Think tanks: are we asking the right communications questions?

9 December 2019
SERIES Ideas, reflections and advice from future think tank leaders 17 items

This scene might be familiar:

A meeting is held to plan a project’s communications. Both the research and communications teams are eager to maximise the impact of the research findings.

A quick communications action plan is written, making use of the think tank’s full portfolio of communications tools and channels.

Everyone is happy and ready to get down to work.

Wait. Isn’t something missing?

Maybe not at first sight. But something important is missing…

In this scenario there is no clear and shared understanding of the communication goals, and how they support the project’s impact objectives. What’s missing is the constant and reliable ‘north star’ that guides each stage of the communications strategy.

As a think tank communications professional, I can relate to this all too well.

I constantly deal with brilliant research, which produces new ideas and recommendations that seek to engage the public agenda. Sometimes we succeed, but often we make a little splash with our research and then it is forgotten about.

As an OTT-TTI Fellow, I’ve had the chance to reflect on and discuss these shared challenges with thinktanker colleagues and experts from around the world. Here are the two biggest lessons I’ve learned.

Asking the right questions

Having a good portfolio of communications tools and channels is an excellent starting point for having an impact with your research. But it’s not enough.

If you want to avoid the scenario described at the beginning of this article (i.e. if you want to find your communications ‘north star’), you have to ask the right questions before you start rolling out the familiar portfolio of tools and channels.

Before writing your communications strategy, bring the research and communications teams together to ask and answer these seven questions:

  1. What do we want our communications to accomplish?
  2. Who do we want to reach, and what are their information needs/interests?
  3. What are the key messages we want to share from our research?
  4. Which tools and channels will be most effective to reach our target audience(s)?
  5. What skills and equipment do we need, and are they available to us?
  6. What threats could undermine our strategy?
  7. How can we measure and assess our strategy?

Remember, what worked in a previous successful campaign will not necessarily work now. And what didn’t work before, may be suitable now. Communications plans should always be tailored to the specific research, guided by that north star at every point of the journey.

The prioritised, planned and unexpected

For think tanks that work across multiple areas (like mine) prioritising engagement resources and activities is difficult. In his article ‘Communications as an orchestra’,+ On Think Tanks founder Enrique Mendizabal suggests that one strategy for prioritising is to focus on policy processes, developing a plan to engage with the opportunities to have the most influence – such as in the lead up to elections, when specific policy issues are being debated, or when big events are being held on a topic.

For communications teams, regular prospect meetings with the research team will help to define engagement priorities and the level of communications support required for each project.

But having policy influence requires a think tank to both plan and be flexible – preparing to influence at strategic policy moments, and being prepared to respond when unexpected windows of opportunity arise.