How Think Tanks Are Using Social Media

A senior communications advisor at one of the oldest think tanks in the country talks about how they are using social media to get their research findings out to policymakers, journalists, and the public.

We sat down with the Brookings Institution’s David Jackson. He says all the things your English teacher taught you about strong topic sentences are even more important today.

Tell us a little about the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.

David Jackson: The program is about harnessing the energies and economies of U.S. metro areas (the cities and suburbs) to the benefit of the people who live there and the entire nation. Metro areas are where innovation happens, where most of us live, work, and play, so we examine policies at local and federal levels to see where those policies can help and to get out of the way when they can’t.

As a senior communications adviser, you work with researchers on staff to develop publications and outreach based on their latest findings. From your experience, what do policymakers want in a research-based publication or report?

In terms of actual material, they want some context-setting and then some actionable recommendation — something they can act on. They want something that can be digested quickly. Often they’ll read the executive summary and expect a briefing by their staff based on the full report.

In terms of bridging research and policy, which communications strategies are most successful?

There are several strategies to grab attention. Rankings, for example, are an easy way to get people’s attention — what are the top 10 regions with most urban poor, for example. It’s harder to develop individual stories that tell people why something is happening in their area, what the research means for them.

Our most successful examples of communications are generally with more traditional means — individualizing the research findings for segmented audiences, showing them both the problems and the assets of their region, what you have to do to build on to make it a successful place.

It’s also good if you can find a business or human example to illustrate the problem or solution. This tactic is very common, in say, the State of the Union address, where 20 random people appear and then the president tells their story.

It’s a bit of kabuki theater in that case, but the point is the same: If you can put a human face on the story, you’ll be able to reach broader audiences, especially for television. It’s tough to get a spot on TV about, say, transportation policy without a story about the person who takes three buses to work.

Don’t researchers sometimes think that the human story is for someone else to tell, like journalists, for example?

Yes, they are often hesitant, but the point I usually raise is most researchers got into their fields because they want to help people. They care about people. So we need some examples of people they’re trying to help.

What forms do your communications efforts take at the Metropolitan Policy Program?

We do a lot of summaries, messaging of research. It seems as if every day our attention spans get shorter and shorter, so it’s tough to break through.

Just as an example: You need to think about what your email subject line says. If it’s a good one, people will open it. If not, it goes into the trash. That’s the same for anything. All the things your English teacher taught you about strong topic sentences are even more important now.

What can researchers do to reach broader audiences with their work?

It all begins, in terms of actual design of research, with asking: Is this question something people have been asking? Is it something we can complete rather quickly? That’s not to say that all research should be undertaken with these goals, of course.

Also, you should plug into the communications team pretty early on so you can identify the target audience. The key to success is that each piece of research has more than one audience. You might have an audience of fellow researchers, and in that case, going to conferences and talking about your work is still very effective. But there are other audiences as well, including the media, engaged citizens, and policymakers. Reaching them requires different strategies. Communications staff can help you figure out those strategies.

How should researchers stay on top of the issues?

Be engaged, and follow their activities through the media, or by following the topics that interest groups are active around. We in Washington are accused of being stuck in the Beltway, but every group, whether that be teachers or realtors, has a Washington day when they come to engage their policymakers in their issues.

For researchers, engaging in groups like that who are interested in the topic researchers are working on is a good way to see what’s “top of mind” for them.

What about social media — is that an avenue to keep abreast of topic areas?

Yes, with social media, there’s so many more outlets to engage on issues you care about. You no longer have to do six months of research, write a report, then an op-ed, and host an event. If you have a good blog, you no longer need to place an op-ed.

Or you could tweet about it with a link to the study. The opportunities to engage are opening up. If it’s something in the news that you care about, you can quickly talk about it.

You don’t want to give away your key finding, but you do want to establish yourself as a resource so when the report comes out, people will think of you.

That said, there’s some discomfort in that quickness among researchers. No one wants to let the horse out of the barn and reveal their main findings before the study is even completed. But it’s a different way of thinking. It’s about finding the right balance. You don’t want to give away your key finding, but you do want to establish yourself as a resource so when the report comes out, people will think of you.

