Thursday, 28 May 2015

Aditi Bulletin Issue 2

Note from Managing Editor
The launch of the 2nd edition of Aditi at the Think Tank Initiative Exchange 2015 in Istanbul was a momentous event. Not only was the process of publishing Aditi presented in one of the session, Aditi (Issue 1) was launched and well-received. While the 1st issue focused on domestic funding, the current issue focusses on the Importance of Communication. We have attempted to bring in experiences of various stakeholders-policy makers, researchers and media to name a few. What is interesting is that contributions have come from several members of Think Tanks and non-Think Tank organisations from across the globe. Some of the articles cover experiences, musings, case studies etc. I would like to thank all the contributors for providing enriching articles and the reviewers for taking time to provide feedback and useful comments. Hope you enjoy reading this issue. You can send your queries to


Managing Editor, Aditi

Launch of Aditi at Istanbul

Vanesa Weyrauch
Co-founder, Politics&Ideas

Research communications has driven the attention of many of us in the past years, as Think Tanks try out innovative and attractive ways to get their research out to diverse stakeholders. In fact, significant progress has been made in terms of raising awareness on how good communications plays a pivotal role for Think Tanks to better engage in policymaking, and hopefully even to promote some type of change in the process, to those who participate in it and also on its results.

This edition of Aditi brings in very different but complementing experiences and perspectives on how Think Tanks can become compelling storytellers by translating their research findings into meaningful messages for different stakeholders. Moreover, as included here too, this is something that policymakers themselves need help with. So why not weave more stories together? Which are the metaphors, images, graphics, messengers, etc. that can provide interested parties with a clearer view on why change is needed in terms of policy?

Several contributors highlight the importance of thinking about citizens and their role in this complex and ever changing communications process. I find this reflection very relevant and an invitation to further think about enlarging the current communications framework. In fact, even when a Think Tank could find the ideal policymaker who is willing to pay full attention to its recommendations or analysis based on key factors analysed such as, reputation, credibility and high quality of research, he/she would probably ask him/herself: what will this mean for the voters? How will I be perceived and regarded? Will this help me gain political power? Or vice versa: what would happen to me if I do not regard this knowledge?

Yes, Think Tanks need to create new stories, use innovative technologies that facilitate communication in terms of synthesis and reach, and promote an internal culture that embraces opportunities to engage in dialogues with others. But to make strategic decisions in communications, we should not lose sight of the context. 

Indeed, it is important to invest time and energy in understanding how good research communication may help us to make a contribution to policy discussions, as several examples of this issue convene. The key word here is ‘contribution’; we need to acknowledge that what Think Tanks bring about to the discussion is only one of many elements that will come into play - as opposed to a readily deployable solution to a self-contained problem. In other words, policy discussions and the politics surrounding them cannot be preempted by a research piece, no matter how groundbreaking, innovative, conclusive or well-communicated it may be. Hence, it can only be meaningful insofar as we manage to successfully engage with a variety of actors with diverse legitimacies and roles who may use and interpret different types of knowledge-produced by us and others.

There are some inspiring examples of effective understanding of context and how to interact with its variety of actors in this issue. Hope they keep coming in and help us re-create communications, constantly.
Dr. Ajay Mathur, Director General, Bureau of Energy Efficiency

Vaqar Ahmed, Deputy Executive Director and Saleem Khilji, Senior Editor (English)

Influencing Policymaking: Framing Recommendations Beyond Evidence
Valerie G. Traore, Executive Director, Niyel
Karin Fernando, Senior Research Professional, Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka

Communicating with Policymakers: The Issue of Reputation
Nadhiya Najab, Junior Research Professional, Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka

Rene Hernandez Gonzalez, Communications Director, FUSADES

Jonathan Louis Stead, Head: Strategic Partnerships and Special Projects, South African Institute of International Affairs

