Sure, today’s digital platforms can reach people directly in a way that wasn’t possible a few short years ago. But the fact remains that if you want to influence a lot of people very quickly, nothing beats a good writeup in a major news outlet. And yet, as news cycles get shorter and stories break 280 characters at a time, how do think tanks—not typically known for our off-the-cuff analyses or quick turnarounds—fit in?
That’s the topic Jacob Schlesinger, a senior correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, and Melina Kolb, digital communications manager at the Peterson Institute for International Economics took on at last week’s DC Breakfast Club.
Jake kindly agreed to put his conversation on the record, but the rest of our discussion was held under our usual Chatham House rule. Here are some of the big takeaways.
1. Lead time matters.
Most think tank reports aren’t going to inspire an entire story. But many of them make a great supplement to a related story. If you can give reporters some lead time—we’re talking a few days here—they can pitch a story in which your new report plays an important role. If you hand off a shiny new article on immigration with a one-hour embargo, and there aren’t already any immigration stories in the pipeline, you’re not going to get much love.
2. Timing is everything.
A lot of reporting is about spot news. That’s the stuff that just happens, is important, and people need to write about. (Think, Donald Trump imposes new tariffs by tweet at 5 a.m.) Getting quoted in a spot news article is about being available. Most deadlines for such stories are measured in hours, not days. If you’re not available when the call comes in, you’re probably not getting quoted.
But don’t feel too bad if you missed day 1. If the story is big, there will be a day 2. That’s a great opportunity for think tanks to provide context, background, and analysis of trends. It’s also the point at which reporters feel like they’ve covered all the facts and now need a bit of help fleshing out the story.
3. Having a plan helps.
The news cycle moves fast, so it’s important to be nimble enough to respond. The Peterson Institute discovered that a blog post often took so long to write that events were already out of the news cycle before they could respond. So their comms team put together a matrix of content options, ranging from near real-time (tweets from experts and from the organization) through shorter-term (updating a timeline of events or producing an impromptu podcast) to long-range options (like placing an op-ed).
It’s worked well so far. The comms team has improved nearly every metric, the organization was just named US Think Tank of the Year in the Economic and Financial Affairs Category, and one of Peterson’s biggest issues got an entire segment on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
It’s a bit of a toss up as to which of those things most WonkComms types would take to be the biggest marker of success.
4. Newsrooms (and reporters) are increasingly digital-first.
Not so long ago, journalists measured success by the print edition. A1 above the fold was a big deal. Today, that dynamic has changed. The evening digital version of a story is the authoritative source. That’s the one that matters. The print edition of a story may even be shorter than the online version, with all the analysis and quotes stripped away until only the bare outline of the facts remain.
If your quote made the digital version but not the print edition, don’t worry about it. You’re in the version the reporter really cares about.
5. Having a great report isn’t a guarantee of coverage.
We all like to think that cream rises to the top—that if your report is good enough, then it will get traction.
Unfortunately, it’s just not true.
Yours isn’t the only think tank competing for attention. Most reporters are bombarded with email pitches. A distressingly large chunk of those will never be opened. Most of the ones that get opened never get a click.
If you want to make the cut, you need subject lines that clearly state what’s in the email and a one-paragraph summary that is both compelling and that clearly states the big takeaway in your report.