Think tanks need to invest in their legitimacy: here’s how

2 February 2019

By cleverly investing in their legitimacy, think tanks can firmly position themselves in their unique narrow sphere bordering all other opinion makers, and engage in ameliorating exiting policies.

This is the summary of my master thesis for the part-time Executive International Master of Science in Corporate Communication . You can also view it online or download the Book of Graduates.

Think platforms: in search of think tank legitimacy

Today governments are allowing unprecedented access to their documents. Judges are permitting media coverage of ongoing proceedings. While politicians and diplomats communicate their doings and whereabouts via Twitter. They all purport to believe in transparency, or are nudged to do so by various watchdogs. Professional opinion makers such as media and think tanks are equally pressured to become more transparent. This thesis, therefore, focuses on how think tanks can effectively secure their legitimacy in such an evolving and demanding environment.


Think tanks can be defined as semi-autonomous research organisations, analysing and commenting on policy issues in order to set agendas and improve society. They operate in an intellectual marketplace dominated by bureaucracy and politics, and encroach upon the fields of media, economics and science. Therefore, how do think tanks best communicate in order to preserve their purpose and legitimacy in our society? Answering this pertinent question required the collection of information from and opinions of 18 stakeholders working for or with think tanks.


Neither the literature nor the 18 interviews conducted for this thesis have uncovered a communication strategy that is specific to think tanks or that distinguishes them from other institutions and experts operating outside the think tanks’ sphere. In fact, think tanks, if anything, have strong ties to these institutions and experts. They are known to partially borrow and incorporate their strategies and even recruit their staff. This is not, in and of itself, considered problematic, so long as think tanks are not beholden to any specific interest and maintain their research independence. This, in addition to external pressures and rankings, has pushed think tanks into becoming increasingly transparent in their operations.

The information revolution has to a degree shaken think tanks’ traditionally secure positions in society, consequently, challenging their legitimacy. By cleverly investing in the three types of legitimacy, think tanks can firmly position themselves in their unique narrow sphere bordering all other opinion makers, and engage in ameliorating exiting policies. Cognitive legitimacy is gained and preserved by proving a think tank’s added value to and advantage over other opinion makers. Think tanks win moral legitimacy by interacting transparently with society, and by showcasing how their research profits the public. Lastly, pragmatic legitimation strategy pushes think tanks into focusing on the quality of their research as well their communication. Seven overarching themes have emerged from the above-mentioned interviews. These are further characterised within each type of legitimacy.

Cognitive legitimacy

  1. A think tank needs to prove its relevance to society:This theme is considered by far the most important in managing legitimacy. The findings show that think tanks can prove their relevance best when their analyses are timely, and subjected to review and / or debate by persons or institutions their audiences want to read, see and meet. Think tanks aiming for cognitive legitimacy need to permanently invest in their networks.
  2. A think tank needs to prove its relevance compared to others:
    Think tank clients are now in a position to shop around in the intellectual marketplace. They are equally likely to switch experts when a think tank fails to deliver what they want. Consequently, think tanks need to increasingly compare themselves with other opinion makers – and showcase the advantages they provide over the others.

Moral legitimacy

  1. A think tank should explain how it has come by its ideas in order to be trusted:
    Stakeholders find trustworthiness to be essential, albeit difficult, for think tanks to showcase their contributions to society. Think tanks must be open about their modus operandi as well as their data and funding sources.
  1. A think tank should explain its added value to society:
    To prove they are working for society’s benefit, think tanks try to remain current on issues, which are important to the public. They achieve this by hiring fresh talent, and by inviting influential personalities to join their programs on a short-term basis.
  2. A think tank must take a conversational approach with stakeholders:
    Think tanks do proactively seek contact with the public in order to identify pressing needs. This strategy, however, is not as often mentioned as the other moral legitimation strategies mentioned above. Clients have indicated in interviews to be attracted to this particular type of strategy.

Pragmatic legitimacy

  1. A think tank should communicate its research well:
    Think tanks have embraced a number of new communication techniques while deliberately ignoring others deemed too volatile for communicating analysis. Additionally data visualization is deemed useful but only after the data have been subjected to a thorough analysis.
  2. The quality of its research is of great importance to a think tank:
    During the interviews, researchers and clients were silent on the issue of a think tank’s thorough research. Conversely, directors and communication officers did acknowledge its importance. They advised think tanks to invest in talented researchers in order to remain relevant. Research is indeed the basis of a think tank’s legitimacy.

Suggestions for further research

The thesis’ conclusions may not apply to undemocratic societies. These conclusions are more relevant to European think tanks than they are to their American counterparts. Future research may need to focus on other countries and cultures. That does not however diminish the insight it may bring to non-European think tanks. Further research is also needed into think tanks’ communication strategies and the perception universities and elected institutions have of them.


Think tanks should:

  1. transform their organisations into think platforms, where the curious meet the famous, and where thoughts are timely exchanged for the benefit of society;
  2. showcase their advantages over other experts and organisations, and brand star analysts;
  3. be neutral with their research and methodology and transparent with their budgets and funding sources;
  4. remain current by inviting influential figures and talent to joint their teams and programs;
  5. proactively stay in touch with society, by provoking debates and joining conversations, and identifying pressing needs;
  6. develop a unique communication style by communicating transparently, neutrally and interactively, and by focusing on both data and society;
  7. explore the utility of those new communication techniques that serve to bolster their research – the core of any think tank’s legitimacy.

[Find the original version of this article here.]