Think tanks and communication workshop: a learner’s perspective

11 June 2014
SERIES Communication as an orchestra 7 items

[Editor’s note: this post was written by Palash Sanyal from the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Bangladesh. He was one of the participants of the #Dhakacomms workshop. Here, he provides a learner’s account of the workshop.]

Day 1

Listening to Enrique reminded me how significant communication can be for any organisation. Enrique conducted a workshop in Dhaka from 18 May to 21 May at BRAC Centre Inn where I had the chance to take part as a member of Centre for Policy Dialogue’s (CPD, Bangladesh) communication division. The other organisations taking part were the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and the Institute of Governance Studies (IGS). Members from the Institute of Development Studies in the UK were also present. The 4-day long workshop was divided in three sessions each day.

In a pre-workshop task given by Enrique, I gained some interesting insights about Think Tanks. While trying to define what a Think Tank is, I came across a puzzle. What is the difference between NGOs, Research Organisations and Think Tanks?

To me, think tanks directly engage in policy influencing while NGOs and Research Organisations may not. Later on, I found Enrique’s definition of Think Tanks quite detailed and organised.

After an introductory session, the focus of the second session of the first day was also about understanding think tanks, their functions and the role of communication in think tanks. One thought-provoking learning for me was realising that policy can be influenced without research through effective communication, as history itself bears the examples. As described by Claire Fox, “Historically, what has moved millions to act upon the world and change things for the better has been big ideas, such as freedom, progress, civilisation and democracy.”

As Enrique drove us into the role of the communication department in think tanks, he introduced us to the ‘communication as an orchestra’ approach. In this approach a matrix is formed with the four channels of think tank communication (Publication, Online/Digital, Media, and Events) and their tools. The four participating organisations were told to write down the tools they use presently for each of the four channels on individual cards. Later on, the cards were pinned for each channel on to a wall.

To me, the drill was highly effective. I believe this helped us to get a standardised picture of the communications tools we use in think tanks representing the participants. Also, it provided us with the chance to compare the communication tools used by four different think tanks. As was expected, the number of digital tools were more than that of others, but the southern think tanks lagged behind in using most of them or were at early stages of it.

The reasons are quite understandable. For example, in Bangladesh it would be quite hard to hold an event with digital tools only. I attended a training two days after the #Dhakacomms workshop. The organiser tried to hold the event only using Eventbrite. But at the venue, many did not bring their e-ticket or even a hard copy of their ticket. The culture of using digital/online social media for practical use is yet to be developed. But the attempt can be made.

Also, finding the right tool is important because in this era of software and apps, there are plenty of tools to work with. As the think tanks have their own mandates, they should experiment with tools that go well with their interests. So, they first need to know what they want to achieve, need to visualise the goals or, better said ‘illustrate the future’. One needs to keep in my mind the aspects, complications, and to what extent they can be realistic. Approximate answers to exact questions are always better than having exact answers for approximate questions.

Moreover, I think there is stress and pressure for trying new communication tools. All over the world, organisations face new challenges related to how they communicate. So it’s central that they take adaptive changes to deal with the challenges. Also it’s quite normal that change will create tension. People love and want stability. Up to a certain level, an organization or community can handle the stress of a change. How organisations deal with this dilemma—outlines their success and success of the tools they used.

Having said that, I believe the tools that we learned about during the workshop, can make the work of a communication team in a think tank easier and, more importantly, effective.

Day 2

The second day of the #Dhakacomms workshop was about trying to understand what we need as a communication team of a think tank. We got a standard view of the tools that can be used as well as which are the effective ones for ‘my’ organisation.

Different think tanks work with different communities, contexts and agendas. So, the tools should vary accordingly. The main goal should be to communicate effectively. We should ask questions like, “Are we overdoing things?”, “Are the things we are doing necessary?” and many other. One particular enlightening point for me was a question raised by Enrique, “What is the centre of our universe? Ideas or Formats?” As I work in publications, I do feel the impasse at times. What to focus on – Ideas or Formats?

