The creation of a Communications Unit showed that, besides being a support for the diffusion of content, it could contribute to the task of attracting future projects.
Continuing with CIPPEC’s efforts to learn from and share experiences and processes of peer organizations through Bridging Research and Policy in Latin America (VIPPAL) in this opportunity I interviewed Monica Galilea, formerly responsible for communication at the Centro de Analisis y Difusion de la Economía Paraguaya (CADEP), a think tank in Paraguay.
The interview is very useful for those in charge of communication at a think tank, as well as for those who want to encourage the creation of communication areas within their organisations (see also the interview to Laura Zommer, CIPPEC’s former Head of Communications). Monica tells us about the process that led to the institutionalisation of communication processes within CADEP, why they decided to create a communication area and what were its attributions. She also provides some tips on tools that were effective for engaging different actors working on the policy arena and highlights some personal and professional characteristics that a head of communication should have.
You can find the interview in Spanish at VIPPAL. It was translated to English by Andrea Moncada.
Leandro Echt: Where was CADEP in terms of communication when you arrived at the institution? What were the organization’s main challenges y and strengths?
Monica Galilea: Since its creation in 1990, CADEP maintained contact with several economic and social actors.
Fernando Masi, its director and one of its founders, acknowledges that since the beginning there was an important need to communicate due to the circumstances that the country was in after the dictatorship (1954-1989), which demanded that professionals dedicated to knowledge give their opinion and recommendation on policies through the media. At the same time, CADEP fostered dialogue between the corporate sector and policy makers about policy issues. Finally, all of that was translated into impact on public policy at the central and local government, supported by studies and research.
However, this good relationship with the media began to experience difficulties since 2003 when members of CADEP were invited to be part of the Cabinet of Ministers of two consecutive governments. That caused CADEP to slowly disappear in the eyes of the press, out of fear that their opinions would be confused with governmental policies. Furthermore, communication was strictly dealt by CADEP’s directors, without any sort of institutional structure.
So communication was reduced to a web page by 2008, and later to the creation of a fan page on Facebook in 2010. With strategic planning in 2011 and with the support of the Think Tank Initiative from Canada’s IDRC, it was decided to elaborate a communications strategy and to create a Communications Unit. This strategy would be oriented to educate civil society agents in their demands for public policy, as well as to educate those media agents who could make an impact on public policy about the sort of issues that CADEP specialised in.
LE: Did you join CADEP to improve communications processes or was this implemented as time went by?
MG: CADEP decided to create a Communications Unit and my first task was to elaborate an External Communication Plan based on the main strengths of the institution and the opportunities that were presented.
The strengths of the institution were the high levels of production of media worthy material, the quality of its research, and its good relations with the press, as well as the Board’s support to have more systematic and structured communication. There was also an unsatisfied demand for the understanding of economic content, mainly from the press.
The efforts made between researchers and the Communications Unit has resulted in a new presence of CADEP among the media and in an increase in the quantity of users of institutional resources.
Between July and December of 2011, we had not gone beyond the 20 mentions per month in the press. Since January 2012, appearances in these spaces increased progressively, coming to a head in March with 56 mentions. This increase in presence encouraged researchers to become more involved in the strategy to increase coverage. This made the creation of relations of trust between journalists and researchers possible, based on precise and relevant information with high scientific quality.
The relationship between journalists and researchers strengthened to the point where members of the press began soliciting the elaboration of reports on specific topics and gathering information directly from the CADEP web page for their publications. This way we have demonstrated that scientific material translated to a less technical language becomes attractive to the media.
On the other hand, collaborations with civil society organisations have been undertaken in order to spread information and to provide the latter with content for their events and workshops directed towards the social sector. These kinds of opportunities gave CADEP visibility in the web page and fan page of these organisations. We have also received proposals to spread scientific content alongside other regional research institutes.
LE: Was there a plan for the innovation of the communications process? How was it designed? What were the steps and/or actions taken?
MG: The plan’s starting point was the creation of a Communications Unit in charge of the Centre’s institutional communication administration, under the coordination of staff coached on the subject and on the purchase of the necessary equipment.
Since its creation in 2011, the Communications Unit’s job was done alongside the Research Coordination. This way, communicators were introduced to CADEP’s themes and content, the work culture and the frequency of the academic production. This collaboration also allowed the development of simple language for appropriate communication spaces that was also academically rigorous, a specific element of the institution’s identity. Besides the exchange with the Research Coordination, the Communications Unit developed a strong relationship with researchers who put together dissemination plans for several project’s products and CADEP’s own publications as well as with other institutions.
