Think tank outreach depends on improving collaboration between communications teams and researchers

30 June 2022

How well does your communications (comms) team collaborate with the researchers or policy experts at your think tank? Is your comms team only brought in when a paper is ready to be published? Does your feedback matter? 

Researchers at think tanks can find it hard to adjust their outputs to different target audiences after careers in academia and government. They may not know how to condense research and make it engaging to an audience beyond other experts. And comms staff editing and promoting their work can sometimes miss important details or focus on the wrong takeaway. 

That’s the difficulty. 

But researchers and comms staff can create engaging and factual products that maximize the impact of research by working together.

How can comms teams build trust with researchers to make this workflow practical?

Comms teams can help cultivate a culture where collaboration is normal and encouraged by starting small and gradually working to get researchers and leadership onboard. 

Find someone who’s open to trying new approaches and work with them if there isn’t much collaboration in your institution. Demonstrate success and others will soon follow. 

Hone your teamwork skills, particularly listening and fostering positive relationships. This takes time to master – although it may sound simple and obvious!

Top five tips to improve collaboration

1. Involve comms staff early in the production process.

Researchers should give comms staff time to review the research. Comms can suggest and execute ideas about data visualizations, editing, and promotional plans more effectively if they’re given more time. 

Our comms team gets a head start by asking to automatically be included when early drafts are distributed among research staff. 

Involve comms during the planning stages of major projects so they can provide input on timing releases and formatting. They could also make suggestions about which research topics and aspects to cover or emphasise to generate wider interest. 

Some researchers bring their data to us for suggestions on visuals before they start writing. In these conversations, we, as non-experts, must grasp the points they want to visualise. These exchanges can sometimes influence how the paper is eventually written as well as how visuals are designed.

2. Comms teams should take the initiative to generate ideas. 

Researchers are often receptive to new approaches, especially regarding visuals and ‘spin-off’ content for social media. But researchers don’t always have time or the perspective to generate these ideas – this is where comms can help. 

Comms teams should look out for opportunities and news angles and not be afraid to pitch ideas. 

Not every idea will work out – that’s guaranteed! Obstacles can always arise. People may not be available to give feedback to the comms team in time for ideas to be implemented. Or comms teams and experts may differ in the points they want to convey.

Don’t worry if some ideas don’t work out. Aim to gain perspective over time on what is effective. Ask yourself questions. What is likely to be approved by the researcher? What is feasible? What approaches have a higher success rate?  

3. Do your homework before engaging researchers.

Read what the researchers produce. Learn all you can about their research fields, relevant news, and important players. This will empower you to make more substantive recommendations so is worth the effort. 

Don’t pursue ideas unless they justify everyone’s efforts and time. Try to do most of the legwork for the project before seeking help or feedback. This will show that you respect researchers’ time. 

Ask for an explanation if something is unclear before you go too far in one direction though. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of people who know more than you! 

4. Get approval and respect boundaries.

Build trust by always getting a researcher’s signoff or by establishing a mutual understanding about when they should review something. 

Always ask if you’re unsure whether something you’ve edited or created is okay to publish. 

Know when to push back, find a compromise, or accept researchers’ decisions. Understand that the researchers remain the author – their reputations are at stake when they publish their views.

5. Show evidence that your approaches are working.  

Evidence-based decisions aren’t only for the policymakers! Show your researchers and the leadership how editorial decisions, content ideas, and marketing approaches are helping them reach audiences. 

We give everyone access to our live website statistics, share notable successes with individuals, and copy management into our messaging. This generates more organisational support. 

Collecting these examples is useful when reporting to stakeholders – especially board members, who know about the challenges of communicating. 

Do these things and you can create a positive feedback loop over time. This loop shows researchers when something has worked well, making them happy with your results. They will then want to collaborate more with your comms team.