Think tanks must accept the power of the public

8 November 2019

It is a fascinating time to be involved in advocacy communications in America.

As the 2020 election campaign picks up momentum, Beltway insiders will be watching how President Trump and his Democratic challengers frame the problems the country needs to overcome and the change each candidate promises. Everyone between the coasts, if you believe these insiders, will be buffeted around by the arguments made by those who seek to lead them, swayed by whichever arguments fit with their view of the world.

Many observers would have you believe that the United States is cracking into pieces, with the best predictor of political viewpoints being demographic factors. The coastal elites versus the “flyover states” is one purported fault line. The generational divide between conservatism among older Americans and socialism among youth is another.

We don’t wholly agree with this assessment. Demography is surely relevant, yes. But the changing nature of policy communications strategy has had substantial influence on the views of the country, and the traditional Beltway crowd is losing its perceived monopoly on influence.

As the media, policymaking, and public opinion landscapes change, think tanks and other policy advocates must evolve or be left behind. As think tanks, it’s not necessarily our job to create national unity, but to make the best case for the right policy solutions. But if we are going to rally the country around our ideas and successfully advance policy that shapes America’s future, we need to catch up with those who have had a head start in executing advocacy communications well.

Firstly, think tanks must carve a new niche based on emerging realities of how people seek out, consume, and interpret information. This means incorporating public engagement as a primary strategic component of winning legislative support for ideas. This may sound out of key with how we usually operate, but recent research shows that the public expect policy experts to be more active in this area: nearly two-thirds of Americans interested in politics want policy experts to help them understand current affairs issues.

Abraham Lincoln, during his famous debate series with Stephen Douglas, said, “In this age… public opinion is everything. With it, nothing can fail… against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public opinion goes deeper than he who makes laws… or judicial decisions.”

It is a wonder that this enduring truth has been lost on so many policy organizations for so long, when it is clear that the most successful advocates have always considered communications strategy first and foremost.

Think tanks need to understand our audiences’ media and data consumption habits and communicate in ways that build trust, appealing first to hearts for the purpose of engaging minds.

We need to be more aware of the trends that shape public opinion. To influence this, we must connect policy ideas to people’s everyday lives and respect their habits and tastes rather than doubling down on ineffective, outdated methods and cramming down assertions rather than presenting attractive propositions.

This has been an interesting journey for Heritage so far. We’ve been recrafting our public engagement strategy some time, through our own media outlet The Daily Signal, a revamped message development philosophy and training program, outreach and relationship development with new audiences, and through our national and regional press teams.

Knowing our audience, their values, and their media consumption habits is an essential first step in getting them to engage with Heritage. We regularly do market research and message testing to understand both our core audiences and ‘engaged persuadables’ – those who could be convinced to support our perspective if we present it in the right way.

The Daily Signal, Heritage Foundation’s media outlet, is testing framing stories advocating for a more politically conservative America in ways that younger audiences will engage with.

Reconsidering our audience as conversation partners rather than receivers of information and data has also been central to our revitalised communications strategy. This has helped us to expand our reach in earned and social media to audiences we have previously been less able to access. As a result, our presence in mainstream outlets looks set to increase by 40 per cent this year over the average of 2017 and 2018, revealing a greater willingness across the spectrum to hear and take Heritage seriously.

Lastly, our success with our new approach has shown us that conceiving of the Washington policy dynamic as a dialogue is now out of date. With digital media, the opportunities for talking to and getting feedback from the public have proliferated. We are calling this the ‘multilogue’, the process of getting dynamic, real time feedback. Tapping into this potential can help us all to ensure that we do not end up with another communications failure when we try to land our ideas in public.

The future of US politics, economics and society will be shaped by those who can adapt to this new dynamic. And for those that do not? Well, on our side, we don’t expect to hear much more from them.