To go public or not to go public… How to decide if it is time to adopt a new communication approach?

20 June 2011

Many think tanks face the difficult decision over what to do about these new ways of communicating that seem to be all the rage with their funders and other competing organisations; media exposure, more accessible types of publications, public events and online communications may seem normal for some think tanks but for others they represent a significant departure from business as usual.

And this business, they feel, is doing alright; so why change it? For years (in some cases for decades) these organisations have successfully influence policy (domestic and international) by following a rather simple but effective approach: good research, good business management, and good relations with key decision-makers.

Now they are facing demand (from donors and sometimes from within) to change their approach. The pressure from outside is often motivated by donors’ branding and visibility requirements -and have little or nothing to do with what is needed to inform policymaking more effectively.

But sometimes, pressure comes from within -and for quite important reasons. Mrs Nuning Akhmadi (from SMERU, Indonesia) put it perfectly when she said:

How can we maintain the good relations we have with policymakers and still be accountable to the public?

Under pressure from funders, some cave in but others are still resisting -unsure about what to do but aware that their responsibility to the public must be met.

My advice is that before making a decision like this -which may involve a large investment and long and difficult change- you should attempt to answer two questions:

  • Has the world changed? This is an important question and although easy to dismiss as obvious it may require more attention than often given. The world is not your world -made up of your think tank’s immediate sphere of influence. The reason why this doubt has emerged is that your world has not changed much -or at least that is what it feels like. It is likely that your publics, audiences and clients have not changed, that your funders (national or international) are the same, that the policymakers you’ve been working with are old friends or acquaintances, etc. But the world around you may have changed nonetheless. The media may be reporting on the issues you work on more actively thus attracting more public interest on them, social networks may be developing in your country enabling the general public to engage in policymaking in ways they had not before, and reliance on online sources of evidence may be increasing. More fundamentally, the way people learn, online and socially, may change the knowledge sector entirely. Even worse, new and better prepared think tanks (and other organisations) and new policymakers may be competing more aggressively in this new world.

Of course it is possible that the world has not changed -but is it changing? This is equally relevant. Are new generations of policymakers not used to your think tanks and modus operandi making their way up the power ladder -do they even know who you are? Are donors staffed with advisors who know less and less about your country and organisation? Are new donors paying attention to your organisation?

In a new world, the way you used to do things -most likely in private- will not work any more. If the world has changed then your audiences and funders will be looking for public debates, transparent research processes, engagement rather than dissemination, different types of outputs, multiple communication and learning channels, etc.

  • If the world has changed, the second question to answer is: what should we do about this -how far and how fast should we change? Whenever someone tells me that they are thinking of setting up a blog and ask for my view I say: don’t do it. Any new way of communicating (before, during and after the research process) demands careful planning. The way you communicate, internally and externally, defines who you are -and how others perceive you. There is a good reason why this is such a difficult issue to address: going public is not just about sending a few press releases or posting semi-complete ideas online, but rather about redefining the role that your organisation seeks to play in society. Using the media to communicate says that you are accountable to the public -and not just your funders or a few policymakers; publishing online and using social networks says that you encourage debate and feedback from anyone -and not just your ‘expert’ peers.

In some cases I would not advice such radical changes -some think tanks may be better off, even in a new context, keeping a low profile and working through others.

Many of these changes involve letting go -giving up control of the research and communication process- and so you must be first confident of your position and functions.

The point is that you need to decide what kind of change is the most appropriate for your own organisation -and much of this will come from answering the first question. And unavoidable trial and error.

Both questions are researchable questions. Both merit time and resources -and, if they are serious about it, your funders ought to be willing to cough up the funds. Don’t just rely on communication ‘experts’ (or even advice from this blog) -after all, what else could they suggest if not to do what they know best? Attempt to answer these questions yourselves. Others can help but the final decision ought to be yours.

Wouldn’t it be quite ironic if they forced you (a think tank) to make a decision without the evidence to back it up? 

There are some interesting examples (or attempts) of this type of research that may be worth looking into: