate cooperation around its constituent parts.

Within the communications remit, that’s about figuring out what goes where. In other words, it’s about determining: a) what should get done, b) who is best placed to do it, and c) empowering those who are best placed to do it to, well, actually do it!

I’ve seen various different models for this – everything from a strict ‘command and control’ model (the phrase ‘YOU DO NOT SPEAK TO THE MEDIA. ONLY I SPEAK TO THE MEDIA. IF THE MEDIA COME TO YOU, YOU COME TO ME. GOT THAT?’, comes to mind) through to a highly decentralised laissez faire approach. Except in extreme situations, I would veer towards a middle ground – one that creates clear roles and expectations for all players, perhaps formalised through some sort of ‘service level agreement’ (SLA).

But before we get there, let’s start in this first post of this section by talking about ‘le petit a’ in the paragraph before: determining what ought to get done. And when thinking of communication planning, let’s put it within the context of the content strategy.

What is a content strategy?

A content strategy is a basic framework to ensure a range of appropriate content in a timely manner. It should be based on a clear understanding of the type of work an organisation does as well as their target audiences, which we conveniently just covered in the previous set of blogs (it’s like we planned it or something!).

Core outputs

The most important element of a content strategy is setting out the stall of core outputs to be produced by a particular project or organisation. This allows a project or think tank to clearly establish specialised series of outputs, which helps to establish a strong brand and pre-determined channels and structures for researchers to publish.

The types of output should be clearly distinct from one another. The Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement (CHFI – previously CHSRF) recommends a 1:3:30 strategy, whereby a report should be published in a one-page overview, a three-page summary and 30-page full report. While I think it is excellent advice for publishing reports (though I would probably prefer a 1/2:4:32 strategy given constraints of paper-based publishing), I would argue that different lengths do not make different series in and of themselves. Rather, in creating different output series, we’re looking to reach different types of audience using truly distinct formats.

To set out the stall, each output type should be complemented by a short description, as well as certain characteristics of each. This can be produced in a tabular format for quick reference. Although there will be others depending on the organisational context, important characteristics to include might be:

  • Target audiences: Who are those most likely to access such a document?
  • Length: If it’s a written publication, include word counts. If it’s an audiovisual output, include target duration.
  • Style and tone of the output: Should the output be produced from a subjective or an objective lens or a mix of both. How formal should the language be.
  • Production specifications: If it’s a printed output, how big is a typical production run and what are the costs and printing times – don’t forget editing costs! If it’s an audiovisual output, are there costs associated with recording or development, etc.
  • Participation requirements: Who is responsible for each stage of review and production? Who will take care of editing, formatting, proofing, sign off, etc? High level outputs might be more controlled by a central communication team, for example, while in other cases project/team resources will need to be utilised.
  • Review process/requirements: Just because an output doesn’t appear in a journal article doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be reviewed by qualified sources. That might be peer review, or perhaps sign off from different levels of authority within an organisation depending on the sensitivity of a subject.
  • Lead times: This is the most important part for a communications team to set out – estimated reasonable times for production of these outputs. They are usually to be treated as suggestions, and there must be some flexibility, especially when content is reactive rather than proactive, but there needs to be a clear indication of how time intensive production might be.

ECDPM’s publication flowchart 

While we’re struggling to establish user-friendly overall communications planning tools, we’re already quite good at encouraging forward planning for our publications. We have review processes and requirements that work well, but that vary between our programmes and which could be improved in some cases. The challenge is how to ensure proper quality checks within tight deadlines. Laura Zommer has elaborated this challenge on the On Think Tanks blog. The Centre for Global Development has very specific policies on this. What other examples are out there?


Additional flexible outputs

In addition to an articulation of core output types, a content strategy should also identify supporting dissemination mechanisms and more flexible outputs. As a guiding principle, these sorts of output should help support the guiding principle of consistency. In marketing terms, this is often expressed as 1:7:30:4:2:1. In other words, what types of content can be created daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, biennially and annually? In the age of the internet, many of the core outputs should fall in the weekly/monthly/quarterly category. Often, an annual report is also produced. But for a daily and weekly flow of content, other strategies need to be developed – usually around creating blogs, news stories, tweets, videos, etc. However, these ‘flexible’ outputs might also include larger one-off specials, depending on the needs of particular projects.

Making the implicit explicit

Many communications strategies, objectives and steps are implicit at ECDPM and could be improved by being made more explicit and user-friendly.  But implementing new communications strategies is having to be done in parallel with maintaining our existing communications products and commitments. With limited resources, this requires prioritising and may lead to some things not getting done as fast as they ideally could (and frustration). Communications teams therefore need to communicate well internally on what is being done, priorities and timing.

Any advice from think tanks facing similar challenges?