Will Paxton and Guy Lodge, Kivu International

Concept - Dr. Jai Asundi, Principal Research Scientist, CSTEP
Illustration - Bhawna Welturkar, Graphic Designer, CSTEP

Humour in Writing
Amidst all the seriousness of scientific writing, every now and then researchers let slip gems of humour. Other than proving to be coffee table jokes, certain phrases that are coined for research communication should also be included in a table of ‘Phrases to beware of’.
Compiled by Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander, Head, CPE, CSTEP and Arushi Sen, Senior Communication Officer, CSTEP

Senior News Editor, NDTV
The notion of what the mainstream news media stands for has changed. In addition to the 4 most widely read newspapers in the country, it also includes TV channels with large viewership, social media platforms like Twitter, and key wire networks like Firstpost and The Wire (in the Indian context). The most important factor deciding the fate of a research communication product is its packaging; gone are the days when one Press Release sent to different media would result in coverage. Identifying opinion leaders amongst the media community and establishing personal contact with them is crucial. 
Data Visualisation Compilation
On Think Tanks launched the 2014–15 compilation of the #ttdatavis competition at the Cartagena Data Festival in Colombia. The compilation and the competition inspired Think Tanks and similar organisations to showcase real world examples of impactful data visualisation. It also contains useful resources and ‘how tos’ to support Think Tanks to develop their own visualisations.

The compilation is available as free download as an interactive eBook (408 MB), which is also available in the iBooks store, as well as a downloadable PDF (100 MB). It includes 46 entries, which emerged from 31 think tanks spanning 19 countries around the globe.

The topics of the visualisations cover a lot of ground. The second round of the competition coincided with the COP20 climate negotiations in Peru and focused on climate change and the environment.

Jeff Knezovich, the editor of the compilation, described the compilation:

“Think tanks may have similar goals and objectives, but this competition clearly demonstrates the wide array of approaches think tanks have toward meeting those goals. We saw both static and interactive visualisations, to be sure.

But beyond that, some took a clear message-driven approach while others developed tools that let the user understand the data more clearly. And while some sought to tell stories about their research, others used visualisations to increase explain government actions (or proposed actions) pushing greater transparency and accountability. It’s a broad collection that any Think Tank can find inspiration in.”

For more information…
Additional Reading – On Research Communication

A collection of blog posts that present an overview of the different discussions on communicating research that have been published on On Think Tanks.

A 10-step primer from a media expert on how to get your or your organisation’s opinion and work noticed by the mainstream media; on your terms without making compromises.

This article speaks about the challenges that researchers face when they need to get in touch with Policymakers.

A website dedicated to building a network between research communication and media for more effective local, national, and international development action.

Compiled by Arushi Sen, Senior Communication Officer, CSTEP


Communications & Policy : Two Sides of a Coin

Dr. Ajay Mathur 
Director General, Bureau of Energy Efficiency

In 2006, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) introduced the Standards & Labelling programme for refrigerators and air conditioners. The labels on these appliances provided information on the amount of energy used by a refrigerator over a year and the relative energy efficiency of a particular model compared to all other models in the market. The need for introducing this label came from the realisation that energy consumption of a particular model of a refrigerator or air conditioners was a low priority for a buyer, even though the energy bills of an air conditioner over its life are 3 to 4 times its original cost. However since the energy consumption information was not easily available at the time of sale, other characteristics, such as the buying price of the appliances, its brand, its colour, and the advice of neighbours and of the salesman, and its features, were the main factors in the decision to buy a particular model.

We thought therefore that the label, providing the energy consumption information, would be of value to consumers. At the same time, there was a strong feeling that the Indian consumer would not be swayed by the higher energy efficiency (and the promise of future energy bill reductions) if the price of the energy - efficient appliances was higher than those of lower – efficiency appliances. Consequently, many manufacturers were reluctant to join the labelling program. As a result, the Bureau found itself facing two challenges. The first was to ensure that consumers were able to use the information on the label to their benefit while making the buying decision, and the second was to convince more and more manufacturers to join the labelling program.

