Why do we ignore the evidence when it comes to think tank communications?

Author(s): Rose Beynon

December 5, 2023

In an industry that champions evidence-led responses, think tank communications strategies are rarely guided by insight. Instead, communications is too often led by outputs. Pre-agreed commitments to the funder to create “communications products” (a phrase that makes my heart sink) no matter what the research finds or what current events are shaping the world.

This focus on outputs could be due to one of two, rather troubling, explanations. It is the belief that ‘stuff’ equals impact. An approach which is not effective and usually financially harmful, as proposals are loaded with stuff (events, reports, videos, microsites) without the proper budget or capacity to deliver. Or it is an assumption that you know what the research will say, or what you want the research to say, before it has been carried out. This approach may be effective at influencing audiences in the short-term but in the long-term it is eroding trust in the sector.

It means think tanks are behaving like lobbyists, establishing the policy changes and narrative they want before conducting the research. While working in PR firms I have commissioned this kind of ‘research’ for clients. Where you start with a clear idea of what the message will be (even mocking up media headlines) and then construct the evidence to support it. This isn’t a realm think tanks should operate in and if they allow desired outcomes to shape research methods, the consequences could be devastating.  

Bad communications approaches are often driven by funding models. A lack of flexible or long-term funding means revenue comes from smaller, more competitive, projects often funded by private companies or foundations. To satisfy these funders think tanks feel they need commit to producing tangible outcomes or outputs regardless of the evidence or impact.

So what does evidence-led communications look like?

The corporate communications / public affairs model – start with objectives, then strategy, tactics last – doesn’t fit. It assumes you know what you’ll be saying before you have reviewed the evidence. However, what it does have right is ensuring strategy comes before tactics. It is important to understand the distinction between the two, as sometimes what is labelled a ‘communications strategy’ is instead a tactical plan detailing the content you will produce and when.

What should come before this is a clear outline of which channels and messages to use and why. Strategy should be rooted in audience and impact. It is about understanding what is happening outside your organisation and how your research can be positioned in this context to reach the right people. It should be clear, agile, and useful. As the renowned Communications Director, Alastair Campbell, once said “Good strategy is about action, not theory”.

And what comes before strategy if not objectives? Insights. This isn’t just the data or findings from your research but a clear interpretation of what this evidence means and why it matters – how it is relevant to current affairs, why it could influence positive changes. To put it simply, insights answer the “so what?!” question.

The model – insights, strategy, tactics – is still missing one step. Measurement and evaluation. This comes at the end but should be considered throughout, especially when devising the strategy. If you don’t know what success looks like when you start communicating, it is very difficult to prove you’ve achieved it at the end. Evaluation should track messages and campaigns to understand which engagement strategies work. Tables of downloads and social media reach, mean very little on their own.  

So there you have it.

Insights – Strategy – Tactics – Evaluation

Of course, for this model to work, it demands that communications is present throughout the process. Communications colleagues are often only invited to provide input at two points – when drafting proposals or when disseminating the research. By inserting communications into the development and / or leadership of research programmes, we can create bolder engagement strategies that achieve greater impact. I have no doubt about that.

We need to see these changes to think tank communications so that evidence-led campaigns become as powerful as those guided by opinions or misinformation. In the current climate we need to reinstate trust in experts and evidence more than ever. Better engagement strategies that are led by evidence rather than outputs, will do a lot to restore the reputation of the sector.

Rose Beynon is a communications consultant working with leading international affairs think tanks. She is former Head of Communications for ODI (Overseas Development Institute) and led the external affairs team for ISD (Institute for Strategic Dialogue).