February 25, 2016

Case study

Setting up a communications team for a Think Tank: The case of CSTEP

When I joined the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) as the Head of the Communication and Policy Engagement (CPE) team, I had a fairly limited idea of what my role would entail. However, since the organisation was still young and focused on research activities, building a team to address the communications and visibility of the think tank was not at the top of CSTEP’s agenda.

After increasing engagement with our stakeholders to include state and national governments, funders, donors, academia to name a few, CSTEP realised that it  was important to have a dedicated team to manage communication and policy engagement. CSTEP had realised that:

  • A good communications strategy allows you to exercise better control over your work and to frame the issues in a broader perspective beyond the research. A strategy helps in increasing the visibility of the research.
  • When a research project has achieved good results, it becomes imperative to disseminate those results; otherwise, the work will remain undernoticed.

So the first thing I did was to ensure I understood the mission and vison statements of CSTEP and then study the needs of the staff (our primary audience), CSTEP’s key stakeholders (our external audience), and based on this built a communication strategy. I also paid attention to CSTEP’s strategy document and the understood its objectives.

Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success

-Henry Ford

One of the main objectives was to establish a CSTEP ‘Brand’ to reach new influential audiences. From here the word brand was embedded in my thoughts and ideas and hence I came up with the following ways/actions to try and achieve this objective:

  • Enhance the ‘look’ of the CSTEP website
  • Customise research outputs for diverse audiences
  • Peer Review of Research outputs on a ‘global platform’
  • Engage on social media platforms
  • Maintain important information and documents to disseminate appropriately

So now that the basics were more or less sorted out I decided to identify the tasks that would involve in fulfilling the objectives that were laid out for the Communications and Policy Engagement (CPE) team.

Competent Team Members

The urgency to identify and hire a team, who were competent in specific areas and with relevant experience, was the need of the hour. Job descriptions were drawn up, key tasks identified, and the same were shared on CSTEP website, job portals, and also through colleagues and friends. The 3 jobs identified were:

  1. Media Coordinator who would primarily oversee all activities with electronic and print media and also build a rapport with existing contacts and identify new contacts and media outlets, review documents, update and use social media platforms as an important mode of dissemination platform. This post would be responsible for using the the website to update information as and when required.
  2. Graphic Designer who would primarily design logos, icons, and, most importantly, introduce infographics in the several outputs produced by the research teams and the The post holder would also design banners, standees, brochures, and fliers for outreach events.
  3. Database Manager who would take care of the Document Management System which stores all important documents produced at CSTEP (proposals, articles, Op-eds, Reports, Event Updates to name a few).

As a team we believed that we should try to bring in some guidelines and processes to help us perform better and to also help the research teams to focus and articulate their findings. For example, we developed Standards & Guidelines and templates for several outputs and conducted a training to familiarise the researchers with the importance and usefulness of using these in their writing. We also brought out a second edition of the Standards and Guidelines based on the feedback received from the users (researchers in this case) and customised a lot of content and examples to understand the same better.

Another key tool was to introduce a robust review process which would involve the CPE team, a technical review conducted by experienced people, and an overall review before dissemination.

Support for the CPE Team

It may not be out of place to share that the Policy, Engagement and Communication (PEC) programme introduced by Think Tank Initiative was of great help to identify and strategise approaches to some of the activities that were planned.  Today the CPE team and its activities have become an integral part of CSTEP in the area of planning communication strategies. For example, CSTEP has taken a decision that CPE will be central to all its projects, right from the inception to the dissemination of its research.

Reflections…Achievements and Challenges

In the relatively short term that the CPE has been in place we have been able to meet some of our own objectives and faced important (and often new) challenges.

Among our achievements, we have:

  • Learned to customise research findings for various kinds of audiences.
  • Developed our ability to write effective Press Releases.
  • Embedded the notion that teamwork is necessary to ensure that all aspects of communication is conveyed to the different audience

Based on my experience, I would strongly recommend the following:

  • Team work is very important -invest in your teams and use them
  • Understand your audience needs, within and outside the organisation
  • Be flexible in the introduction of innovations in outputs and other communication products
About the author:

Annapoorna Ravichander:  Head of policy engagement and communication at Public Affairs Centre in Bengaluru, India, and On Think Tanks Editor at Large for South Asia.

Read more from: Annapoorna Ravichander

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