The wonkcomms crystal ball: Five things 2015 will bring for think tank communications

This time last year Nick, Richard and I recapped over the year in wonkcomms, looking back at thirteen tools think tank communicators used to promote and publicise their work. I was struck by the sheer diversity and creativity of the wonkcomms world, with think tanks embracing all manner of different ways to get their insights, analysis and ideas out there – from Prezi to Vine, gamification to storify.

And 2014 has been no exception. Think tanks have used lego to explain social mobility, interactive maps to plot financial distress, infographics to tell visual stories on topics from public spending to the NHS, longform publications to bring research reports into the palm of the readers’ hand. And lots more in between.

Many of these have been showcased and celebrated on the WonkComms blog. But WonkComms hasn’t just been about examples of good practice. A quick look at the blog and LinkedIn group in 2014 reveals that think tank communicators are also using the network to discuss the big communications challenges they face.

Creating an opportunity for people involved in think tank communications both to share their work and to explore what the future would bring was behind the genesis of WonkComms – after all, the inaugural WonkComms event was entitled ‘the future of think tank communications’. So as 2014 fades into the past, it seems appropriate to attempt to look into the wonkcomms crystal ball and identify five things 2015 will bring for think tank communications.

1. UK election fever

This is the biggy for 2015 and a bit of an obvious one for those of us working in UK think tanks, who currently make up the bulk of the WonkComms community. The 2015 UK General Election is now just four months away, and will shape both our short-term work as the election draws closer, and the future context for our work afterwards.

As our ‘election fever’ event concluded, the pre-election period is not generally a fertile time for big think tank ideas. Instead, think tanks may find themselves drawing on short-term analysis and fact-checking, keeping press officers and analysts busy.

The election is such a seminal event in this year’s calendar that it can be difficult for wonkcomms types to think beyond May. But the post-election time will be an important time for longer-term policy-development, meaning attention should be given to communicating with civil servants, civil society and business leaders, not to mention hundreds of new MPs. It will bring new innovations in the political landscape too – Nesta’s prediction that 2015 will bring the first truly online political party is worth watching closely.

2. Managing comms projects smarter

From the sublime to the ridiculous (or is that the other way round?). While the election will set the external context for think tank work in 2015, the creeping flood of emails, meetings, direct messages, texts, phonecalls and much more will be the backdrop for many of our working lives. And as think tank communicators have innovated to get their messages out there to busy and overloaded audiences, I think 2015 will see us adopting tools and tactics to deal with our own sense of information overload.

A recent post on the WonkComms LinkedIn group looking at the think tank communicator’s ‘wish-list’ contained a number of methods for managing projects more smartly – from Basecamp to Workflowy. I’ve recently been introduced to Slack; have heard good things about Trello; and have a colleague experimenting with Kanbanflow. I’d love to hear the experiences of fellow comms teams as they adopt different tactics to manage projects and workload this year.

3. The slow death of the 00.01 embargo

Some people say it’s dead already, but the minute-past-midnight embargo continues to haunt press releases ‘like an undead spectre’, as one of my fellow WonkComms originals put it. It’s a hangover from daily print journalism. But with media outlets themselves usually seeking to publish stories online the night before publication, I think 2015 will see lots more of us experiment with alternatives.

After all, if the New Year’s Honours can be embargoed to 10.30 because of newspaper front pages being posted on Twitter, then surely think tanks can try some alternatives (okay, let’s ignore the leaks – you get the picture). That said, I don’t think 2015 will see the nail in the coffin of the minute-past-midnight embargo – it’s still too useful a tool for organising stories and executing strategy. 2015 will see us experiment. But 00.01 will live to die another day.

4. The even slower death of the PDF

A recurring theme on the WonkComms blog last year has been the future of digital publishing. With the PDF often ill suited to the many different ways people are accessing think tank research, the blog has hosted a lively debate about the demise (or not) of this publishing form.

Think tanks have sought to try different ways of presenting research, including some beautiful longform publications (my favourite last year has to be Brookings’ Saving Horatio Alger essay). But most have continued to publish the traditional PDF alongside it. Digital types cleverer than me are experimenting with ways to push the same content to different outputs. I think 2015 will see some really exciting changes to the way we present complex information.

