How do think tanks access the media?

Summary

A wander through the messy world of partisan think tanks and campaign groups, & why Conservative-supporting ones run rings around Labour-supporting ones

Following on from the end of my last post where I listed excerpts from a communications job spec for an unnamed right wing think tank/campaign group, this blogpost looks at the structures and relationships between organisations, parties and the media.

It was at a talk in Cambridge I went to a few years ago that former adviser to Tony Blair, Geoff Mulgan said (and I paraphrase):

“In the distant past, if you wanted to influence policy you would publish a pamphlet or a book. Today you set up an institution”

On the telly news and on the radio, you’ll often hear of various grandly-titled people from important-sounding ‘institutes’ being asked for their opinions on various things. It’s got to the stage that the spoof news website The Daily Mash invented its own ‘Institute For Studies’ (headed by ‘Dr Henry Brubaker’) to provide spoof academic credentials on spoof research. (It doesn’t exist in reality of course!) There are some restrictions on who can set up an ‘institute’ – see pg 46 here.

“How do you get to be part of a grand-sounding organisation on the telly all the time?”

In a nutshell:

  1. Get a group of you together
  2. Decide on grand-sounding name
  3. Get some people to back you
  4. Share out grand-sounding job titles
  5. Hire some premises close to the organisations you want contact with regularly
  6. Get in touch with (junior) members of staff at said institutions & invite them to networking events
  7. Invite yourself to networking events
  8. Publish press releases & publications
  9. Make yourself available to the media
  10. Organise events yourself at nice places and invite people from organisations you want to influence
  11. Repeat 6-10.

“Aren’t there transparency issues? After all, who funds these organisations?”

Good question – one that http://whofundsyou.org/ have been onto for quite some time. One case came to prominence quite recently, where one organisation decided to relinquish its running of an all-party parliamentary group in order to protect the privacy of its backers.

Transparency is essential for me as far as the integrity of public policy is concerned. Enabling the public to properly scrutinise public policy contributes to its improvement. One of the reasons why I have issues with the way political parties are funded. Whether it’s sponsorship of stalls, tents & events at party conferences through to privileged access to senior party officials & politicians, wealthy organisations of whatever disposition don’t expend such sums for nothing. They want to influence policy.

“Lobbying” getting a bad name

Lobbying has been given a bad name in recent times with numerous scandals. Yet every time we send a tweet, a post or a piece of correspondence to a politician trying to bring them round to our way of thinking, we are lobbying. The environmentalists campaigning for cleaner air are lobbying when they get in touch with politicians just as a business person asking for a tax cut for their industry when sat next to a minister at a business dinner. Obviously the circumstances and perhaps the expense may differ! But what matters is transparency – especially if (for example in the case of the economy & a market) one side is looking for preferential treatment over another.

Professional lobbyists generally are members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants. Have a look through the firms and see how many former politicians, journalists & civil servants you can see. Understandable if you are a former MP or minister to go into this field because not many people experience life in high public office, often in the media spotlight. Yet the APPC and the recently passed act on lobbying did not cover all of the lobbyists. Here’s one look at how things are working. Again for me what matters is the transparency of the public policy process.

“What about these think tanks and the media?”

This is where I compare 2 academic institutions – the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol and Cambridge University’s Public Policy SRI, with The Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Note how several of the job titles of the TPA and IEA sound quite similar to those you might expect at a corporation or a publicly funded research institute accredited with a public university with a royal charter.

You have your chief executive or director general, director of communications, director of policy, research fellows, various ‘heads of…’ and ‘…officers.’ As far as CV points go, a history of working such organisations looks impressive. If I were that way politically inclined and a holder of elected public office, I’d be snapping up someone with CV listing those organisations as one of my policy researchers.

“How does the political left fare in comparison?”

Badly

Let’s take a few examples:

The Centre for Labour and Social Studies – CLASS is an interesting one, not least because Owen Jones, author and campaigning journalist (who used to be their media adviser) and Ellie O’Hagan seem to be the only two prominent explicitly left-wing think-tank types who appear regularly in the media sparring with numerically superior political opponents. Yet when you look closer at CLASS and type their address into a search engine, you find that their office space is in the London HQ of the big trade union Unite. (When I lived in London I used to walk or catch a bus past the towers relatively frequently).