This was a chicken – and – egg situation, and we found it important to address both these challenges at the same time as we introduced the labels. The way forward was to reach out to both consumers and manufacturers simultaneously.

Consequently, we launched a targeted public outreach program on television and in the press, focusing on informing consumers of the benefits of labelled products. This was accompanied by surveys and collection of information on the growth in the sales of labelled products. The outreach programme was designed to reach, and be of use to appliance buyers. The findings of the surveys and information collection were designed to help manufacturers to decide on the usefulness of the labelling programme. In just a year – and – a – half, labelled products accounted for about half of the air conditioners, and three-quarters of the refrigerators that were sold. It became clear that consumers saw the label as a value proposition, and accepted the entry of this visible sign of energy efficiency into their homes and offices.

This experience underlines the fundamental nature of policy making, in as much as it necessarily introduces a change to the status quo. It also highlights the understanding that the success of a policy change largely depends on the ability to convince both the “Supplier” and the “User” of the change about its benefits. Effective communication therefore has to address all of these needs. It has to communicate – to the appropriate target groups – the benefits that the policy change brings in, and more broadly, capture and share the evolving implementation experience, especially in its early stages.

In the ultimate analysis, even the best - formed policies can be ineffective if people don’t know about them, and don’t know how to effectively benefit from them. Effective communications is integral part of effective policy.


Communicating Policy Research: Perspectives from Vernacular Media

Vaqar Ahmed
Deputy Executive Director, Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad

Saleem Khilji
Senior Editor (English), Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad

Think Tanks (TTs) from around the world struggle hard to master the art of communicating policy research in a manner that ensures uptake and diffusion. Some well-resourced institutions have even gone ahead and partnered with specialised media houses to deliver research at the policy practitioners’ doorsteps. They in fact ensure the continuous pounding of information until the message gets embedded.

In Pakistan, the situation is very much ideal, as media engagement here means ‘media management’. Since the last one and a half decades, the policies of vernacular press are being looked after by the owners who are mostly the editors as well. The owner usually takes care of his own interests with a narrow range of targets. So the owner-editors would sell the contents of their own choice and interest like a niche, which ultimately affected larger benefits for them in terms of revenues and to some extent a little share in power. Like the owners of kiosks, they would sell only those goods which have more profit margins. Politics is a more lucrative and profitable business, so vernacular media is more inclined towards it. On the contrary, issues like research, development and policy uptake are less profiting.

The human mind is a recipient of what is available. General readership and viewership in Pakistan is now addicted to three types of stories which the vernacular press carries overwhelmingly. These are: statements from government and opposition sides, financial, social & moral scams, and entertainment material. This is all what has been and is being provided to the readers and viewers as their food for thought. So naturally they would evolve a specific mindset. The media gets benefit of it making it impossible for the policy research institutes and TTs to influence it.

There are perceptions that the media management by certain quarters, on the one hand, yields benefits for the owners and on the other it provides a soft blanket to our ruling elite, including policy makers and bureaucracy, to hide the real issues of an exploitative class society. Research is an absurd area in the eyes of our ruling elite. They only focus on day-to-day issues. Unfortunately, over the years media has aligned itself with the same quarters due to its ‘short-sightedness and intellectual bankruptcy partly due to the deteriorating standards of education and partly due to low wages of vernacular media workers leading to corruption.

When we ask colleagues from vernacular media on what it may take for policy research Think Tanks to get their work (and more importantly messages) published, the first question they ask us is that how different are the clients of local-level media products. These are communities willing to settle for a policy announcement and can wait patiently for reforms agenda to change their lives. They may not be (apparently) concerned with how macro level policy reforms may change their lives over a distant long-term horizon.

They may also (apparently) seem smaller players in the development change but they are the biggest clients of change. This appreciation is less declared in policy Op-Eds that get published in mainstream media. That’s why the readership or viewership longing for local media is also the most consistent voter base and less open to change of face when it comes to political leadership of their vicinity.

