Last week saw WonkComms team up with Soapbox to put on the very first in a series of Breakfast Club events. These practical events offer the WonkComms community a regular opportunity to discuss some of the big challenges of delivering research and policy communications.
At last week’s event, held under the Chatham House Rule at Soapbox HQ in Southwark, Nicole Valentinuzzi of the Institute for Government led a lively discussion on ‘Targeting Parliament‘.
Ultimately think tanks live or die by the relevance of their work to policymakers. But navigating the complex world of the UK Parliament; choosing when to contact MPs and peers with research and policy ideas; and knowing how to do so effectively is a tricky business. And that’s before we even turn to the devolved nations.
So what did we learn from the discussion? We asked attendees present to tell us what they learned, and here are their thoughts:
1. Select Committees are more important than ever for research organisations
We live in the era of the select committee. With the Government defending a slim majority in Parliament, and the Opposition still finding its feet (to put it kindly), Select Committees are stronger than ever before. The job of these committees is to scrutinise government policy and examine evidence. So ensuring they have access to robust and well-informed policy analysis on relevant topics should be a core goal for any think tank comms professional.
2. Be clear about what you’re asking MPs or Peers to do, especially if your organisation isn’t well known
Some think tanks and research bodies are household names. Those that aren’t have to work extra hard to get past the ‘so what?’ question that will often greet any approach they make to a parliamentarian. Part of the key to getting noticed and – more importantly – taken seriously, is outlining a clear ask. What do you want policymakers to do with your research? How might it be beneficial to them to cite your work or engage with your organisation? And what are the next steps they might take?
3. MPs are people too!
Despite what big public affairs agencies might want you to believe, there is no great mystery to working with parliament – and that’s because MPs are people too. Common sense approaches – like working hard to build strong relationships rather than sending MPs blanket emails or impersonal letters – may take time, but are not difficult to do. As one attendee put it:
“If I wanted to persuade my flatmate to stop leaving dirty socks on the floor, I wouldn’t send a letter or call a meeting. I would talk to them; bring them round to my point of view based on our position of mutual trust. So it makes sense to use the same approach with bigger issues than misplaced laundry!”
4. Don’t underestimate the power of Twitter
When discussing different ways to communicate complex research, discussion inevitably (and understandably) turns to social media. And where the UK Parliament is concerned, social media almost always means Twitter. With over 80% of MPs on Twitter, and many of them actively using it during parliamentary business (to the distress of the Speaker), this is one of the few ways that think tanks can get their research straight to the policymakers, often bypassing the filter of their staff. As one attendee said:
“Sending messages to MPs waiting to speak in a debate sounds to me like a very good way of getting your organisation’s key points across at the right time.”
What’s more, while civil servants may not be publicly engaging in Twitter spats, many of them are on it – and many more are observing it. Just remember to make your tweets relevant, engaging and shareable.
5. Grit your teeth and work with other, similar organisations
Getting organisations to agree on joint policy positions is often no easy task. While the outside world may not know the difference between your think tank and another similar institute or foundation, even the most seasoned negotiator can struggle to blend the nuances and perspectives held by two or more organisations.
But stick with it – teaming up with other NGOs and think tanks makes a lot of sense when targeting parliament. Saving your audience the job of reading several almost identical briefings is not only pragmatic, it is also much appreciated by those poor souls (also known as parliamentary researchers) who have to trawl through said briefings to prepare their MP for a debate or committee session.
If you enjoyed that, remember to check out our Storify for more tips on targeting parliament. The next WonkComms Breakfast Club will be held in July on the topic of marketing emails. So keep an eye on this page, our Twitter account and our LinkedIn page for the details when they are announced. Oh, and I almost forgot another thing we learned at the WonkComms breakfast club: Soapbox certainly know how to put on a splendid breakfast…