Communicating Sensitive Issues: The Challenges Facing Think Tanks

[Editors’ note: The paper was produced as part of The On Think Tanks Exchange. with the support from The Think Tank Fund and the Think Tank Initiative.]

This document is the result of a collaboration amongst four think tanks from four countries: the Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs (CENAA) from Slovakia; the Centre for Political and Legal Reforms (CPLR) from Ukraine; the Institute of Peruvian Studies (IEP) from Peru; and Article 33 from Indonesia.

The aim of this collaborative study is to exchange information and reflections from the participating organisations and their external communication practices, with a focus on the challenges faced when communicating research results about sensitive issues. The study intends to systematise, analyse and compare how think tanks disseminate information on topics that usually divide and polarise society, while reflecting on how think tanks’ communication traditions and experiences are used to influence changes in society.

To achieve our goal, we developed case studies of each organisation and used an on-the-go-design. During the exchange process, participants had the opportunity to reflect on their own organisations, its communication practices, and compare them with organisations of different sizes and practices and who work in different political contexts.

Despite the differences amongst organisations, there are similarities in the challenges each organisation faces when communicating sensitive issues, and the way they choose to deal with those. All four think tanks address research topics that somehow affect power relations and challenge the way society is organized. The communication choices –on what, how, when, and for whom–is usually led by the research expert, with the communicator’s perspective as a complementary role. Through this exercise, we found that the four think tanks disseminate their work through the same activities and target groups:

  1. Organising a meeting with policymakers,
  2. Publishing written outcomes,
  3. Organising and participating in conferences, seminars, round tables, educational events, workshops, and trainings, and
  4. Through traditional media and social media.

The exercise showed the main differences to be amongst the research content and the specific strategies and activities that each organisation uses. For example, the scale and combination of activities depends mainly on institutional traditions and budget constraints.

This study was funded by The On Think Tanks Exchange, the Think Tank Initiative and the Think Tank Fund.