So what are the messages here for a researcher willing to sell thoughts to this spectrum? First, the vernacular press is constrained with space. If national dailies can provide on average of 800 to 1000 words slot, only expect a less than half of this space from local ones. Second, be objective but in a non-technical manner. Third, do not try to squeeze more than a single idea in a single piece. Instead emphasise the same idea with local level and widely understood examples and anecdotes. Finally, build readership, as well as friendship with editors. Getting radical or questioning local mind sets in your first piece may result in your early exit from the vernacular press. Try posing questions in some of the early pieces and once there is respect for inquiry and readership is gradually blossoming, only then interject with small and easy to understand ideas.

*Authors work at Sustainable Development Policy Institute (


Influencing Policymaking: Framing Recommendations Beyond Evidence

Valerie G. Traore
Executive Director, Niyel

The impact of an argument lies both in the foundation of an argument as well as in the compelling way in which it is presented.

On the one hand, we have activism groups that are strong at communicating their position and stances to decision makers, some without sufficient evidence to back their claims. But on the other hand, we have Think Tanks and other researchers with the clear evidence to warrant a review or shift in policy making but are unable to make policy makers listen.

As this is mainly a forum for the second group, let’s focus on three key approaches that can be taken to make evidence more compelling and lead to being taken into account in policy making.

A little while ago we, Niyel, worked with three organisations that focused on a specific aspect of a solution. One group in Ghana was focused on research, a second in Senegal was focused on gaining parents support in order to pressurise decision makers to invest more in teacher training and the third in Mali, focused on developing and testing a methodology that proved efficient in helping students learn to read better and faster.

The key to gain support was that the research was sound. But once that was done, presenting it in a way that was compelling was necessary. The manner in which this data was presented was a bit difficult to digest. It showed that in Senegal, students in their third year of schooling could only read 18 words a minute. It is hard for most people to really understand what that means unless you time yourself. Which is exactly what we asked people to do, the volunteers, decision makers, even the ambassadors we had got to join the initiative. What everyone agreed with was that 18 words a minute simply meant that these children could not read.

To begin the conversation about a need for a shift in policy, both the problem and the solution need to be understood. First is to frame the arguments for these recommendations in a language that is simple and clear. Facts continue to be vital in influencing policy however, how one writes the fact is just as important as the fact itself.

For example, writing two in every 10 teachers believe that students who are sexually harassed by their teachers or fellow pupils are to blame for the incidences is a lot more effective than writing 283 of the 12, 464 teachers who took part in the study believed that students were responsible for the harassment by teachers and fellow students.

A global concern is the business and human rights practices of extractive industries. Much of it has been raised through stories by communities around the world. The message for the advocacy work on getting the regional economic community to better regulate extractives had for a long while remained in numbers- numbers of displaced, impact on the environment and revenue losses. As important as these were to highlight, they did not elicit emotion and as such were not very compelling. With several organisations and through coordination by Oxfam, we developed a series called Mining Stories that highlighted the impact of gold mining in West Africa through individual women and men that lived in and around mining sites. Each of these stories showed the impact that mining had on jobs, the herding of cattle, noise pollution, compensation practices and displacement.

Illustration is the second crucial factor in communicating research for greater policy engagement. People remember stories, faces, names and voices a lot better than just numbers. We feel more responsible for people if there is a sense that we know who they are and that beyond the numbers are fellow humans that could be our relatives or friends. Is there a specific person or community whose story can illustrate the problem that the policy recommendation is trying to solve, or showcase the success that policy recommendation would have, if implemented?

The third consideration is the human factor in policy making. People in decision making positions make choices, not just on the basis of fact but also out of their own value systems, their political affiliations as well as how certain choices are likely to enhance or undermine their position.