So, in the morning we were all asked to do an exercise. Finding the questions and trying to answer those, necessary for each of our organisation. It was a group task and each of the think tanks were brainstorming. While doing the exercise we focused on trying to find:

  1. What are the tools in each of the four channels that we use, and that can be grouped together?
  2. What tools we are using, that we may not need after all? We may need it, but would it serve our organisational goals?
  3. What tools are we missing? What we think can be put into effective use and we want to try?

CPD came up with the diagram on the right.DAY 2_Pic

The yellow cards represented tools we use and the violet cards represented tools we want to use or try.

Also we tried to define the rules that are usually visible but unwritten between the channels in a communication department. Like holding a dialogue, organising an event or, in our (CPD) case, the whole process of research work publication (which may include both dialogue and event).

Here is a preview of what we presented.

The outcome of the exercise was much clearer afterwards. We got a vibrant view of the relationships between our channels and tools. Also we had a stronger sense about where each fits and how each contribute to the overall purpose.

The 2nd session of the day was about Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). It is true that M&E of the impact of a think tank is often a difficult task. But as often exhibiting the impact is a prerequisite for funding, think tanks are under pressure to showcase their influence.

Here is where communications comes into play. Technology gives us the opportunity to track our work, to quantify the impact. But, it is also true that technological data can be misleading. For example, a person can watch a video three times on the internet and the person uploaded the video would think that it reached three viewers. Then again, if you only consider unique counts, 3 people sharing the same computer or IP would be measured as one view. But considering these anomalies, an approximate data comes forth, which can be used as an indicator. Such indicators also include: number of downloads of a research paper, number of times think tanks or their research work or their researchers being quoted, number of people watching live streaming, number of newspapers covering an event, number of publication copies being distributed etc.

One interesting thing came out from the discussion was that to comply with the donors required criteria of ‘impact’, think tanks in developing countries worry more about maintaining accountability to foreign funders than to domestic patrons.

An important realisation for me after the day was that even researchers communicate, at least they should. Otherwise, they would not be able to know whether they are right or wrong or if they are reaching the audiences or not. They can do it themselves if they want. But each trying to communicate individually under one roof could create a complete chaos (like everybody playing on their own in an orchestra). That is why there should be a communications team consisting of one to several people depending on the task. The dissemination of the result would be in the hand of the communications department which would make sure that the work reaches the places needed. One example I found really interesting to mention here was from CIPPEC. Enrique has an excellent article on CIPPEC’s strong communications team.

At the end of the day, we did another exercise. This time, we had to select a tool for each of the four channels and describe ‘What we had to know about the tools that would tell us if we were doing a good job’. Details of the exercise can be found on Enrique’s blog.

The exercise gave us a more accurate understanding of how to monitor, what criteria to consider and how to be precise and set a standard.

Day 2 ended a bit late, but it was productive. Asking questions is easy, but finding the right question to ask among all queries is tough. Also, with time, the questions will evolve. And the communications team of a think tank must set those questions in place well in advance in order to get a glimpse of the think tank’s impact.

Day 3

Day 2 was quite packed for the workshop participants as they went out for a city tour at the end of the sessions.

The third day of the #Dhakacomms workshop kicked off with a follow-up session on a discussion that started the day before: what is the best timing of an event or dialogue or a research publication?

In other words, when to organize an event or to publish a paper? Researchers often feel the temptation to let the world know about their findings (they do have good reasons to do so) right after they come to a conclusion. But everything has its moment. The arguments from the study may not be politically relevant at the time and it may be better for the researchers to wait until a window of opportunity opens. So, to have maximum exposure and impact, the temptation needs to be resisted. And communication teams will come in handy in such situations.

The first task of the day for the think tanks was to identify the exact channels and tools that they used in one of their past projects. We, CPD, took a very recent dialogue on political parties of Bangladesh. Then we were asked to brainstorm what more we could have done to have maximum exposure and impact. This is how it looked:

DAY 3_Pic

The yellow and violet cards represented the steps and tools used; blue cards are the ones that CPD communication team thought could have been included in the process. To share with others, an individual from each of the think tanks described the whole process to others. And other think tanks were asked to give feedback and generate ideas. For Example, IGS and SDPI was given a brief about CPD’s dialogue and they gave feedback and suggested what they would have done instead.