This way, the dissemination of content to members of the press and to institutional spaces is now systematic. A CADEP calendar of activities has been applied, which allows the coordination of the activities of several projects and keeps the staff informed. We also made way for new free institutional spaces such as a YouTube channel (video storage) and SoundCloud (audio storage). The institutional web page was redesigned and a massive email system was implemented. A digital archive for mentions in the press was created. A dissemination policy that only allowed for press releases when there were sustaining academic materials available was established. Actions were taken to make CADEP a reference for journalists on certain topics. The clearest example was the treatment that the CADEP’s International Economy Observatory gave to the problems between Paraguay and other Mercosur members and to Argentina’s economic situation in general.
LE: Which were the main challenges that you faced at the beginning?
MG: One of the most important challenges, which came up before my arrival, was to respond to the following question: ‘why invest in communication when, in spite of hard efforts, we could barely get financing for research?’ That question makes sense in a country whose public and private sector show little commitment to research, leaving it to the hands of international organisations and foundations.
Another difficulty we found was a reluctant attitude among researchers (but not the founders) towards the press. There was the belief that the press was not sufficiently qualified to correctly interpret research and thus, communicate it. There was also the fear that research content could be misconstrued, as well as researchers’ opinions because many CADEP members held public positions. On the other hand, people believed that the content created by the organisation would never be of interest to the press since it dealt with complex topics, many of which weren’t current. However, once we adjusted the content to journalistic criteria we started participating actively in the press, in radio and in television.
Yet another challenge was to understand how the press worked. It is believed that an initial contact with it will achieve interesting repercussions. Actually, relations are built upon. Several things must be taken into consideration, such as the time the press has to produce their material, newspaper closing times or publication times, the schedules in which they produce their coverage agendas and how material must be written for it to be interesting. At the same time, it must be understood that on occasions repercussions will not be what was desired because another issue (of more importance to the editor or the media in question) overshadowed our material.
Another aspect to take into account is that we cannot force the press to publish what we want, we can only accompany then in the approach we want to give to the information. On the other hand, it is important to remember that the press may make mistakes and it’s our duty to communicate in order to highlight the mistake with the purpose of helping them in their desirable treatment of information. In the future, the organisation can also get it wrong and communicate incorrect data; if we have good relations with the press, the impact of the mistake might be less than if we didn’t. Frequent information emission rates are also important when establishing a relationship with this sector because it allows us to maintain constant contact and be regular providers to the media.
LE: How can one person, without a supporting team, improve organisational processes?
MG: It’s practically impossible to generate change if there isn’t real commitment from the agents that have to create said change and support it. In CADEP’s case, it was understood that to achieve institutional growth it was necessary to set a path. This materialized with the elaboration of a Strategic Planning in which Lucas Arce and Belen Servin participated, the former later taking charge of the Research Coordination and the latter the current coordinator of CADEP’s International Economy Observatory. With this plan, the need to communicate in a coordinated manner with the other institutional departments was raised. However, the daily reality was the real challenge to the plan and many other actions were implemented that were proposed by the researchers and by the Board.
This work would not have been possible without the efforts of all the institution members; the Board giving the approach for content communication and collaborating with diffusion strategies; the Research Coordination motivating the Communications members and coming up with creative ideas to communicate content and collaborating with the content quality control process; the Communications Assistance, the Administration and other members, all offering operative support.
It’s worth mentioning the wishes of the Research Coordination and the researchers to develop new ways to approach the desired publics. The meetings between the Board, the Research Coordination and Research and Communication were almost daily, in order to follow up the communications strategy and the institutional projects’ objectives.
LE: Do you think you contributed to an improvement in CADEP communications?
MG: The improvement in communications begins with the creation of an institutionalized spaced in order to undertake the task. The hiring of personnel and equipment purchasing showed the Board’s interest and commitment with this department.
Its creation supposed that many of the tasks that fell exclusively on the Board or the researchers and staff members were now to be shared or absorbed by Communications, giving them more time for their activities or allowing them to carry out more communications activities.
The creation of a Communications Unit showed that, besides being a support for the diffusion of content, it could contribute to the task of attracting future projects.
