Think tank perceptions in the UK: the importance of understanding our audiences’ views and needs

30 May 2018

We are Flint  (a communications consultancy) have launched the results of a UK survey aimed at understanding how think tanks are viewed by the general public. The report “Forging the think tank narrative- UK” follows the same methodology as their U.S. report +:  a  nationally representative (age, gender and region) sample of  a little over two thousand adults surveyed online in January 2018 . They have used the same set of questions, which is great as it allows for comparisons (and they aim to use the same set over the years). The results of the survey are unsurprisingly similar too (percental differences are no more than 5%)

Their main findings are the following;

  • The UK public, as in the U.S., do not know what to make of think tanks. Only half know what a think tank is (52%) or does (47%).
  • Even among those who are interested in politics only two-thirds (65%) know what a think tank does
  • 17% overall trust what think tanks have to say, while 55% are unsure.
  • 72% agree that think tanks should be forced to disclose their donors (which is great news to transparency initiatives as it evidences the public support they can harness to push for greater transparency in the sector).
  • Only 16% think that complex policy issues are communicated well (50% disagree and 34% don’t know)

While reflecting on the results (of both reports) I thought that perhaps a next step is untangling how best to communicate complex government policy, as in both contexts the general public thinks the government does a poor job at it. As the reports mentions, this is a space for think tanks to act.

As boundary workers + moving in and out of academia, with links to the government, media etc., think tanks and thinktankers are in a privileged position to engage with the public and help translate complex policy issues into interesting ideas that people can relate to. It is time to get down from our high horses, roll up our sleeves and get down to the business of communicating.  But the question then is, how do we do this? What does it mean to communicate well? What and how much does each type of individual needs and want?

We are Flint argues the following:

“The election victories for Brexit and Trump heralded the return of populist politics. But they also crystallised a failure of communications going back decades. Technical expertise and fact-based policy were brushed aside in favour of an approach which put emotion and gut-feel on an equal footing with evidence and statistics. This is both powerful and dangerous. It signalled to voters that regardless of whether the figures back you up, you have a right to feel the way you do.” Forging the think tank narrative, 2018

And they also ask themselves

How do we make sense of the fact that the public sees experts as credible spokespeople, while simultaneously dismissing their advice?

This is perhaps where we (slightly) disagree. I advocate for the use of evidence and consulting experts; we strongly agree on that. But, people have the right to feel the way they do about evidence and experts. Feelings and emotions should not be disregarded. The results are telling us something about people: they are frustrated, upset, or are lacking something. Disregarding feelings, values and politics limits their engagement: it cuts communication.

Information is not just about facts, and we cannot convince people only with them (as research in psychology shows+). Dismissing how someone feels or thinks, even if it seems irrational to us, is the starting point of a breakdown in communication. We need to understand where people are coming from in order to effectively engage in communication with them.

In a research paper on how to correct misinformation Lewandowsky and cols (2012) + state that people ask themselves four questions (inadvertently and automatically) when thoughtfully evaluating information.

1. Is this information compatible with other things I believe to be true?
2. Is this information internally coherent—do the pieces form a plausible story?
3. Does it come from a credible source?
4. Do other people believe it?
These questions can be answered by drawing on one’s knowledge or by relying on feelings of familiarity and fluency.

Perhaps we could ask ourselves similar questions when planning how to communicate a message and policy issues to the public.

  • How do I make this compatible with the information my audiences hold?
  • Am I being coherent? Is it telling a good story?
  • How credible am I as a source?+
  • Who can we work with to champion our ideas?

We need to use research and technical expertise not only as the content of what we want to communicate but also as the tools for how to do it. Again, there is a role for us to play and we should use our own advice to improve the ways in which we communicate.

Back to the survey by We are Flint: both the British and American reports offer insights into the public’s perception of think tanks. This is important and an invitation to make a greater effort to communicate effectively with them.

In developing countries, where the think tank label is rarely used and where think tanks themselves are less common, they would likely be less well known. They face both a challenge and an opportunity to reach out to the public and make a case for their role in their societies.