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Should we start building a ‘networked communications’ culture?

We are ready to re-frame the way we think and talk about how communications can contribute for research to inform public policies. We need to think more about ‘networked communications’, which means communicating with others, instead of crafting plans, strategies and activities that build only on what our institution or we as individual researchers can bring into the policy table. This is one of my main conclusions after spending more than 90 minutes sharing thoughts, experiences and questions with colleagues around the globe in the webinar Never mind the research piece! Communicating in policy environments, co-organized by Politics & Ideas and CIPPEC on March 18th.

I began my presentation with a question: Is there room and need to build an alternative paradigm when we are dealing with communications within policy? I seek to begin answering it in a process that begun today through a very rich exchange with colleagues like Rebecca Pointer from PLAAS (South Africa) and René Hernández from FUSADES (El Salvador) and several participants from different parts of the globe, from Pakistan to Vietnam.

I think the answer is yes: there is room to bring on many lessons learned in the past years during which multiple organizations have enhanced and sharpened their communications strategies, including getting involved in innovative practices, such as social media. The webinar has demonstrated that there is good knowledge in places like FUSADES (i.e. how they have created a communications committee which together with research directors decides on strategic communications issues for the think tank) and PLAAS (i.e. how they have enlarged their network of partners to deal with the challenges of promoting land reform in South Africa).

Also, there is need to build a new paradigm: though efforts to further develop and strengthen communications skills and abilities (ranging from media training to engaging in data visualization) have helped research organizations and researchers better access policymakers and other relevant actors, huge challenges persist, as participants have clearly revealed: how do we make progress when we are dealing with political systems that do not value research at all or very seldom? How do we work with civil society outside pre-electoral times when the need to hear citizenship is not that strong? Or moreover, what happens when policymakers are so confident on their support base that they do not want to listen to any alternative views?

We can become better and better on communicating research itself, finding innovative channels, devising attractive formats, conveying simple but sticking messages, enlarging our social media audience… but is this enough to achieve influence within public policy? Certainly not, and it might even imply diverting energy to activities and tools that ensure that we are visible or well regarded (and thus attract more donors, for example) but that tell little about the change we bring to the policy realm.

From what I’ve heard from other presentations and participants’ questions and comments, I could imagine a sort of answer to my question. It may be time to re-think communications as a planned and organized effort by one organization/researcher and engage in multi-lateral dialogues whereby what we know today and what we might find out tomorrow through research is part of a collective effort to ensure that our society does pay attention to relevant public policy issues and is part of the answer to them. Networked communications could become a field of exploration where audiences become real actors with which we discuss, understand and deal with social problems that require policy answers. I’d be very encouraged and interested to learn if there are some persons/organizations doing this kind of work!