Technology poses some familiar and new problems for think tanks.
‘Expert or academic carries out research. Generates rigorous 40-page report. Comms officer is asked to promote said report. Launch event, press release, tweets. Maybe a video. Maybe an infographic’. This is formula for how think tanks seek to influence policy matters. It is how they build, maintain and increase their credibility. While it has arguably worked since the expansion of the think tank community following the Cold War, this model of disseminating information is now fraying.
It is not a sustainable model because it is largely, and in some ways even designed to be, inaccessible to a larger and now increasingly inquisitive public. This inaccessibility is only accentuated by the large number of institutes specialising in niche subjects, which are often more agile and better able to leverage technology to their advantage. Tastes also change: for many of today’s potential punters, the enforced networking associated with think tank events may be considered a negative experience; being able to watch lectures and conferences from home, alone, may now be considered of greater benefit.
The publication of written reports and holding launch events, unlike broader communications methods, are often targeting specific policymakers or stakeholders. In the short term, this strategy may work for think tanks, in the sense that they can address their core audiences. Still, the model faces two main hurdles.
One is providing policymakers with what they need. Paul C Avey and Michael C Desch, two US-based academics, found in their study 'What Do Policymakers Want From Us?’ that ‘the only methodology that more than half of the respondents characterized as “not very useful” or “not useful at all” was formal models’. The respondents in their study thought that the best policy advice came from practitioners or journalists, those looking at underlying causes. Yet some ‘think tankers’ continue to take a dim view of journalism, for the very reasons which make journalism important: rapidly responding to developing events, and offering a broader perspective, usually shorn of the uncertainties inherent in deeper knowledge or analysis.
The second, broader, problem is how think tanks are perceived. US President Barack Obama famously ‘disdain[ed]’ foreign policy establishments and institutes, and those who are not engaged with them perceive them as being elitist.
And, more than ever, individuals suffer from a ‘scarcity of time’: as there is an increasing amount of consumer content in all fields and no more hours in day, attending day-long conferences and reading long-form papers seem increasingly anachronistic.
This all feeds into the bigger debate about the role which new media – social media and the internet – have played in changing the business models for think tanks. Institutes can no longer rely on invite-only events; recording events, for either video or audio uploads, is becoming more popular. Though the process may have started as an archival strategy of past events, it has since become more refined.
This content is still not as refined as a lot of other content creators online because the recording is often a second-thought strategy to the main event, which think tanks still consider as a ‘live’ one with an on-premises audience; events are not yet tailored to represent video content in its own right, and considerations are not made for an audience that was not originally seen as a key stakeholder.
For institutes and think tanks to really capitalise on modern digital media there must be a deep integration of new media and the web into a wider communication strategy that has research papers as its bedrock. Research papers need to have the malleability to become multi-medium. Moreover, at the inception of a project proposal, funders should give weight to media potential outside of newspaper column inches.
This sort of engagement does carry wider political consequences. Robin Niblett, who heads Britain’s Chatham House, recently made the point that social media has served ‘as an accelerant and intensifier to populist politics everywhere’. Still, stories containing populist ideas are not the only ones that do well on social media: emotive and concise stories do well. There is no reason that papers should be devoid of pathos too – incorporating some element of an emotional, human story could make papers more popular.
Alarmingly dropping attention spans is not a new phenomenon, and it appears to be getting worse. The difference is noticeable in gender too, with ‘the academic struggles of boys turn[ing] into economic struggles’; men also have a significantly lower attention span than women. Such considerations make the challenge even more difficult for think tanks.
There are, however, some positives. The public has not totally switched off from all forms of long-form content. Although book reading levels have dropped, seven in ten Americans read a book every year, and among those seven the mean number of books read was 12. Narrative long form then is doing relatively well.
These sorts of facts should spur a more general sense of optimism; since 2012 there has been a huge rebound in trust of experts, notwithstanding what current politicians bemoan. With a declining trust in governments and less people reading newspapers because they are too depressing, there is a real chance for experts in institutions to provide positive, solution-oriented research to lay people.
And, with fake news on the rise, lay people are more perceptive than ever of where news originates, and this is leading to a greater general interest in the research work of policy institutes. The corollary of this is that institutes like RUSI need to continue to be clear about their funding and their ethics to continue to build trust with the public.
The future of think tanks, then, seems bright; with trust slowly rising and more capacity to deliver their messages, the focus should now be on how they retain quality – an old problem – and how they deliver their messages – a new version of an old problem.