Think tank perceptions in the USA: a glass half full

18 April 2018

The credibility of a think tank rests not only on their own actions (and how their stakeholder’s view them), but also on how the sector is perceived. Reports of lack of transparency or intellectual independence damage the credibility of the sector as a whole + or, spinning this into a positive angle, the good deeds and reputation of the most visible think tanks can also raise the credibility of the sector.

In light of the crisis of experts and the dismissal of their advice, as seen during the Trump campaign, We are Flint  (a communications consultancy) sought to understand how think tanks are viewed by the general public in the USA. They surveyed a sample of 2007 adults and published the report “Forging the Think Tank Narrative”. Their main finding is that people in the USA mostly don’t know what to make of think tanks: only 50% of respondents know what a think tank is, 46% know what a think tank does, + and 56% don´t know whether to trust them or not. Even among those that report an interest in politics only two-thirds (63%) say they know what a think tank actually does.

The survey also asked respondents about their political engagement and classified them into four groups: Insider (12%), Activist (23%), Engaged (36%) and Spectator (56%). The report gets a little muddy here, as  despite being a classification people could choose any or all of the labels, so the numbers don’t add up. But, the authors did include “Not sure” and “Neither agree nor disagree” options so they would have a segment of people who said no or don’t know to everything. Out of the total sample 34% responded in this way. This was done to be able to compare complete outsiders (people that have no relationship with politics) with those that that had any form of relationship with it. In any case the results are very interesting and provide a lot of food for thought.

The results + show a significant disconnect between the views of those that report working in the realm of politics, policy or government (“Insiders”) and those who are just interested in politics but not active (“Spectators”). Insiders considered that think tanks have the interests of the elite at hand (71%) much more than spectators (41%). But, interestingly, Insiders also considered that think tanks do work that matters to them (73% vs 36%) and trusted them more (64% vs 28%).  Additionally, in all of these statements almost half of the Spectators did not know how to answer. Finally, while 66% of Insiders think complex government policy is communicated well, an analysis of the whole sample +reveals that 55% disagrees with this statement or doesn’t know (28%).

Upon reflection, the findings are not that surprising. After all, think tanks don’t tend to engage with the general public at large, but rather speak, work and coordinate more directly with their stakeholders. But it should be a wake-up call and seen as an opportunity to act and engage with the broader public. The credibility of experts and think tanks is being increasingly put on the spot in the media, + and thus the think tank label is gaining recognition among people previously unaware of them. The fact that only half of respondents know what a think tank is is an excellent opportunity to frame the message of what think tanks, as a whole, are and do. Once and idea is installed, people are very reluctant to change it, despite any efforts to do so or whether the idea is true of false.+ Thus, as the report suggests, we should seize the opportunity to collectively shape the message and show with actions the value of think tanks for public policy.

Credibility is determined by how a person evaluates the expertise and trustworthiness of a source. Trust is thus at the core of the concept of credibility. But you can´t trust what you don´t know. Each person has a slightly different idea of what a credible organisation is- their credibility construct is different- and different aspects signal either trust or expertise to them.+ Think tanks need to understand the aspects that are crucial for their wider audiences and give prominence to the aspects that are relevant to the public they are trying to communicate with. Based on the findings of We are Flint’s report I would argue that the group that we should target our efforts to are the ones that don´t know what a think tank is but have some sort of political engagement (Engaged and Spectators). The message and actions of think tanks will be of interest to them. We should also focus on women, younger generations and people with lower earnings, as the results show they know less what think tanks are and do. 67% of those who know what a think tank is agree that think tanks should be forced to disclose their donors. Given the accusations of corporate lobbying, communications efforts should include what think tanks do and foster transparency to enhance trust.  

As a sector we need to get out there and help forge an image of think tanks as credible organisations. Only half of respondents knew about them- we need to help set a positive message before the narrative is set by others. The cases of corruption can lead to the idea that all think tanks are bad and lack credibility, which is certainly not true. The narrative is there for the taking and we need to get out there and shape what people think of think tanks.