With this in mind, it is important to frame a policy recommendation in a way that is attractive for the decision maker. By asking ourselves what are their interests, their fears and their motivation, helps in identifying which evidence is more relevant to dispel their fears and motivate them.

For example, the Senegalese government finally passed an anti-tobacco law that had been sitting in the drawers for over five years despite the fact that the same government has been receiving budgetary support from the tobacco industry. In the past, lawmakers have been reluctant to lose out on revenue, coming from the industry, but, as research has shown over the years, there was a need to increase tax on tobacco and tighten tobacco laws.

Several organisations in a coalition called Listab, are fully aware of the influence of religious leaders in the Senegalese society including on political leaders, took the route of working closely with religious leaders from different faiths. When the religious leaders had taken the issue very seriously and made public statements on their support for the law, policy makers were faced with the hard choices of either supporting the tobacco industry or condemning these religious leaders. In the Senegalese context, the choice is clear. The law was passed unanimously in March 2014.

Policy influencing is not a neutral process. For every recommendation research provides, there is a counter recommendation from lobbyists, activists, corporate interests or other researchers. Developing a compelling argument with the target in mind is key to pushing one’s agenda.

Case Study

Creating Consumer Interest on Sustainable Energy

Karin Fernando
Senior Research Professional, Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka

Access to stable, affordable and reliable energy is the basic requirement for the improvement of wellbeing and the reduction of poverty. While this is a given fact, the main sources of energy used around the globe today are derived from fossil fuels. So much so, that humanity has reinvented life based upon this liquid gold. This dependence on fossil fuel for energy is largely taken for granted, and few of us reflect or question how that energy is produced, how we use it and its ricochet on our planet.

While Sri Lanka can boast an impressive 96% coverage of electricity to households, a study done by
the Public Utilities Commission – Sri Lanka (PUC-SL) shows that consumption distribution is skewed. About 80% of the population consumes only about 50% of energy. This means that much of the energy generated is used by a small percentage of the people. This pattern of usage has implications on decisions for tariffs , energy distribution and types of energy sources being used – that can disadvantage some users over others. For example, current electricity tariff structures allow for all users to gain from the subsidised lower unit rates that ultimately become a cost to the government. Tariffs structures also disadvantage Small and Medium scale industries. Such industries also face challenges related to energy efficiency such as lack of awareness, absence of incentives to follow energy efficient techniques and relatively expensive advisory services (i.e. energy auditing). It begs to question if the access to energy is fair and equitable and if it is being used in a responsible manner.

Fuel demand in the transport sector has grown phenomenally and in 2010, accounted for approximately 60% of total domestic petroleum consumption. Deteriorating and poorly planned public transport services, the promotion and increasing reliance on private vehicles –an indicator of social mobility -  and the  lack of development of the railway system has serious consequences on the efficient use of energy. Hence the transport sector too presents disparities in who has access to good quality transport services and a related disproportionate use of energy. Worryingly, it is also a sector without an active consumer lobby.

As households become wealthier they move from using less efficient solid fuels (dung, wood) to more efficient liquids and finally on to electricity for cooking.  In Sri Lanka, biomass remains the cheapest and most widely used (78% of the households). However, technology for better stoves and  better use of firewood is not given adequate attention, while the effect of indoor air pollution – especially for women and children - an obvious inequality - remains hidden and devoid of any regulatory protection or consumer concern.

Looking at this background, the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) and Energy Forum of Sri Lanka initiated a process to raise the awareness of civil society and consumers, increase their knowledge of responsible energy use and build “people’s voices” to develop a sustainable and equitable energy policy for Sri Lanka. As part of this initiative a participatory process has been set in motion to put forth an energy consumer charter that demands better energy services and also encourages responsible energy use. The charter covers energy use for electricity, transport, households and small and medium industries. A two day national workshop was held to draft the charter and was the first attempt in Sri Lanka to handle multiple energy issues in a participatory process with the active involvement of civil society organisations, consumer societies and energy consumers. The participating organisations had the opportunity of interacting and working in small groups with representatives from the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA), and Lanka Electricity Company (Private) Limited (LECO).  This allowed for a free exchange of ideas and for each group to get a better understanding of issues related to energy supply and use. It also helped to orient the civil society to consider energy issues and how they relate to their work and personal circumstances, as consumers.