“Hang on – shouldn’t trade unions be able to support a much stronger public policy function? They donate millions to Labour, don’t they?”

But for how much longer? It may well be that successive legislation by the new Conservative Government pushes trade unions towards sponsoring or setting up public policy institutes to challenge an administration that is hostile to them.

That said, when you compare both the university public policy institutes and the left wing think tanks with their right wing counterparts, the last of the three are ruthlessly effective and efficient at getting their messages and publications out to the mainstream media. They are incredibly well-connected and understand the importance of being on positive first-name terms with the media researchers & bookers of high profile programmes. It’s not a case of sending speculative press releases out to generic email addresses, they will know who to contact in which media organisations at which time of the day in order for their comments to get maximum exposure.

“Why is academia and why are left wing organisations much weaker?”

Part of it I think is cultural. With academia, perhaps it’s because they have their own academic circles within which to discuss things in that not much gets out. Bear in mind how the mainstream media has a habit of distorting science research. You can understand why relationships between mainstream media and academia may not be brilliant. As for the left wing, this blogpost by journalist Laura McInernie is brilliant on shining a light on the distrust of the media and delegates at the Conservative Party Conference. This one by Ian Dunt also makes interesting reading.

Here we are talking about Chomsky but me and the young men know that if the pictures are printed they will simply say ‘yobs’.

As a general point, when you know that the print media’s response to your protest will be as above, why bother engaging with them? Just as when she said if all the delegates – even the non-party ones – were getting abuse from demonstrators heckling the route, why would they bother trying to listen?

“You’re not comparing protestors to think tanks are you?”

No – I’m looking at the relationships between institutions. My point being that political parties and movements that are anywhere left of this mythical utopia of ‘the political centre’ seems to get a particularly hard time in the mainstream media. It’s human nature to shy away from those people & organisations that would treat you as such.

It’s the constituted organisations that could probably make a better go of engaging with the broadcast media by adopting some of the tactics that their political opponents do. It doesn’t mean the objectives or strategies are the same – as Alistair Campbell points out:

“Do you think left-wing institutions could pull off such an approach?”

Actually, I think they could – but it won’t be easy for them.

Just as Labour found out the hard way that England is not a country full of left-wingers waiting to be rescued, neither is the mainstream media or the field of corporate lobbying full of dyed in the wool Conservatives. (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have very different political cultures, but as I’ve not lived/worked there I’ll stick to what I’m more familiar with).

Essentially, the big trade unions need to get together and co-ordinate making regular, sustained grants to those organisations/think tanks they support in order to significantly strengthen their media presence. There are more than enough talented and passionate people in the world of public policy and corporate lobbying who would jump at the chance to work for a left-leaning or left-wing think tank to build a high media profile. Just like the rest of us though, they have bills to pay – hence why many of them end up in the field of working for private corporate interests.

2 thoughts on “How do think tanks access the media?

  1. Great post.
    The great innovation of the right in the USA (which was imported to here) was to create whole well-paid careers for think-tankers who work for the cause. By contrast, here in London, so many good people connected with Labour or the LibDems are scraping along. If you’ll forgive an ethnographic vignette, two political researcher types chatting in my local bar (this is during the Coalition) having friendly but fierce arguments about education policy. One LibDem, one Tory. Obviously a good friendship – but the Tory buys all the drinks, because he’s the one actually getting paid enough to do so.

    I’d add to the cultural stuff that there’s an idealism about how money is spent that just doesn’t work.

    How do you get in with the young/junior staff at institutions you want to influence?
    You basically have to socialise with them – and you are buying.
    You have to fund that, either through an expense account or through salaries.
    I’ve worked in management consulting and then part-founded a firm in a similar line of business.
    We always spent and still do spend a lot on taking people to coffee, buying lunch, buying rounds when networking etc. It is not a wonderful way to do things, but it is how things are. And you have to know that being on the wrong side of the media dominance, at some point the Mail or Times will get the figures and run a story about it. But you have to not care – because if you don’t do it, you cede the ground.

    Likewise, given the realities of the media landscape, you need much better relationships with the Daily Mirror (for all their faults) than seems to be the case at the moment. And you probably need to once again fund a push around online media to begin to be a counterweight.

    And all that is before we think about recruiting people who have the intellect and some skills and some experience. But have a family and responsibilities. That takes more than fresh out of uni pay rates, but you do need some of them…

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