The next big question was, what stopped or can stop us from using the tools?

Thus comes the question of resources and skills. At this point, Enrique asked us to carry out a SWOT analysis. Funding, networks, credibility, and reputation came up in the process. The findings were in a way thought-provoking.

Communication teams in a think tank are often considered a burden due to their inability to generate revenue. But, they can predict or calculate the impact of their work in monetary terms. A common weakness that I noticed among the participating think tanks of the sub-continent is the generational gap, as Enrique described. This can become a threat for the think tanks in future. Also there is the issue of skilled personnel.

I think the think tanks need to experiment with their process on a regular basis and incorporate the most suitable adaptive changes. Sustainability largely depends on how well you can adapt.

In the final session of the day, we grouped together based on channels. For example, I work in publications and joined other participants from SDPI and IGS who also work in publications. The four groups (for four channels: Events, Publications, Media and Digital) then were set on a mission to create a job description for a channel coordinator or manager.

The portfolio generated through the exercise provided me an idea about the skills I have compared to that of an effective communicator. I found potential skills for myself and also a guide from my team mates about how to acquire those skills. Overall, the day ended in self-realization and with new skills to pursue.

Day 4

What I liked about #Dhakacomms workshop was the fact that it progressed in the same way as effective communications should. Though there was a planned outline for the sessions of each day, in practice this evolved through a synchronised discussion, much like an orchestra under the supervision of a concertmaster would.

Hence, the last day of the workshop was decided to be an open session. In the first 3 days, we were guided and given exercises to find solutions among ourselves. And we found out that we (Bangladeshi think tanks) are relatively new in using certain technologies. Therefore, we were curious to learn more about them. The queries included knowing more about active tweeting, Eventbrite, forums, online platforms that would help in publications, developing a communication strategy, SDPI’s television resources and many more. To accommodate this, Enrique made a chart on a markerboard and then grouped the queries into sessions slots to organise the day.

The participating think tanks were at different levels in using technology. SDPI was rather advanced compared to CPD and IGS. So SDPI’s Raja Taimur Hassan gave a presentation on the online SDTV-an initiative of SDPI. It is not yet a 24 hour channel, it does do live streaming and often telecast recorded programmes. Considering the high speed internet accessibility in the Indian sub-continent, this I think is something for the future as the effectiveness of it was questioned. In my opinion, it is a pronounced initiative but other think tanks should think thoroughly before trying to work on something like that, because setting up a full-fledged project like SDTV would require a significant amount of resources. Instead the local and regional think tanks can think of a partnership with SDPI in sharing resources.

As an example of what can be done, here is SDPI’s video of the event:

Enrique talked about using Eventbrite for organising events. He shared his own experience of using Eventbrite in England and in Peru. In my review of Day 1, I wrote why it may not be a priority tool for CPD. But it gives me a delight to share here that we decided to experiment with Eventbrite for an event within two weeks’ time. Then Siobhan Duvigneau of IDS talked about using twitter in an organised manner through twitonomy. Enrique shared LSE’s Twitter Manual and Twitter for researchers which for me were stimulating reading. He talked about Peru where even a year before the journalists used to ignore Twitter but now, they depend on it for their news. He advised the think tanks to be critically engaged in social media platforms to connect to more people. He talked about a researcher who published a series of blog posts while writing his whole book in order to generate feedback immediately and to engage with a growing audience. Researchers of think tanks can also write about their problems, their ways of finding solution in blogs for communication purposes.

The last session of the workshop was about networking among think tanks and we discussed how this can create much broader opportunities for development. After the session, we sat with Enrique to talk about communication strategy as a team.

As the #Dhakacomms workshop progressed, I found that it provided answers to the 5Ws. Day 1 and Day 2 were more or less about What, Why and When, and Day 3 and Day 4 were about Who and How. It indeed delivered us with ideas and incentives. I hope that the think tanks participated in the workshop will try to implement their new learnings and will be strategic and not hesitant, in experimenting.