Taking think tank communications to the next level: Determining what goes where (Part 2)

15 October 2013

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

In this set of blog posts, we’re working to help a more centralised communications unit think through ‘what goes where’ in terms of communication outputs. The previous post suggested that this can be achieved by working through three steps: 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 do it.

To answer the first question, the post examined what an informed content strategy looked like. And before we dive into step b, let’s consider first why we even need a content strategy.

Why is a content strategy necessary?

At the end of the day, think tanks and research institutes, no matter where they’re based, trade in ideas. This implies two things: first, a stream of new (or appropriately recycled) ideas; and second, an audience to engage with these ideas. The latter is often overlooked.

Any of the tools or channels a think tank uses to get their information out there, through direct meetings, an institutional website, newsletter, blog or social media, for example, are merely attempts to reach an audience. Indeed, while I cannot remember who imparted this wisdom, I’ve always taken to heart the notion that ‘TV and radio stations don’t sell airtime to advertisers, they sell access to audiences’. Think tanks might not be looking for advertisers, but they are certainly looking to sell their ideas.

Ultimately, there are only two ways to reach an audience: 1) build your own, or 2) buy, beg, borrow or steal somebody else’s. There are perhaps good arguments for any of these approaches depending on the type of organisation and the situation in which they find themselves. But a content strategy is there to help with the first approach: building an organisation’s own audience.

Building an audience, no matter who they are, takes time, as it’s all about establishing trust and strengthening relationships. Both of these require a strong brand, and consistency. The latter is where content strategies really shine.

For the most part, the work of a think tank research is far from consistent. Research projects have their own life cycles, with different potential outputs along the way – but often large gaps while the research is underway. Some “think and do” tanks like ECDPM work behind the scenes and the information gained is confidential. Additionally, research institutes on the more academic side of the spectrum may shy away from outputs outside of journal articles, which often have specific requirements that the content not be published elsewhere and also have longer turnaround times.

These are serious challenges for project-based communications, but they can be somewhat mitigated at an institutional level if many projects are underway simultaneously. In fact, central communications teams in think tanks might face the opposite situation: too many ideas competing for the same audience at the same time and limited bandwidth (staff and channels resources) to deal with all the requests. Project timings may create peaks and troughs in the flow of new content. For example, many projects might try to close out activities at the end of a fiscal year and suddenly appear with an array of outputs promised to funders. Or, politically oriented think tanks might have a push around the re-opening of sessions of Parliament/Congress, or around party conferences, or at other important political moments such as elections. On the other hand, in Europe, it’s all but dead during the month of August and communications teams may face a dearth of new content. In Argentina, and indeed across much of the antipodes, not much happens in January. And I am sure every country has its own ‘slow news’ time of the year.

Having a content strategy in hand can help smooth these peaks and troughs, and once the way of thinking becomes more institutionalised across projects and organisations, can help inform the planning of project outputs themselves.

A content strategy can also help in developing new products and services to keep target audiences engaged. With developments in modern communication technologies, it’s not hard to push information out to fairly targeted audiences, but it is more difficult to find ways of providing them relevant services so they keep on coming back. See this idea from ECDPM, for an interesting example.

Product innovation: The Weekly Compass and The Filter 

The ECDPM Weekly Compass is a news bulletin on the latest policy issues concerning international cooperation, with a focus on the EU and its relations with countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. It was launched in June 2009 and is ECDPM’s flagship communications product with over 9.000 subscribers.

The predecessor to the Weekly Compass was a weekly e-mail (first with a subject line of “Various items of potential interest” and later “ACP-EU News”) of useful information on key policy debates and ECDPM’s work in relation to these sent from 1998-2009 from Melissa Julian, who was then a Programme Associate of ECDPM, to ECDPM staff and targeted ACP and EU stakeholders (some 100 or so contacts). Melissa was hired as a Programme Associate in January 1998 before ECDPM had a Brussels office and was tasked with informing ECDPM staff and targeted ACP-EU stakeholders on the key debates taking place in Brussels on ACP-EU relations.

Over the years, the mailing list expanded significantly as contacts were identified and requests were made to be added to the mailing list.  Reciprocity of information exchange increased.

Feedback received directly from readers and the external evaluation of ECDPM in 2006 showed the e-mail was widely read and appreciated for filling a necessary niche for information and was a key information product associated with ECDPM.

Melissa was hired as a full time ECDPM Knowledge Management Officer in January 2009 and ECDPM resources were invested in improving her weekly provision of information by creating a fully-fledged ECDPM weekly e-alert – the Weekly Compass (and accompanying Weekly Compass-Extended Version). Support was provided and the writing has improved, the length has been shortened, new social media tools are used to multiply the ways information is provided (in addition to the personalised e-mail aimed at increasing reciprocity in information exchange), archived and managed. The Weekly Compass is incorporated into the ECDPM website and it is fully integrated into to ECDPM programmes.

Similarly, we have launched a major new ECDPM communications product, “The Filter”, which will be a fully ECDPM-branded news curation service building on the past success of the Weekly Compass-Extended Version curation service housed on the “delicious” social bookmarking site.

With that in mind, next week we’ll come back with who should be doing what!