What does the future of think tanks communications hold? A conversation with John Schwartz, Managing Director at Soapbox

5 August 2015

I had not been to Soapbox in a while and the memory I had of its offices is that it was the kind of place that anyone would want to work in. The space is not huge but it is rather well distributed: two long tables running along the main room with working stations at either side, and large and spacious office and meeting space at both ends of the room. It’s all painted mostly in white with some artwork and with a rather modern feel to all of it.

A few years ago I went to meet a friend at Save the Children’s offices in London. The whole floor was arranged in a similar way only that this was at least 4 times as large and there must have been hundreds of people there, rows and rows of aid workers staring at computers, like a log-frame production line. It is interesting to see that the same arrangement, at the right scale, can have a significantly different effect.

I always think that creative companies (advertising agencies, architecture firms, communication consultancies, and others) have a lot to teach think tanks about their office design. Or maybe think tanks should try to learn more from them. But this is a matter for another post (or series of posts for later in the year).

Since I arrived in London in May I’ve been hearing a lot about Soapbox; certainly, they were mentioned at the Prospect Magazine’s Think Tank Awards. So I started by asking John if they had cornered the think tank market.

By no means, but there has been some growth, he said. And this growth is coming from more academic research organisations rather than think tanks.

What is that? Universities are interested in the services of a communications company? Not only are they interested but they are also willing to take greater risks than think tanks. Larger and with more resources at their disposal, universities are creating the spaces for wonkcommers like John and his team to push the boundaries of research communications.

I should not be too surprised. Over the last month I have been trawling through some of the content in LSE’s Excellent Impact of Social Sciences Blog. There, mostly academics, are advocating very radical approaches to communicating research. Far more interesting than what one tends to hear at think tanks.

So what is this boundary all about? What is the future of research communications?

Digital First

According to John, we are witnessing, finally, the acceptance of Digital First as a central plank of any communication strategy. Digital First goes (way) beyond making sure that all reports are uploaded to a website for easy download. Digital First means that content is uploaded in HTML format, content is designed to be modular, and it is, all of it, even a single sentence, phrase, word, diagram or picture, shareable.

The Centre for London and Chatham House are on board with this. So is IPPR and their Condition of Britain Report is a great example of this Digital First approach:

Digital First lets the user read along, scrolling down to experience text, presentations, videos, audio and other media. The production effort that goes into it reminds me of the work involved in producing a music record: it involves music, sure, but also art work, lyrics, organising the order of the songs, etc. Lots of parts co-developed in parallel to be brought together as a whole and offer an all-round experience.

John expects that within two years it will be unthinkable for a think tank not to publish their reports on HTML. Death to the PDF?

Digital First has important implications on how we think of research, of the research project, and of the business models of think tanks. The usual approach of asking a funder for money to produce a report on topic XYZ and then getting on with things will change:

  • To begin with, the structure of a Digital First report does not need to follow the structure of a typical research report –one that is expected to be presented in PDF or print format (more on this later).
  • The style, too, has to be different, as it must engage a reader who is expecting a multi-media experience.
  • This means that the workflow, the research project design, will have to change, too. Content may have to be sourced out to different people or organisations -not necessary in the usual “Research then Comms” order currently followed. The modular nature of the format means that content needs to relate to itself in different ways. And it has to be gearter than the sum of its parts (sorry for the cliché)
  • This will have implication on funding: what is funded? When is it funded?
  • Most importantly, however, the skills needed of the researchers and the project leaders are likely to change.

Narratives and stories: the growing role of editors

The first and last points above refer to a second important trend in research communications: narratives and stories. The strongest think tanks today, argues John, are those who employ editors (in-house like Chatham HouseOverseas Development Institute or The King’s Fund) or those contracting editorial services from companies like Soapbox.

Editors, working with the likes of filmmakers and animators, to support researchers will be necessary to respond to the public’s appetite for new narratives and stories: accessible, convincing, engaging.

It is quite hard to tell a researcher that he or she needs an editor. They often assume you mean copy-editing; when in fact you mean much more. Some time around 2007 or 2008 when ODI strengthened its communications team it brought in a new post: An Editor. Angela Hawke had her work cut out, as researchers, already under pressure to package their work in many more different ways, were not keen on the idea of someone else, someone new to the organisation even, taking their work and attempting to re-write it. But the effect her contribution had on our work was palpable.

