[Editor’s note: This post was written by Arushi Sen, Senior Communication Officer, and Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander, Head of Communication and Policy Engagement at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP). ‘Strategising Research Communication at CSTEP’ is a two-part article that traces CSTEP’s experiences in formally instituting communication strategies to achieve certain organisational objectives. Part 1 describes the processes of development and implementation of a Communication Strategy. Part 2 focuses on the need for a dedicated team and the advantages of having a team over alternative methods of communication adopted by other organisations.]
Implementing a Communication Strategy
In the Think Tank ecosystem, the perception of communication and its importance has undergone a complete makeover in the last 10 years or so. The importance of research communication and policy engagement has become an integral part of a Think Tank’s institutional objectives, and a strong communication strategy has become the focal point of many organisations. In this context, the biggest strength of a well-defined communication strategy is that it can help a Think Tank achieve one of its most important objectives of aiding public policy formulation through research and analysis with greater clarity. It usually helps to map the flow of information within the organisation, with stakeholders, external customers and others. It includes the creation and dissemination of simple messages, which can snowball into a larger productive engagement, when well conveyed.
For example, one of the key objectives at CSTEP is to bring visibility to the organisation and also build a brand name and, the use of social media was identified as an important strategy for achieving the same. Regular implementation of this activity has exponentially increased its presence amongst a larger and more global audience. Recently, an announcement regarding the launch of a new project on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn led to an external customer contacting us to explore how they can partner with us on common ideologies/research themes.
Why have a Team?
The success of a communication strategy depends on ‘how’ well it is executed and ‘who’ executes it; it requires structured planning and a dedicated and appropriate team. Very often Think Tanks try to achieve the former first through ad-hoc measures; researchers are encouraged to fulfil communication responsibilities or editorial and design tasks are outsourced. Approaches such as these have their own pros and cons. However, one cannot deny the fact that just as policy research requires a specific kind of skill set, communication is also a highly skill-oriented activity. A deeper understanding of the dynamic nature of the ‘4Ws and H’ (What, Where, When, Why and How) is essential to implement a communications strategy.
Based on the fact that the process of developing a viable communication strategy and implementing the same requires a certain set of skills and capacity, CSTEP decided to constitute a Communication and Policy Engagement team. This team was primarily tasked with ensuring that information is suitably unpacked to meet the needs of various audiences at the right time. Communication is not merely the act of dissemination for this team; it is a two-way dialogue and an iterative process.
CSTEP’s CPE Team
The team identified what activities would be relevant, who would be the potential audience and, most importantly, what may be achieved through these initiatives. Currently, the CPE team consists of a:
- Senior Communication Officer – who overlooks the media and social media activities, apart from editing various research outputs
- Graphic Designer – who helps visualise graphics, designs knowledge products like brochures, report covers, etc. and creates logos and icons
- Database Consultant – who takes care of categorising and storing all information
- Head, CPE – who manages the team’s activities, explores new directions and ideas for innovative outreach and communication activities and coordinates the production of publications such as Aditi, Sci-Tech News and Bhaskara (newsletters of CSTEP and SCOPEBIG).
At an organisational level, the first project the team took up was to revamp the website for better navigation and ensure that CSTEP’s achievements and engagements were shared and updated regularly. Another bucket of outreach activities that were started included regular production of Webinars, Podcasts and Interviews. These activities were selected based on the availability of resources and their need, and then planned into segments disseminated at various intervals. This engagement plan ensures that at least 2 outreach activities are planned and implemented each month. Then, they are shared on social media and via email announcements with carefully selected groups of audience groups. To ensure that the programmes are planned with specific timelines, a Spreadsheet was created and shared with the key players (CSTEP staff) to ensure their availability.
Working with Researchers
At a project level, the team works in unison with each other and collaborates with the researchers to bring about maximum policy impact and visibility to the organisation. The CPE team is involved in the planning and execution of research projects right from the start. For example, when a project proposal is written, the CPE team is involved in the meetings to understand the objectives, key deliverables, target audience and the overall purpose of the project. Based on this understanding a communication strategy is built to include key deliverables such as research papers, Op-eds and Final Report.
Once the project takes off, the CPE team and the researchers work closely to unpack the technical information and decide on what type of information should be disseminated through which medium. The identification of specific aspects of the study, which can have a greater impact on the consumer if represented as an infographic, is an important part of the CSTEP’s
research communication process. Strategically timed social media messaging is done throughout the project. Sometimes webinars, podcasts or interviews of collaborators are also conducted and hosted on the website. Close to the end of a project, the CPE team works closely with the research team in hosting an outreach event like a Stakeholder Consultation Workshop or a Conference. Decisions are taken on the extent to which the press is to be involved; sometimes a Press Conference is organised, at other times exclusive interviews with key participants of the project (researcher, funder or collaborator) are organised.
CSTEP’s CPE team is also the gatekeeper of output quality by providing editorial and design support in-house. All knowledge products, starting with project proposals to research reports and even newspaper articles undergo an extensive review process which includes language checks, technical review by experts, design approval and formatting checks. Barring the review done by a technical expert, the rest of the process is undertaken by the team before a final version is sent to the senior management for approval. The CPE team has also developed a Standards and Guidelines to guide researchers in creating high quality outputs.
A combination of developing a communication strategy and instituting a team that understands the best ways of implementing the strategy can help a Think Tank go a long way in maximising their impact and reaching their goals. This is the path that CSTEP chose in 2013; the communication strategy is not only being implemented but also constantly being re-iterated based on successes and challenges faced by the team.
[Editor’s note: For more blog posts on CSTEP’s experience dealing with think tanks’ decisions read Acknowledging a prominent think tank: the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) in India.]