The next steps of the project, will see the drafted energy consumer charter finalised after verification by regional civil society groups, consumer societies and other stakeholders. The charter will then be shared publicly with the intention of creating awareness about the energy issues across the island.  It is also the hoped that it will facilitate a consultation mechanism for CSOs to provide inputs into the sustainable energy policy at national level.

Case Study

Communicating with Policymakers: The Issue of Reputation

Nadhiya Najab
Junior Research Professional, Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka

When intending to communicate with a policymaker, one is likely to come across several 'how to' lists, manuals or evidence papers. What these documents sometimes fail to tell you is that there is no guaranteed method to ensure success when communicating with a policymaker; instead there are several factors that can determine successful communication with a policymaker. Some of these factors are the context, the method of communication and credibility. In some instances, all these factors can play a role; in others only a single factor matters. 

In this article, I focus on how credibility contributes to communicating with a policymaker. A potential policymaker may not listen to you, unless the information that you present has a credible source. Who or what the credible source is, is debatable as all policymakers are not likely to find all sources equally credible.

The reputation of an organisation considerably lends credibility to information. If the organisation
presenting the data has a proven track record of making sound recommendations in the past, it is likely that a policymaker will lend an ear to what the organisation has to say. This is because it is difficult for policy makers to check the credibility of evidence (upon which the recommendation is made), therefore, they often rely on the legitimacy and reputation of the source, i.e. the Think Tank that makes the recommendation. For example, when CEPA analysed an impact evaluation carried out by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Bihar, India, with regard to the impact of metering of tube wells, we found that the study findings were considered valid among other reasons because IWMI researchers are much respected within the water and irrigation policymaking circles in India.

However, the reputation of the organisation carrying out the research and its past experiences, are only likely to get you so far. Sometimes it is important to pick the disseminator who is ‘most acceptable’ to the target audience. For example, in one instance where disaggregated data on poverty was produced by the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) with technical assistance from the World Bank, when presenting the data a deliberate decision was made that the DCS would take the lead when presenting the data to the Sri Lankan policy makers and implementers. This decision was taken to ensure that the credibility of the evidence was not undermined because of legitimacy concerns about the source of the evidence. In the context of Sri Lanka, the DCS has both legitimacy and reputation in policy making circles in the country which is in contrast to the World Bank, whose activities are often viewed with some degree of suspicion in Sri Lanka. In contrast, the World Bank took the lead in disseminating the poverty figures among the donor community as well as internationally. Therefore it is necessary to understand the context and the perceptions attached to particular organisations by the relevant target audience.

While this short essay is based on past experiences of CEPA, the findings that I have presented here are by no means conclusive in terms of communicating with policymakers as the context is always changing. However, two aspects-the legitimacy of the organisation and its expertise in the relevant field greatly contribute to the successful outcome of the policy intervention.


Reclaiming one Solid Communications Source

Rene Hernandez Gonzalez
Communications Director, FUSADES

During the last three decades, The Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development, Fusades, has grown to become one of the most influential development organisations in El Salvador, and is also a well-respected institution dedicated to public policy internationally. Its unique model as both a Think Tank and programme development center has brought very gratifying achievements, but also its share of challenges, especially when it comes to communication and incidence.

The solid growth during its 32 years of existence, transformed a single department NGO in 1983 into an 8 department Think Tank in 2015, with expertise in areas of development such as economics, politics, legal and institutional issues, social issues, entrepreneurship, local development, quality assurance, and others.