Editors can be invaluable in helping researchers to reach out to different audiences. They can help clarify an idea and even develop a stronger argument if the researcher is able (and willing) to engage with them early on in the research process. As think tanks explore new ways of communicating with new audiences they will need more editorial support. After all, each channel and each audience will need to be spoken to in their own terms and styles.

This suggests, too, that the line between research and communication (or between researchers and communicators) will become increasingly blured.


A third trend in the making is the automation of many of the tasks of research communications. This doesn’t mean that communicators will be out of a job but they will certainly need to offer new services. It also means, though, that researchers will find it easier to adopt communication roles.

Soapbox is working in two very interesting projects.

The first one refers to the IPPR report mentioned above. To produce this you’d expect the need to hire someone to take the report, maybe in Word or PDF, and turn it into the HTML site. Copy-pasting like crazy for a while, writing some code, or playing with images and diagrams.

Soapbox has automated the process. It can take the report through several steps all the way to the HTML version, including diagrams, pictures, tables, etc. This means that Digital First can be achieved with as small a cost as necessary.

The second project opens up a million possibilities. It starts with a Google Doc. This document is Document Zero. The software being developed by Soapbox turns the document into a WordPress post or page (for the website), into a IDML (and InDesign Document) and from there into a PDF or Print version. This is how the Bangor Daily News in Maine already runs its production.

The automation of this process makes it possible to edit the PDF or the HTML Digital First page or the print-on-demand report, or the blog post, or any other output, by simply editing the Document Zero in Google Drive. Anyone who has had to go back to edit a document produced in InDesign knows how hard this is.

Small think tanks that outsource the layout of their publications have no control over the InDesign file itself and if they want something changed (correct a statistic or update a reference) they have to pay-up. If a mistake is found in one document (say, a working paper) the same mistake may be found in all the versions of the paper (HMTL, PDF, etc.). Automation makes it possible to correct it across all version from a single source. I believe this would have an important psychological effect on thinktankers: it will make them slightly less risk averse when it comes to sharing their work-in-progress.

Right now, publications and data can be automated. Other more complex forms of visualisations or media may take more time.

Implications of think tanks

This has strong implications for think tanks:

  1. It seems that academics, the ones think tanks may sometimes think of as living in an ivory tower and risk-averse, are the ones taking all the risks. This further strengthens the argument that think tanks and universities ought to develop new and stronger partnerships going forward. [See our series on Think Tanks and Universities]
  1. It definitely demands a rethink in the way that think tanks fund and run themselves. Are they producing reports? Delivering projects? Or are they developing arguments and telling stories? Whether they like it or not, they have to compete with other “storytellers” like the media, opinion leaders, entertainment, politicians, and others. If this is their main “output” then they need to organise themselves to deliver it. Right now, think tanks are better suited to produce reports than to develop new stories.
  1. They will have to open their doors to new kinds of staff: editors, clearly, but also researchers who may not look like their current researchers. They will have different skills and will likely be more interested in engaging and co-producing knowledge.
  1. These new researchers will be less risk averse and more likely to share ideas “as they develop” with the public (through twitter for instance). This is something that should be encouraged, as suggested by Tom Medvetz.
  1. Think tanks will have to think hard about the kind of investments they need to make. As it is, certainly in developing countries, many think tanks are in the early stages of modernising their communications. Their funders have been pushing for this for ages but, how well-informed and up-to-date are they of what is new (or what will be new in a few years time)?

Specifically for think tanks in developing countries, I cannot stress this more: “communications for development” or the specialisation in the field of international development has done and will continue to do them a huge disservice.

We try, through this blog, to find and profile experts and practitioners –and their ideas. But funders have a responsibility too. Wherever and whenever they fund think tanks and encourage them to make significant communication investments they must also help them to find new experts, locally and internationally, to ensure that they have access to the latest ideas and tools. When they offer their grantees support to develop their capacity they ought to ensure they have access to the latest and best advice (rather than the familiar one and the easiest to find).