I have been engaged in virtual training in the research and policy field for a while but had never explored webinars before. Most of my experience is related to online courses held under the Spaces for Engagement Programme conducted by CIPPEC with the support of GDNet. We have found many advantages and opportunities in this type of courses as shared here.
Within the Policy and Engagement Programme, developed under the Think Tank Initiative, I was offered to conduct two webinars on strategic communications for think tanks in Latin America. These turned into a good opportunity to create a common space where facilitators and organisations they are working with in an independent way could come together to reflect and discuss on how we can become more strategic in communicating research, with a special emphasis on the policy environment.
Investing in strategic communications
Strategic communications is a common thread that may engage think tanks that are conducting diverse practical activities to improve communications within their institutions, ranging from stakeholders mapping to enhancing how they use social media. If strategy is not worked on properly and with a thoroughly thought process, it may turn out that you are having tangible success with a tool (i.e. new Tweeter followers) but that may not really contribute to the way you desire to contribute to policy change.
Therefore, our main goals for the webinars were to generate awareness and raise interest in strategically investing in communications to enlarge potential for research to influence public policies. To this purpose we held two seminars (two editions of each so that those who could not make it on the first date would not miss the opportunity to participate): the first was “Communicating within and for public policies” (this entailed a more conceptual reflection on de-centering attention from research when communicating and deeply focusing on the policy environment and its conversations) and the second was “Re-visiting our communications strategy” (we delved into more practical aspects of crafting and fine-tuning a strategy such as how to incorporate complexity or to promote more innovation)
Creating spaces for engagement and learning
One of the main lessons is that it is important to try to connect the different webinars, not only from the thematic standpoint but mainly to better detect interest and needs, and also to build on what emerges from participants. In that sense, in the second webinar we decided to open a larger space for horizontal exchange. In fact, for the first webinar we invited researchers from CIPPEC, a think tank that does not belong to TTI, to share how communications had supported and helped their work. The online survey conducted after this event revealed participants´ interest in learning more from peers. Thus, several organisations like Grupo FARO from Ecuador, Fusades from El Salvador and CADEP from Paraguay presented in the second webinar particular policies and mechanisms that they develop to strengthen their communications strategy.
There is large room to increase this capacity building mechanism where colleagues can listen to each other, make questions about concrete tools and channels, and be inspired by those who are similar to them in terms of available resources, expertise, etc. However, to make the most of this opportunity organizers need to work closely beforehand with those who will present their experiences to ensure alignment, consistency and relevance to what is being discussed. Also, think tanks do seldom have time to systematize what they do in terms of communication so this type of events can become a handy resource to start co-building new and relevant knowledge in the field.
Think tanks need to define what they mean by “communications strategy”
A second relevant lesson is that even if strategic communications is a key concern for communications units, executive directors and researchers, there still exists many different ways in which people in each think tank conceptualize what a communications strategy is. This was revealed in the type of questions participants made and also in the concrete experiences they shared.
Therefore, when dealing with such a general and overarching topic, it is advisable to first build some common ground in terms of what is a strategy, what it looks like for diverse think tanks depending on their evolutionary stage and organisational model. For example, a centralised think tank with a strong communications unit that is in charge of most of the channels and tools will probably deal with the design of the strategy in a very different way from a small and decentralized institution where all the researchers are evenly in charge of managing communications. This might also mean that webinars should include mechanisms to work differently with these diverse realities.
Considering the technology
Last but not least, regarding technology we came to similar conclusions to those shared by David Olson in his post about webinars as an e-learning tool for think tanks in Africa: our connectivity is not good enough yet as to avoid technical glitches such as having a presenter who cannot be heard or participants missing parts of the presentation. This is a factor that should not be underestimated: having second editions and taping the webinars are effective ways to partially overcome these hurdles. Trying to deal with these issues by emphasizing human presence and warmth is also important to show appreciation for participants´ time and needs
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 Argonne National Laboratory