The quality of the work and influence from each department over time inescapably strengthened each one in its own right, therefore becoming more and more independent. And in communications, this is not necessarily a good thing. Position and policy papers, as well as other in-depth studies were presented in different forms, names, frequencies and looks, with much liberty to each department. This positive reputation developed individually gave way to isolated and independent communications efforts, making institutional control over the impact and incidence harder every year.

In order to not become a victim of its own growth, a long-term communication strategy began in Fusades since 2009, which included refreshing the organisation’s brand and image as well as a plan to bring regularity and customisation to all the Foundation’s publications. So slowly but surely, a new genre of documents were published in 2014, designed for specific needs and audiences. Another key part of this evolution was the integration of an institutional data base of stakeholders, identified and separated according to issue, relevance, area of society, possible cooperation and other specifications. Previously, the origin of each paper was more associated to each department; now, all publications come from Fusades.

We now have graphic uniformity and strategic outreach to key stakeholders and decision makers, and we are able to keep track of hits and misses in order to rethink strategies and tactics, making every communications effort more effective. Another important part of these changes has been to optimise the content in our publications for the social media. New technologies play a major role in Fusades’ communication and influence actions, principally to respond to the needs of local or international media, Salvadorans living abroad, younger audiences, foreign organisations and direct communication with anyone who wishes more information on a topic or just has an opinion about our proposals. We are currently producing short videos, animations and infographics to promote our ideas and recommendations, or to stir a debate around certain issues.

The long term Communications Plan includes regular media training and social media skills courses and updates for its researchers. These are very important skills to develop by specialists who are our organisation’s spokespersons, individually in his or her area of expertise. Fusades has transformed its communications source from a perception of various independent departments, to one defined institutional origin, so we can strategically inject all of the Foundation’s reputation, credibility and influence into each and every public policy proposal.

Change in an organisation such as Fusades does not come easily. Much attention was paid to the embedded culture and the human factor. Patience, perseverance and support from the Board has been critical and necessary to the success of these decisions, but also a new vision of influence in public policy tied to refreshed Monitoring and Evaluation efforts, as well as the definition of long term objectives also played a very important role.


Audience, Audience, Audience!

Jonathan Louis Stead
Head: Strategic Partnerships and Special Projects
South African Institute of International Affairs 

The property market determines value by “location, location, location”. In communication we replace this with “audience, audience, audience”. The ability to reach our target market effectively is the criterion by which our institutions’ communications strategies will be judged. Without this the valuable research findings our colleagues produce will stay hidden from the policy discourse. It requires us to distinguish between one-way information and two-way interactive communication that seeks and elicits a response.

I wonder if we in Think Tanks really know and understand who our audience is and what they need. In commerce if you do not know your customers – and know them well - you will soon be out of business. Some years ago as a university Marketing Director my team developed a student recruitment campaign that we believed would “wow” prospective students. The adverts emphasised, apart from academic reputation, the vibrant student life on campus – new friendships, dynamic student societies, and university sport. The high school focus groups held before we launched the adverts gave us their verdict. “If we wanted to go to a summer camp then we would go to one. We want to go to a serious university, to study and get jobs.” We as communicators had completely misread what our audience wanted to hear.

At my current institution we undertook our first substantive market survey of key stakeholders five years ago. This investigated the key issues of the institution’s reputation and its impact on public policy but, at my request, also the “touch points” where we engage our stakeholders – website, events, media and publications.

The insights we gained were invaluable in re-focussing our communication efforts. These included what material, how often and in what format/medium our key stakeholders wanted to receive our communication. We appointed our first full-time Communications Manager, started redesigning our website and developed a proactive media strategy. Equally important it led to an organisational restructuring that placed all the “market-facing” activities in one department for the first time.
Listening to your audiences can be painful (or pleasing) as they will tell you the truth – but ultimately it leads to greater communication effectiveness. I participated recently in a CSTEP Aditi survey on generating domestic sources of revenue – thank you for asking my opinion and for listening to it.