5. The wonkification of journalism

A particularly thought-provoking post last year by Joe Miller looked at how disruptive innovators like Vox and FiveThirtyEight posed a direct challenge to think tanks by condensing complex information to time-pressed audiences in (almost) real time. Here in the UK I’ve noticed that media outlets are increasingly hiring wonks (just take a look at Newsnight’s recent recruits to the posts of policy and economics correspondents, for example) and are increasingly carrying out their own analysis, which can look very much like think tank research.

With the popularity of datablogs, killer facts, and charts of doom showing no signs of waning, I predict that this trend – let’s call it the wonkification of journalism – will continue through 2015, posing challenges to think tanks. But being a natural optimist, I think this also brings great opportunities, with scope for new collaborations and reaching bigger audiences.

As political pollsters may well find come May, predicting the future can be a mug’s game. But I’ve taken the plunge and looked into my wonkcomms crystal ball to offer five things I think 2015 will bring for think tank communications. What are your predictions?

Leonora Merry is Assistant Director of Communications at the Nuffield Trust

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5 comments on “The wonkcomms crystal ball: Five things 2015 will bring for think tank communications
  1. Jeff Knezovich says:

    Nice post Leonora. I think that the wonkification of journalism is an important point. But there’s also something of a wonkification of other types of information providers. I’m thinking, in particular, of Google.

    Just Google the ‘population of [insert any country]’ on a computer and the first thing that pops up is a chart of comparative historical data from the World Bank. Same with a number of basic indicators.

    I think the question for think tanks in 2015, therefore, is if big content providers can surface data that used to be held by think tanks. And journalists are doing the same and maybe even adding a bit of analysis to it, then what role for think tanks? Should we be chasing the analysis game more than data? Should be chasing data linkage and interpreting disparate data sets? I don’t know, but it’s going to be fun finding out!

  2. I think one thing that will emerge is the acceptance that communications and research are no two separate functions and that one does not necessarily come before the other.

    This may involve a number of things, such as:

    1) researchers who are excellent communicators: researchers will be expected to know how to use digital tools, put together excellent visualisations, and produce videos and podcasts just as they are expected to know how to use basic word or excel.

    2) policy research projects led by communications: WonkComms members demonstrate that communicators are as knowledgeable as anyone about the issues their think tans work on. There is no reason why comms officers or heads of comms could not design and lead a policy research project.

    3) comms channels and tools as research tools: rather than producing a video from a final report, researchers will produce the video as they are collecting evidence to write the report. Rather than repackage a literature review into a series of blog posts, blog posts will be published for each paper read during the development of the literature review. Etcetera.

  3. leonora says:

    Thanks both for your comments.

    I’d not thought of the Google thing before and it’s really interesting – and I agree it poses a challenge to think tanks. I think we have to work harder to get more than just data out there – our strength has to be interpreting that data – but a huge part of that will be explaining it too.

    Quique, you describe a vision that I think a lot of wonkcomms people would aspire to and agree with. We’re all making progress towards this I think – but as to whether or not we will get there fully in 2015, I will reserve judgement for now!

  4. […] Leonora Merry, Assistant Director of Communications at the Nuffield Trust, and first published in WonkComms. The post is particularly relevant to the UK think tank scene in 2015 but we felt it was important […]

  5. Good stuff, Leonora. Much as I would love to agree with you on the death of the PDF, the format seems to cling on. I hope it goes: the sooner the better. Nothing more frustrating than when I want to share (and attribute) someone’s thinking than having to mess about trying to extract something from a locked PDF.

    Alternatives? I wonder if this ‘platform’ (or just a fancy website?) is an example: (NB this is not an endorsement or indeed promotion of either the platform or the GoodRight initiative).

    I also liked Jeff’s contribution on the wonkification of everything. We’ve known for some time that more open data commodifies what previously was almost a luxury good, our insight+data. In the case of my organisation, a membership body, I think our role is to assemble all the different points on the knowledge spectrum (data at one end, anecdote from member at the other) on an ongoing basis. So that comes back to the PDF and notions of perpetual beta – you aren’t going to be valued for the report, but more your role as knowledge gathering/synthesising node in the network. Hope that makes sense.


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