Last Friday I convened a gathering of think tank staff in person at the ODI and online via social media for the Social Market Foundation event The Future of Think Tank Communications.
Unlike most SMF events this one wasn’t about a new research paper or policy idea. Instead it aimed to bring people together who work in research communications to discuss how think tanks can develop and strengthen their output to adapt to digital.
Our distinguished panel, Richard Darlington (IPPR), Nick Scott (ODI) and John Prideaux (The Economist), shared their views and ideas on what works and what doesn’t for organisations seeking to get complex messages across in a competitive and rapidly changing environment.
And as chair I got the opportunity both to hear firsthand from the panel and assess the reaction from our audience gathered online and in the room. So here are three things I learned from the event:
1) Professional communicators know how to work Twitter
In introducing the event I made sure to tell people not to turn their phones off. Instead the audience was encouraged to tweet their thoughts on the event using the hashtag #wonkcomms. And boy did they tweet.
Within half an hour I’d been told that #wonkcomms was trending in London. And later the hashtag was trending in the UK, meaning it had become of the most widely shared words on Twitter at that moment in time. If you ever need someone to spread the word for you, just assemble a room of think tank communicators.
2) Digital drives collaboration as well as strengthening competition
It’s an open secret that the think tank world is highly competitive. As well as competing for the best ideas, think tanks are often seeking to attract the same resources, speakers, sponsors and coverage.
But the digital revolution has shone a light into previously mysterious corners of think tank activity, enabling us to see clearly how our competitors communicate with their audiences, describe their work, and promote their ideas. At the same time, tools like Twitter and Facebook allow for real time collaboration on policy and research ideas, creating vastly expanded networks of thinkers on any given issue.
As all panellists explained, these developments can help think tanks refine and improve upon each other’s innovations, leading to a thriving, competitive and healthy market of ideas. “The best thing about the web”, said John Prideaux, “is that you can try things and see if they stick – and kill them off if they don’t”. Competition, I learned at this most collaborative of events, is most certainly alive and kicking in the digital think tank world. And that’s good news for all of us.
3) Multichannel communications works
In his presentation, Richard Darlington posed the question: is the traditional think tank publication a thing of the past? The resounding answer from the subsequent discussions was a Vicki Pollardesque “Yeah, but no”. “Yeah” in the sense that in the age of shrinking attention spans and constant news think tanks cannot rely a on a single weighty tome containing hundreds of pages of carefully crafted policy ideas to effect change. But “No” in that research reports are still the lifeblood of the think tank, and can form the centrepiece of a diverse and creative approach to influencing debate.
Making the traditional think tank report resonate with today’s audiences therefore requires an approach that embraces any or all of the following: audio, video, animation, Prezi, blogging, Twitter, Facebook, email, infographics. And the good news, as Nick Scott explained, is that some of the best digital tools are available online for free.
I could talk about more things I learned at Friday’s event – that everyone agrees that era of the routine telephone media pitch is over (thank god), or that think tanks should lead by copying not leading (not so convinced about that one), or simply that people who work in think tanks like to talk (a lot). But that will have to wait for another time.
Because, as all good communicators know, sometimes less is more.