So, What's the Story?

Will Paxton, Kivu International

Guy Lodge, Kivu International

“So, what’s the story? That is what I always ask the researchers when they hand me their draft reports.” These were the words of Dr Pamela Kabaso, the Executive Director of the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR) when we sat in her Lusaka office at the start of 2014. Like all good think tank heads around the world she instinctively knew just how vital it is to turn good research into something which is easy to communicate.

Since this first meeting we have been working closely with ZIPAR as they have achieved a step-change in ability to communicate their work. Our work has been part of a programme called the Zambian Economic Advocacy Programme, which partners with a number of Zambian think tanks. We have drawn on our own experience in British think tanks to provide peer-to-peer support for these organisations. 

What we have seen as the key to ZIPAR’s success is that the organisation as a whole now thinks about how best to communicate its work. They actively plan how they convey their messages to the outside world, but are also always ready to be opportunistic and comment on emerging news stories. Social media has played a big role, but the newspapers – which politicians read - still matter too. In short, there is a growing organisational culture in ZIPAR which values communications. 

Whereas in the past communicating research was seen as a ‘bolt on’, only to be considered at the end of a project, ZIPAR increasingly integrates thinking promoting its work from the start of every project. Whereas in the past researchers tended not to see ‘telling stories’ – as Pamela would put it – as core to their job, they are now increasingly becoming the main communicators of their research. Yes, they work in close partnership with Euphrasia Mapulanga-Ilunga, the Head of Communications, but in the end it is the researchers themselves who know their argument the best and they are the ones who need to get the message out there. And finally, whereas in the past ZIPAR was sometimes guilty of writing reports suitable only for an academic audience, today it produces highly accessible papers which are relevant for more of a political and policy audience. 

An example here is a forthcoming report on Zambian government debt. This is policy relevant, clearly written – with a short executive summary providing a clear message and the basis of other communications – and as a result has already commanded the ear of policy makers.
None of this means compromising on research quality. Choosing research topics which are near the top of ministerial in-trays helps ensure you have a receptive audience when it comes to communicating the results. But the importance of rigor and high quality policy relevant research must always remain at the core of what any think tank does. 

Likewise, good think tanks do not seek media coverage just for the sake of it. Ultimately the purpose of communications is to help enhance influence and achieve change. Indeed, what most people think of as ‘comms’ – press coverage – is only one element of a wider approach to communications and advocacy. ZIPAR, for example, are always making judgements about the best balance between communicating through the media and using more ‘inside’ approaches – clearly presenting policy arguments to policy makers in various forums. 

But whether it is a newspaper article, a 140 character tweet or a presentation to MPs on a Select Committee, the relevance of Pamela’s challenge to her researchers remains: “so, what’s the story?”

Guy Lodge has over ten years of experience at the IPPR, a leading British think tank, and is a fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. Will Paxton worked for the IPPR for five years and was a policy adviser to the UK government for a further five years, including two years in the No.10 Policy Unit under Gordon Brown. Together they run Kivu International, an organisation dedicated to supporting think tanks around the world to increase their relevance and impact.


Interview with Madhusudan Srinivas
Senior News Editor, NDTV

The notion of what the mainstream news media stands for has changed. In addition to the 4 most widely read newspapers in the country, it also includes TV channels with large viewership, social media platforms like Twitter, and key wire networks like Firstpost and The Wire (in the Indian context). The most important factor deciding the fate of a research communication product is its packaging; gone are the days when one Press Release sent to different media would result in coverage. Identifying opinion leaders amongst the media community and establishing personal contact with them is crucial. 

As a conclusion, Madhusudan remarked, “The genuine senior politician and bureaucrat is receptive to everything - right from pure newspaper to Twitter to PPTs – to everything… for the something to translate into policy action, you will definitely need hard-core research papers. And there is no set method – it has to be multi-pronged. You will have to do all of this together.”

Interviewed by Arushi Sen