Lastly, counting with a Communications Department in an organisation stimulates the creation of spaces for exchange between its members and drives the implementation of new ways to make known the evidence that the Centre generates.
LE: What personal and professional characteristics should a Communications director of a think tank have?
MG: As to the former, I would highlight:
- Being proactive: Proposing new ways to communicate and investigate on new tools that make this job easier. It’s fundamental to plan ahead in order to innovate. Otherwise, the day to day functions will not allow the staff to do this.
- Be a team player: Even if the communicator works individually when publishing materials, he or she needs to work as a team in order to produce content. They must also promote participation in the organisation and the members’ commitment to strategic objectives.
- Strategic thinking: They must administer resources and follow up the organisation’s institutional communication plan. It’s fundamental that they count on a team that helps with administrative tasks.
- Being open and accessible: The individual should be willing to listen with interest to the needs of the internal and external publics, and establish spaces that allow for periodical exchange with them.
As to professional characteristics, they should have:
- Knowledge in the areas of Communication, Public Relations, Publicity, Journalism and Audiovisual media, as well as institutional communications.They should also have experience in these areas, particularly in Journalism and Institutional Communication.
- Good writing and oral communication, both in English and Spanish; and good use of office and Internet tools.
LE: In what way and how is communication linked to impact on public policy? Why should a think tank strongly invest in communication?
MG: Impact on public policy is the result of attempts to influence decision making elites. In said process, communication is key and present in several moments. Once the problem has been construed and there is knowledge and evidence regarding it, it’s Communications’ job to produce content in order to diffuse it to the press, for example. The organisation will look to introduce this content into the public agenda and there must be a communications campaign for it. Communications collaborates in the development of activities where debate is fostered on the issues on which the institution wants to influence. Besides, it will also spread the successes of the communications campaign.
LE: What kind of strategies or tools would you consider to be most effective when communicating with key actors in the public policy making process?
MG: Each objective has a strategy, actions and tools that must be applied to achieve it. In CADEP’s case, the Communications Unit has worked from July 2011 to August 2012 main on: a) the press, b) those who use institutional communications spaces (social media and web page) and c) with civil society organisations.
Regarding the press, it is recommended to produce a map that clearly shows which channels, programs and communicators interest us because they reach our target audiences. Once we’ve identified them, we should produce content that is in news format while identifying the message that we want to send out to the audience. In order to facilitate the publications process in the media, information should be sent out taking into account the work culture and the times when information is drawn up in the media. It is fundamental to stay in touch frequently and to be accessible. Training in this sector can be very effective when putting certain issues in the public agenda. CADEP’s International Economy Observatory, in conjunction with the Communications Unit, organised workshops for journalists of the press, radio and television, as well as for public sector communicators.
As for spaces in institutional communication, an intuitive and dynamic web page favors exchanges with our users, who may also be journalists. Social media is also an exceptional channel to make our news known and to increase web page visits.
LE: What is the most appropriate balance between external and internal communication?
MG: Organisations should pay attention and set aside resources for both. But external communication is the first one to be analysed because it gives visibility in a short period of time. In order words, we expect rapid results. However, for the organisation’s members to understand their role in achieving influence roles, it is fundamental to have internal communication spaces.
A good handling of internal communications will promote better interpersonal relationships, will improve the workspace climate and will commit the different members of the organisation to the strategic objectives of the latter. Only this way will a process of change and of constant achievement of institutional goals be sustainable.
External communication may be a very effective tool in giving high visibility to the organisation and to justify the investment, but if we add internal communication strategies to external ones, we will be assuring a long term strengthening of the organisation.
LE: What are the three pieces of advice that you would give to the leader of a communications team in developing country organisations that would like to improve these processes?
- Diagnose before acting:Before undertaking any actions, the communicator should diagnose its organisation’s situation regarding communication. They could begin with an external communication diagnosis and then put together an internal communication report. It is likely that both diagnostics reveal several needs, but they must be ordered according to priorities.
- Establishing concrete and attainable objectives: After identifying needs, they should establish the actions that are needed to achieve the proposed goals. These actions should be concrete and attainable; in other words, the organisation should count on the human and material resources necessary to make them possible. Besides, they should be scheduled in order to avoid doing them at the same time.
- Evaluation: Lastly, it is fundamental to communicate to the members of the organisation the advances in the implementation of the plan, as a way to motive the staff directly involved (in this case, the Communications staff) and to strengthen the Centre’s desired image on the other members.