Are policymakers and other decision-makers reading blogs or listening to podcasts or videos to get their information?

I know they’re reading blogs. I know people who listen to podcasts — often on a treadmill or out on their daily walk. I think blogs are the most common, though. They’re embraced by every major news organization, so people read both independent and institutional blogs.

The Economist bloggers are very popular in this town. The key is that those bloggers who have a voice are the ones people are most attached to, like Matt Yglesias, for example. He was an independent for years, and then went to the think tank Center for American Progress, which I thought might reduce his breadth, but it hasn’t. He’s even-handed but has a point of view.

[Ed. note: Following this interview, a survey from Stateline, the nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States, reported that 47 of the 50 governors use Facebook and Twitter; 27 are using the photo-sharing service Flickr; and 37 use YouTube. Of course, as Stateline notes, “status updates and tweets are often the work of staffers, not the governors themselves.” ]

What’s your social media strategy at the Metro Policy Program?

We have a Twitter account, and several of our members have personal Twitter accounts. We do a lot of video conferences and podcasts. We have a Facebook page. I’m not so sure that’s the Facebook page is effective, to be honest.

I think that social media is about individual voices, and the institutional voice, whether @BrookingsInst or our Brookings’ Facebook page, are not as successful as when the individual scholars engage. The return people get out of social media is that they are engaging with an individual who has studied this issue. The personal brand has become even more import than the organizational brand.

Overall, though, we’re still carving out how to do this. It’s a work in progress. Anyone who claims to be a social media expert or guru is a little bit ahead of themselves. I don’t think anyone is an expert on something that is evolving so quickly. There’s no one-stop rainmaker who can tell you, ‘If you these three things, you’ll be successful.” There is no “one size fits all” in this realm.

How does social media change your job as a communications advisor?

Media gatekeepers still exist, but now there are many more gates. There are many more ways into an issue or an audience you’re engaging with. There are other ways to get ideas into the hands of people other than the traditional press release and follow-up.

We [the Metropolitan Policy Program] are engaging with newspapers on Twitter, for example. Reporters direct-message us after we’ve posted a link to a report.

Do all these avenues make your job as a communications person harder?

Yes, and no. I think the nonprofit angle with social media is still a bit a mystery to a lot of folks in terms of engaging and how the landscape has changed.

We at Brookings have a brand, and its pretty good one. Much that is happening at the fray of social media is not in concert with the image we’d like to project, so that makes engaging with social media a little trickier. You have to be strategic and maintain institutional voice.

What is that “institutional voice”?

Elbow patches and pipes [laughs]. We’re the august, oldest think tank in the country. That brand still opens doors for policy and politics. The advocacy-oriented nature of Twitter and blogs where everyone has a point of view is a different realm. We have a point of view, but we’re not the all-caps people, let’s put it that way.

How many on your staff are monitoring or active users of social media?

I’d say there’s a good 10 people monitoring things. Our director, Bruce Katz, is tweeting regularly, as is our policy director, Mark Muro, and our research director, Alan Berube.

Rob Puentes is on as well and is more prolific than most. He covers transportation and infrastructure, which are big topics in social media. Others are occasional tweeters, but Bruce, Mark, and Allen are using it as a tool to leverage our work.

How do you get staff to take part?

When you have the leader taking part, it’s easier to get everyone else involved. Leading by example is best way to get your staff on board. Academics have an intrinsic resistance to this stuff, but the returns are huge.

Which blogs do you read?

Oh, man, I read a lot. Yglesias, and The Atlantic bloggersRichard Layman, and Greater Greater Washington. Those are broadly metro blogs about politics and policies. I also follow all the Streets blogs.

What are three tips for nonprofits or researchers to get their work noticed?

DJ: 1) Think about audience when conceptualizing the work; 2) Think about summaries and accessibility; 3) And be relentless: Think about every audience that might be interested.

And, no matter what strategy you decide on for social media, remember that it’s part of everyone’s job. It is an organizational commitment. You have to constantly feed the beast. That’s the hardest part.

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