Knowing your audience

TTI PEC virtual write shop: Crafting better blogs and op-eds

By 24 June 2014

The Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications Program is hosting a Virtual Write Shop on blogs and op-eds during the week of June 30, 2014.

Blog

Zilper Audi, the Communications Officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs in Kenya (IEA-Kenya) explains how the organization started blogging and what the advantages and challenges have been for them here: https://soundcloud.com/zilper/iea-kenyas-blogging-experience

Zilper Audi offers this BLOG POST for the consideration of her PEC think tank colleagues. Please post all comments and constructive criticism below. The blog is meant for a broad Kenyan audience, encompassing policy makers and the general public

Sola Oluwadare, Communications Manager at the Afriheritage Institution in Nigeria, also offers this draft blog on Public Sector & Job Creation for your critique. Please post your comments below.

Op-Ed

Felix Murithi, the knowledge management and communications manager at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), reports that at his organization, the researchers select a topic of policy relevance and put their thoughts on paper, without thinking about whether the piece is suitable for print or online media. It is the communications staff’s job to structure it for the relevant medium — blog, newspaper, magazine, etc. For newspaper articles, KIPPRA has no control over the structure once they have been submitted. However, for blog, there will be consultations with KIPRRA researchers and the blog until a suitable version is developed. KIPPRA places op-eds in such publications as The Daily Nation and Business Daily Africa. Felix shares this description (WRITING OP-EDS AT KIPPRA) of how the process of writing op-eds has evolved at his think tank.

Felix Muriithi of KIPPRA offers this draft OP-ED FROM KIPPRA that he is working on. He welcomes all comments and constructive criticism in the space below.

Sola Oluwadare, Communications Manager at the Afriheritage Institution (AHI)  in Nigeria, also offers this OP-ED on Boko Haram and insecurity challenges in Nigeria for your critique. Please post your comments below.

Job Eronmhonsele, head of the Communications Unit of the Centre for Population and Environmental Development (CPED) in Nigeria, shares this OP-ED on the Challenges of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights for your critique. Please add any comments in the space below.

List of Resources

You can find suggested resources on the topic here, and we welcome your thoughts in the space below.

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This post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However,  these are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec

Photo courtesy of elegantthemes.com

  • David J. Olson

    What do you think are the key elements to getting people to read an op-ed? I think the headline and the first paragraph are the most important. I spend as much time (or more) working on the headline and the first paragraph than I do working on all the rest of the article! Of course, the media outlet publishing your op-ed may change the headline, but sometimes they leave it.

    • Felix

      David,
      The headline and first paragraph are most important. The headline should be able to catch the eye of even the casual reader. The op ed will be competing with many other items on the page. Moreover, the first paragraph should also contain, as much as possible, some ‘startling’ information, something previously unknown or misconceived, or some ‘killer’ statistic. Some readers will choose either to read on or move to something else depending on the headline and first paragraph. However, I do know most researchers have problems writing this first part, because they tend to stick to the conventional structure of writing research reports!

      • Sola Oluwadare

        True talk David. That is why submitting it to the communication staff is very important as Felix said KIPPRA is doing. So apart from training researchers on how to write, communications staff would still need to be on their duty post!

  • Zilper C. Audi

    The length also does matter. Most papers have guidelines on the number of words that should be submitted. I think this is especially very important, if you want your story published as it is. My fear usually is that the editors may distort your article in the process of making it fit into their ‘word limit’.

    • Felix

      Zilper,
      Length does matter. Mostly, the communications person would need to work closely with the researcher to reduce this op ed to about 800 words, which is a requirement for most of our op eds.

    • Purity Njeru

      I agree length does matter depending on the paper and the section the article will be placed. At times newspapers split articles into two if its too long, if not they edit and pick what they deem relevant and as a result the author’s message may be distorted

  • David J. Olson

    I agree with Zilper that length does matter and I must say that the first paragraph of the op-ed that Felix submitted (above) is way too long and has too many ideas in it. It is likely to be very off-putting to the reader. I know from Felix that at KIPPRA the researchers draft the op-eds and it is the communications staff’s job to structure it for the relevant medium. So there is a clear need here for a communicator to break down this very long paragraph and perhaps focus better on the main points of the op-ed — that counties have to prioritize the sectors that will spur investment and then take the necessary steps to support that investment — and maybe cut out the excess verbiage. At present, the op-ed is over 1,500 words. Now I don’t know the op-ed guidelines in Kenya (perhaps 1,500 words is OK there) but I know of no newspapers in my experience that would publish an op-ed over 1,000 words.

