Most of us have probably been in a relationship that from time to time breaks down into the same tired arguments. Eyes roll, arms cross and you think ‘are we really going to do this all over again?’
For the lucky ones this is a domestic hazard but for those of us in think tank communications it’s often a risk in the workplace and thanks to social media it’s increasingly present.
That’s why yesterday’s Wonkcomms event was so well timed. Billed as a discussion of ‘wonk or comms’ it was set to pick up a theme of the last event by exploring whether in the digital age we’re seeing any greater convergence between the hither-to grudgingly accepting worlds of research and communications – something I picked up in my first blog for the site.
The tension between researchers and communicators is no doubt centuries old. I like to imagine an indignant Isaac Newton chastising the poor soul who suggested his new theory was best explained by ‘a bloody apple’. The central challenge of any communications is, and always has been, to get the message right.If you do that well then taking your pick of audiences and channels is a fair bit less taxing when you’ve got a framing that ensures the penny will drop. Some of the best and most effective communications are borne out of robust discussion that draws both parties out of their comfort zone and into a more risky space. Jamie Bartlett of Demos summed it up well when he said that his debates with media officers tended to end when ‘both of us were not entirely happy with where we had ended up’. What is new is that there are an increasing number of ways for this tension to manifest itself at the nexus of policy and communications.
But why is there such a tension in the first place? I haven’t looked into the science behind this but I suspect researchers and communications staff have different brains (or at least different incentives, as Liz Carlile highlighted). One type has a thirst for knowledge and a need to ‘get to the bottom of thing’ no matter how long it takes. The other prefers more instant comprehension and has an instinct to divide knowledge into neat packages.
It seems like common sense that the best organisations harness the natural instincts of both and identify processes and cultures that can get the best from them. The quality of an organisation’s research directly impacts the quality of its communications and the quality of its communications directly affects the quality of its research. You can’t expect success without the sort of ying-yang balance Liz alluded to in her presentation. So the ideal settlement is agreement on the mutual recognition of a symbiotic but necessarily fractious coalition of minds.
Digital communications and the shifting ways we consume information mean producing communications material is a more involved process than ever before. In days gone by the text of a media release or executive summary were often the only battlegrounds for a wonk vs comms punch up. Fast forward to 2013 and the potential for differences of opinion is huge – infographics, videos, podcasts all require the on-going engagement of both research and communications staff.
What is clear is that the old models won’t do. It’s going to be increasingly necessary to move towards a model where the cost of doing digital communications is included in funding bids from the very beginning of a project’s life. As my colleague Nick Scott has already elaborated the publication + media release model is dead. Many organisations haven’t twigged this yet and until they do their communications staff are likely to be facing groundhog scenarios when it comes to getting their wonkier charges to play ball.
Assuming that there is a sizeable salary premium for those staff who can really effectively wear the researcher and communicator hats at the same time, there is a real necessity for leaders of research organisations to pay careful attention to what constitutes a sensible division of labour. Instead organisations will need to expect a longer period of ‘joint-working’ where both parties engage on content for a longer period than ever before. The drawback to this is that it costs more, the advantage that it can generate a greater shared stake in the success of a project.
Organisations will need to be thinking smartly about how they cover these costs. Too often the cost of communications is still seen as an add-on, or an area in which to make cost-savings rather than a core component of a project’s success. Today’s chair, Katie Schmuecker of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation made the point that you can’t stick around at a think tank event for too long without it coming down to the funding question.
But to focus solely on ‘the funding question’ slightly over simplifies a challenge which is really about how to best manage creative tension in a way that works for your organisation. That requires considerable thought about what guidelines you might need on roles and responsibilities relating to content production as well as other areas like social media outreach.
For organisations that can get this right, there’s a bright future. After all there’s nothing like a trending hashtag and a Re-Tweet from the Today programme to get us all to kiss and make up, right?