Thought leaders

Think tanks are in the business of generating ideas. Ted McKenna talks with the people whose main function it is to communicate them

Think tanks are in the business of generating ideas. Ted McKenna talks with the people whose main function it is to communicate them

That public policy organizations, a special breed of nonprofits popularly known as "think tanks," can have a huge impact on American politics is especially evident these days.

Consider the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which serves as the spiritual home to Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defense, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, and the neo-conservative movement, a philosophy that was instrumental in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Devoted as they are to the spread of ideas, public policy groups might in a sense be regarded as practicing the ultimate in communications. So how do communications pros at these groups help in the spread of ideas? Veronique Rodman, AEI's director of communications, says her job is easy: The influence of the scholars who work at the Washington, DC-based group means they rarely have trouble gaining an audience, whether it's lawmakers, foreign officials, journalists, academics, or even average, interested citizens.

"I'm always surprised at how many people, just regular folks, will send e-mails from all over," Rodman says, particularly following a broadcast of an AEI conference or seminar on C-SPAN. As such, Rodman, who joined AEI in 1999, tries as much as possible to make available - on the AEI Web site and elsewhere - abbreviated or distilled versions of the organization's research.

"The thing is to make it accessible to everybody and not too wonkish," she says. "[In] some areas, that's true more than others. If you're working on liability reform, that's one of the hardest things I have because people are so used to talking to other lawyers that sometimes it's very hard for even me to understand. I like to say I give it the typical American housewife test."

Apart from Web sites, means of publicizing research also include seminars or conferences that, depending on the group involved, can cover every conceivable issue, from healthcare and Social Security to defense and foreign affairs. The events often include members of other think tanks, as the community of public policy organizations is generally collaborative. For instance, AEI and the 90-year-old Brookings Institution - perhaps the best known of all think tanks - run the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

Media-friendly thinking

Another key means of promoting the ideas and efforts of AEI and other groups is media coverage, including TV interviews and the all-important Op-Eds, which Rodman says are a great way to gain the attention of journalists looking for expert sources. With her previous experience as a journalist - Rodman was a former producer of ABC-TV's This Week With David Brinkley from 1982 to 1995 and, as a TV consultant, helped launch Fox News Sunday - Rodman has some extra insight into how reporters develop stories.

"We're kind of spoiled in that reporters are nice; they come to us," she says, though publicizing research certainly helps gain their attention. "Our widgets are our scholars, and they're the best. For the most part, they write really well. Some of them, particularly the lawyers and economists, write in learned journals a lot, and if they want me to, I'll do bullet points... on what this really means."

While communications pros at public policy groups like to stress that all the various groups generally coexist in a spirit of collaborative, academic inquiry, they nevertheless concede that all the various groups have their own identities.

AEI is generally known as home to the "neo-cons," though Rodman notes that many types of scholars work at AEI, which sees itself as nonpartisan and not totally monolithic in its overall world view. Among the other 300 or so think tanks, the Heritage Foundation is markedly conservative, the Cato Institute is generally libertarian, the Center for American Progress is "progressive," and the Public Citizen is decidedly liberal.

Also distinguishing the various organizations is the issue of funding, which may come from the government, corporations, or individuals, and public exposure - through the media, congressional testimony that members of think tanks are often called upon to provide, and other venues - certainly helps draw interested donors.

The US Institute of Peace (USIP), notes director of public affairs Ian Larsen, gets 100% of its funding from the US Congress, a fact that Larsen says helps ensure the group is nonpartisan because it need not "sing for its supper."

For the most part, promotion of scholars and research at public policy groups is low key, meaning in-house staff can easily handle it, but sometimes research draws such intense media and government interest that outside help must be brought in, as was the case recently with the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group (ISG) report, for which USIP served as the facilitating organization and repository.

Within two weeks of its December 6, release, the ISG report was downloaded more than 1.5 million times from the USIP Web site, and during the first days of the release, Edelman was brought in to help manage the media inquiries, as previously reported by PRWeek.

"That was a huge deal," says Larsen.

But along with the many prominent public policy groups around the country, there are many smaller, equally well-respected groups that, because they lack big-name status, must work harder to keep their name and research in the public eye, and the funds flowing.

Stephanie Tennyson, director of communications and government relations for the Potomac Institute of Policy Studies, which focuses on science and technology policy as it relates to defense and homeland security, says the scholars at her group, because it lacks the endowments of big public policy groups, typically have to work independently, on their own time, to write Op-Eds or other types of articles highlighting their research.

Apart from showcasing "thought leadership," sharing research in various ways is simply necessary to avoid duplication of effort, and helps foster new ideas and solutions to public policy problems, Tennyson says.

"You find with most of the think tanks that they work together and know each other because it's a large group of people, but at the same time, it's also a small group," she says.

Select Public Policy Groups

  • Aspen Institute
  • Brookings Institution
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Cato Institute
  • Center for American Progress
  • Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Council on Foreign Relations
  • Heritage Foundation
  • Public Citizen
  • Rand Corp.
  • US Institute for Peace
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

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