  • Sola Oluwadare

    I think the article is too long. Not more than 800 words could have been ideal; because some editors can find it too boring to read apart from space challenges. Besides, I think the first paragraph could have been split into two for easy perusal. The conclusion seems not to pass the message smartly to the reader.

  • Farai

    Great reflections on IEA Kenya’s blogging journey. And I also like your blog. Well done Zilper. Apart from your Executive Director Kwame Owino and yourself, do you have other active bloggers in IEA Kenya?

    • Zilper C. Audi

      Yes we do. Three to be precise, but then again, their contribution is usually sporadic. The greatest challenge still remains bringing the entire team together, and convincing them that other than the usual research reports, it would be great to have blog posts once in a while.

      I will be happy to hear how other think tanks ‘incentivise’ their researchers to blog.

  • Sola Oluwadare

    Zilper’s podcast is very engaging and resourceful. Many lessons to learn. Her blog is also informative.The sub heads are quite useful and that is a lesson for our researchers. I think penetration of internet usage in Kenya has helped a lot.

    • David J. Olson

      Agreed, Sola, sub-heads can be very useful in breaking down a blog (or op-ed) into manageable bits of reading and making them more approachable. I used them in my latest blog at Global Health TV: http://www.globalhealthtv.com/#/blog

  • David J. Olson

    To those who write blogs, what are the main tips you would share with others who struggle with blogging or short writing tasks?

  • Costantine Deus

    Good work from Zilper, to me length does not matter much but the way the author shifts from one subject to another was not very much coherence in the piece. I also think thank there is a need to cite few references for strong points such as “Kenyan policy process is not informed by evidence but rather greed, nepotism and politics”, it sounds like allegations hence it could have had more weight if backed up with references or case studies

    • Zilper C. Audi

      I agree with Constantine. Like I mentioned earlier in the piece, that was the finding of a recent desk review on the Changing Public Policy Process in Kenya, which actually is part of the PEC project. A review of over 50 documents, clustered into constitutionalism and political economy, gave us a clear indication that Kenya’s policy process is historically driven by neo-patrimonialism and rent seeking, which leave little or no space for evidence-based decisions. These were then further broken down to the actual tendencies, that’s where the ‘greed, nepotism, lobbying and politics’ comes in.

      I think it would have also been helpful to put links to existing research. Your thoughts??

      • Costantine Deus

        in my opinion i think you should include the link or specify in your text that your citing a report of a review of the 50 documents, this will make it not to appear as your personal opinion otherwise i like your commitment on this

        • Zilper C. Audi

          Sure. Thanks about that pointer.

  • Drusilla David

    Zilper’s Podcast was quite informative and helpful. I think blogging is a very effective communication tool which has been greatly under-used by most think tanks. CSEA is in the process of getting one for its website,however, the major problem will be getting researchers interested enough to contribute to the blog.I can see IEA Kenya also has that challenge. It will really be helpful to get thoughts and ideas from others who have excelled in this aspect.

  • Shubha Jayaram

    It’s been very interesting reading through these posts, and I also found Zilper’s podcast very helpful. I definitely agree that blog writing can help sharpen one’s own creative writing skills and I have also tried to get into the practice of putting a blog together on a regular basis. Something I struggle with is setting aside the time – and I find that it helps if someone holds me accountable with a set date. Perhaps a similar tactic could work to encourage researchers and others to contribute to the blog? What are your thoughts?

  • Costantine Deus

    In my opinion, i think tank can have its own blog however that should reflect the available human resources. For contributors i think one can solve this challenge looking at interested authors, those who writing on similar subject either on a newspapers or other blogs. For instance at STIPRO we daily scan through the media and see who is writing on Science, Technology and Innovation, we talk to those authors and we give them research materials for citation and reference, the same could be used to ask for contribution in case we had a blog. It is not necessary though for a think tank to start a blog if a challenge of contributors seams to be a major crisis, you can argue researchers from your think tank to be regular contributors to others blogs that have space for your issues so you could provide a link either on social media or on your website for stakeholders to access while slowly building a network of contributors for your blog in near future

  • Zilper C. Audi

    I found some interesting guides/blog rules for Nation Media Group’s blog,where Kwame writes.
    http://www.nation.co.ke/meta/-/1194/1132038/-/88lbspz/-/index.html

    • Gifti

      Hey Zilper,

      I really enjoyed your podcast and blog post. The language was clear and simple which I think is a good strategy to convince think tanks new to blogging. Again, I enjoyed your writing which was clear to those of us who are new to Kenya’s environment. Regards

  • David J. Olson

    I’d be interested to have your thoughts on the main differences, if there are any, in how you would write an op-ed, as opposed to a blog?

