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Digital engagement seen as key to expanding the influence of Think Tanks

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Digital engagement is seen as increasingly important to the success of public policy think tanks — according to industry experts.

Writing recently on LinkedIn PulseDermot Finch (@dermotfinch) of Great Britain’s Prince’s Trust and a founder of Centre for Cities think tank — see’s successful think tank’s now “engag[ing] directly with voters.  Sitting on a think tank panel in Whitehall or a party conference doesn’t really cut it any more. So the demand for think tank platforms has diminished somewhat”, he explains.  Successful think tanks, he writes, are increasingly demonstrating a deeper, nonpartisan expertise.

Digital engagement seen taking two forms

Recent political campaigns in the UK and US have highlighted the importance of digital engagement and the success it might bring those seeking to influence the public policy landscape, according to Aidan Muller, Founder & CEO of Daimon Communications, writing in Public Affairs News.  

Muller identifies digital campaigning and digital intelligence as they two key pillars of digital engagement required for modern public affairs campaigning success.  Digital campaigning, he writes, is characterized by “leveraging third-party channels” — which has the effect of taking messages far beyond your immediate community.  Online influencer engagement, media partnerships, paid promotions on blogs, content discovery platforms or social media platforms are all a part of digital campaigning.  Digital intelligence is an often overlooked tool, according to Muller.  Digital data, he details, “is probably the area which is changing public affairs the most.  Each social media post, each share, each search leaves a digital footprint.”  And this data — Muller explains — “is there to be harvested and analysed”.

How one prominent think tank has used social media

While social media engagement is just one component of a holistic digital strategy, the experience of the Brookings Institution is one example of how seriously some in think tanks are taking digital engagement.

Barbara Ray of HiredPenInc interviewed the Brookings Institution’s David Jackson (@davidvjackson) in 2011 — about “how [Brookings is] using social media to get their research findings out to policymakers, journalists, and the public.”  Jackson is now Communications Director for the National Association of Counties.

Jackson told Ray that while “media gatekeepers still exist…[with social media] there are [now] many more ways into an issue or an audience you’re engaging with…[beyond] the traditional press release and follow-up.”  A good blog and an active Twitter account have helped make op-ed’s no longer necessary.

At the time of the interview, Brookings was maintaining both personal and institutional Twitter accounts.  They were also doing video conferences and podcasts.  Engagement of individual scholars was vital to the amplification of their messages, Jackson explained, as “social media is about individual voices”.  “The personal brand has become even more import than the organizational brand”, he said.  Brookings at the time was staffing their social media monitoring with 10 staff members.

Think Tank social media “a work in progress”

Jackson told Ray that: “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.  

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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