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How can a top development thinktank improve its communications?

June 24, 2016
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Well it feels like the world just ended, but thought I’d post this anyway. Life goes on and all that.

The title to this post was my exam question for a recent discussion with the comms team at ODI. My initial reaction was ODI logo_‘you’re top of the heap already, relax’, but then I got to thinking about a couple of areas where ODI, and most other development ‘knowledge brokers’ (or whatever they call themselves these days), can sharpen up.

Where are the personalities?

The ODI is full of interesting, quirky, funny people, but you would never guess that from the website or the output. Why not? Apart from anything else, personality boosts traffic. Why not get ODI staff vlogging on their field visits, to give a sense of what they do and who they are? Why not let people sign up for notifications of blogs by named ODI staff, rather than the corporate beast? Where’s the cult of personality around the Director?

Can you help us read LESS?

brain-is-fullSure, ODI churns out vast amounts of research, and wants us to read it, but one of the main kinds of feedback I get on this blog is ‘thanks for reviewing XX, because you saved me loads of time reading it’. I really like the ODI’s quarterly ‘resilience scan’ for the same reason (wish they would do one on Doing Development Differently). It is also really good at infographics, videos, blogging its papers etc. Most people in the aid and development business (and everywhere else) suffer from information overload, so people and institutions that can summarize, signpost and shortcut are worth their weight in gold (and printer ink). Book reviews, ‘listicles’ – ’10 things you need to know about the latest development fuzzword’, ‘bluffer’s guide to social enterprise, payment by results, resilience for dummies etc’. Or why not pick up the World Bank’s David Evans’ trick of summarizing all the papers at a given conference, with links (I think 150 papers is probably his record so far)?

Interactivity

You go to ODI to receive wisdom. That doesn’t encourage much interaction – very few comments on most blogs, no polls, few debates on genuine dilemmas. That also has a dampening effect on potential engagement by the public.

Snakeoil v Scattergun

It’s interesting to compare ODI with its main competitor in the aid/development sector – the Center for Global Development. CGD has arguably got a much sharper approach to marketing – it takes time to develop a new idea, invests in finding a good name for it (‘Cash on Delivery’, ‘Commitment to Development Index’), puts together teams to work on it, and then remorselessly bangs home the need for the product (whatever the problem, CoD seems to be part of the solution). ODI is much more ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ and then different sectors can pick the flowers they like. Personally, I prefer the ODI model – more diverse, more compatible with messy, complex systems, but you do dilute the brand, sacrificing profile and possibly impact.

That was my initial tirade. The reactions from the ODI comms gurus were interesting. They were

For some reason they don't always say 'whoopee'

For some reason they don’t always say ‘whoopee’

worried that warts and all ‘vlogs from the field’ might dilute the aura of authority and expertise they work hard to build. I disagree – as long as you clearly demarcate ‘work in progress’ from final product, the fact that researchers do actually get out of London and talk to poor people can only enhance their credibility.

Their other response was more tricky. Some researchers are natural communicators, but others are, how can we put it, happier with their spreadsheets. How to drag them blinking into the light? My advice would be don’t even try – bitter experience has shown me you can’t force introverted researchers into becoming bloggers, at least not good ones. Better to spot the researchers who like communicating and support them.

The support can be direct (eg if they don’t like writing accessibly, get them to vlog, or interview them, write it up and get them to approve the text). Be ready to mentor them as they start trying stuff out. Lots of upfront training may be counterproductive – it just turns something easy like making a video on your phone, into a big chore.

Clj1itsWIAEAzpUBut support can also be indirect, through improved feedback loops. Why not circulate a list of staff’s media hits every month (traditional and social media)? Or get audiences to feed back on panellists and presentations, then tell everyone in ODI the results? That could shift institutional incentives towards comms a bit.

And the one massive thing I completely forgot to mention, so will do so now – MOOCs. ODI is totally suited to run Massive Open Online Courses that fill the gap between social media and reading inaccessible research. What’s holding them back?

Any other suggestions for ODI?

And here’s a vlog summary recorded early in the morning in Lisbon. For some reason I’m talking very fast despite geese honking and a mild hangover- not a good look, I think we can agree.

7 comments

  1. How about having workshops with the media about specific topics so as to generate a better understanding of the topic that could lead eventually to “better” reporting.

  2. Interestingly, the “blooming flowers” strategy, including the promotion of staff and their ideas is very much what most ODI researchers want, and crucially, it’s how ODI makes its money. It’s not something ODI’s communications team has much interest in, because they want ODI to run campaigns like, oh, say, Oxfam, and get quotes and killer facts onto the BBC.

    Is what a little bird told me the other day.

  3. My advice: Ditch PDFs.

    Or at least, do a dual-release of all reports in PDF and also in mobile/web-friendly formats. PDFs can’t be viewed in an RSS feed, can’t be read on a phone, can’t be skimmed quickly, can’t be saved in apps like Pocket, can’t be tweeted with a quote.

  4. It’s worth factoring in the ODI business model here – there are not many direct incentives for their researchers to do communications. Unless they want to build a personal brand/ get promoted. There did use to be internal quarterly reporting of performance by staff on communications. No idea if there still is. There was also once the makings of a half decent podcast but it withered on the vine. There’s a healthy internal debate as alluded to above about strategy for coverage – too often the comms team is too busy to work alongside researchers that require hands on or intensive messaging support and similarly researchers are too busy (or dare I say arroangt) to engage with the simple but sometimes time consuming steps needed to package their ideas in a way that will command attention beyond the immediate ODI audience – most of whom they know by name in their relevant areas.

  5. Before I see too much ODI researcher bashing here I just thought I would add a bit of grey. It is important to remember that ODI researchers are churning out reports to deadlines for donors, and once one bit of research is finalised they are well and truly sucked into the next one. This is the nature of the thinktank beast.

    I firmly agree, you can’t force all researchers to be a “good communicator” in the media sense (who likes talking to journalists under pressure?), but some are better at communicating in a different ways – why not invest in this idea? Maybe ODI researchers would feel more comfortable speaking off the record to the media? How about investing in building relationships between researchers and journalists around themes?

    Communications is not just about getting media hits. It’s also about the building relationships, being able to secure meetings with influential people who know they know their shiz. But for a brand to secure funding and have an influential voice, you do need to be out there, and ODI researchers do need accept that for them to be able to continue to do what they are awesome at, they need to work with comms.

    I think part of the problem is that researchers are always asked “but what does this piece of research tell us?”, and sometimes the genuine answer is not much, but it might help others answer the question in time because we have added something to the bigger picture. This is a valid answer, and has a specific audience, and a thinktank shouldn’t force findings or messages that simply do not exist (I see this all the time!!!). That just encourages bad policy making and skews agendas.

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