  • Paula Fray

    As a general rule I prefer to read shorter blogs online and longer opinion pieces in a newspaper. I think the technology is different and so the way we interact is different. I like the idea of being able to offer the online reader short, focused pieces on a regular basis with longer newspaper articles having less frequency. I am impressed by those with the stamina and commitment to publish regularly

  • The Op-Ed from Kippra does a couple of things that I like. It has a main point with subsidiary points. The main point is that counties need to choose priorities. The subsidiary points are related to the relative benefits of different sectors. I also like that it makes reference to the evidence. That’s so important for a Think Tank op-ed. Still, it could use some improvement. It is too long and it is too dry. In an op-ed, you also need a news “hook.” You need a way of connecting your research to a current event. That makes it timely and more interesting. Here’s how I’ve rewritten the top part of the op-ed to a) include a hook, b) make it more engaging and c) shorten it.

    The counties that fail to choose their economic path will fail

    If money talks, county budgets speak volumes. They tell us where each county government’s true priorities lie. There is only one thing worse than having misplaced priorities, however, and that is having no priorities.

    Counties have a vital choice to make if they intend to bring prosperity to their citizens. Each must see itself as a product in a competitive marketplace, or even as smaller countries within the larger Kenya, and each must distinguish itself.

    Each county must look at its natural and human endowments and decide which sector will allow it to attract investments that would otherwise go to its neighbor. The first glance at county budgets suggests that many county governments have failed to make these kinds of strategic decisions.

    So how can they do this? There are seven key sectors that counties should consider. They cannot prioritize all of them, so they must formulate a deliberate and strategic focus on the sectors that would not only attract investors, but also help in achieving the overall goals of the county, which include economic growth and development, employment generation and poverty reduction.

    What does each of these sectors offer? Let’s break it down.

    Then you can turn to a sector by sector account – though even those sections need a of tightening. But as I said, it has the makings of a good one.

  • Costantine Deus

    Hi all, i also went through Op- Ed from KIPPRA, it is a good work but i think it is overambitious as it attempts to put so many things together. On the other hand the Op- Ed from Sola Oluwadare looking more focused on the issues. However, i think that it is too analytical for a reader to understanding the position of the author on the issue, it has also used a lot of jargons which i am sure a more simple language could be used instead

  • Zilper C. Audi

    David had asked me whether I was aware of any African newspaper that has guidelines for op-eds (or blogging) like these of the The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/14/opinion/op-ed-and-you.html?_r=2&

    I got these:
    Nation Media Group’s blogging guidelines http://www.nation.co.ke/meta/-/1194/1132038/-/88lbspz/-/index.html

    Nation Media Group’s editorial policy – http://www.nation.co.ke/meta/-/1194/1199444/-/84r521z/-/index.html

    I also spoke with some editors, who informed me, that it does pay to call them up and ask whether a story one is writing can ‘pass the test’/get published.

    The word limit usually is 600 and at the very maximum 800.

    The article must also be relevant and touch on any issue that is part of current affairs/public agenda/discussions, just like Nick mentioned. I call this effective ‘pitching’.

    I especially like the KIPPRA op-ed, and find it timely, if it can be pitched in line with the recent debates about the recently passed county budgets and the discussions around the County Allocation Revenue Bill.

  • Zilper, I noticed that you made your own podcast for this write shop. I was wondering if that was your first one, and how the experience went. Was it easy? Do you think podcasts could be used better by our think tanks in their communications programs?

    • Zilper C. Audi

      David,

      Yes this was my first experience, though we at the IEA-Kenya have – for the longest time – been toying with the idea of having weekly podcasts on topical issues.

      Using Sound Cloud is quite simple and straight forward, and all I needed was a working microphone. In cases where one doesn’t have a microphone, a voice recorder comes in handy. I also discovered that I could record myself on Skype (on Call Recorder), then export the file in MP3 format, to Sound Cloud. GarageBand 6 (for iOS) is also great for podcasting, but I read that Apple updated GarageBand 10 for Mac earlier in the year, and removed support for podcasting. (I guess users with GarageBand 6 can continue to use it for podcasting)..

      All of us in research communication want to use a range of channels to reach our audiences, and I think it would be great to give podcasting a try. It is something I am happy to further explore, and I believe should be included in an organization’s digital strategy.

      In some cases, the audio may require a bit of editing, and Adobe Audition comes in handy. GarageBand also helps with editing audios.

      I know Owen Barder of the Centre for Global Development (CGD) has been making excellent podcasts (Development Drums), but maybe somebody whose think tank has been podcasting can help the rest of us with ideas.

      Thanks