P&I was invited to moderate two sessions during the Think Tank Initiative Exchange 2015 in Istanbul. The first one focused its attention on written tools for communications. Representatives from three think tanks (Dushni Weerakoon from IPS, Sri Lanka, José Angel Quirós from Fusades, El Salvador, and Susan Nicolai and Katy Harris from ODI, UK) were invited to present their experiences to enable a collective exploration of how case studies, policy briefs, and blogs can enhance engagement with key actors in the policymaking space. Then, Leonardo Garnier, former Minister of Education in Costa Rica, was invited to share his own thoughts and reflections based on this variety of tools and experiences.
Very rich presentations were followed by an active discussion with participants, who raised several questions around the ways to assess the effectiveness of these tools, the internal processes implied in developing them, how other stakeholders were engaged, and the role of communicators vis-à- vis researchers. This revealed a high interest in understanding the politics behind tools, which for me represented a significant move from focus in concrete and practical tools towards more strategic considerations. In fact, we need to keep updated about and try out some new written communications but it is very important that we first ask ourselves a couple of questions, for instance:
- A blog like Talking economics by IPS proved to be a very effective strategy to reach new audiences (young people for example), but how do you work to help researchers convert their research into appealing stories with concrete arguments behind so that posts don´t end up being executive summaries of a research paper? This links to internal capacity building.
- Also, case studies by ODI´s Development Progress Project to feature how development was achieved in critical areas such as equitable quality at public schools and the influence of financial globalisation on jobs. However, is it a story just told by rigorous researchers or do we need to increasingly involve other stakeholders including policymakers, in the weaving of the story? What are the implications of taking a more collaborative approach (i.e. authorship, dealing with conflicting interpretations, etc.?) This links to strategic communications from the very beginning of every activity and tool.
- Sometimes the need to update a publications line in terms of design and content becomes a no brainer to the top management of a think tank. Fusades led a significant change to renew its entire communications strategy that positions them today to more effectively convey who they are and what they However, how do you convince researchers to invest time and energy in packaging their findings in new and different ways? How do you ensure that people are gradually brought on board and buy in the proposed changes so that they are sustainable? This links to building an organisational culture that values communications and conceives it in a quite consistent way.
To sum up, tools represent an opportunity to further and better engage with other stakeholders as long as they are embedded within larger communications strategies that respond to a culture of communicating instead of to written plans by one department. Moreover, some challenges reside. One of the most important is how to decide your investment in communications: how do you come up with the right equation/balance of tools, when there are so many attractive possibilities but resources stay scarce? How do you prioritise?
It´s true that communications is a long-term bet of each institution and entails an ongoing process. It is also more and more evident that the different tools and channels are interwoven in a wider network of communications flows in which several stakeholders participate.
In this context, how do we ensure strategic communications? Is this a concern for communicators and researchers at the same level? Who should decide among the endless possibilities that communication today brings?
Leonardo Garnier very smartly wrapped up the session building a very solid bridge between his research and policymaking experience. Regardless the tools, more emphasis needs to be placed in the content and the stakeholders. He shared several pearls of wisdom, among which two remained in my mind as ideas worth further exploring:
-We need to convert indicators (or pieces of relevant evidence) into political facts. From research to ideas, to politics, to policy. How can we begin to do this more systematically, if viable?
-It is extremely important that when we decide how and when to communicate we clearly differentiate in the audience between those who are already convinced (and we just need to provide them with better arguments) from those who are not convinced (we are challenged here to identify why they are reluctant and if there are any entry points to debunk their beliefs if they are not solid and based on evidence)
We learned and re-visited some recurrent questions and tensions related to written communications during the interaction. Hopefully we can build on our take-aways now so that we do something different- and hopefully better in the near future.