PRs should encourage think tanks to say who funds them

Policy Exchange's senior fellow Richard Walton was interviewed on Radio 4's Today Programme on Monday morning.

Are think tanks transparent enough about their sources of funding? (©GettyImages)
Are think tanks transparent enough about their sources of funding? (©GettyImages)

On it he delivered the message (and I paraphrase here) that Extinction Rebellion is not a non-violent, peaceful mass movement trying to save the world from ecological disaster, but an extremist group with a mass law-breaking strategy that we should be worried about.

Whatever your thoughts on his message, I was concerned with his answer to the question: "Who funds your work?"

Policy Exchange was correctly described as a centre-right think tank, but when asked who funds its work, he said 'no, he wouldn’t say', and also claimed, incorrectly, that no think tanks in London say who funds them.

Is that the right response? Is that a response that the BBC should be comfortable with? Is that a response that the PR world should be comfortable with?

I think not. Here’s why.

First, the intention behind the question is to understand whether Policy Exchange has a paid bias, a bias that it is not being honest or transparent about. Think tanks need to get paid, and most are very open about their political leanings, but I think they need to be clear, honest and upfront about who is paying them and what they are paying them to do, and why.

Secondly, what about the BBC? Should they present people as ‘experts’, when they are not ‘independent’ experts? The question of transparency here is key: if experts believe in what they are saying and are transparent about who is paying them, then I think that’s ok. So it follows, then, that the BBC ask (ideally before someone comes on air) to what degree is this ‘expert’ being transparent about how independent they actually are?

They need to interrogate the answers and be well informed on the topic – it’s critical for the BBC to be protectors of the truth. The fact that they asked a question and didn’t challenge an incorrect answer (that no think tanks in London say who funds them) simply isn’t good enough.

Just as influencers on Instagram have had to become more transparent about paid-for content, opinions that are effectively paid-for content, especially on a BBC flagship news programme, should be flagged consistently and transparently. Going further, would paid-for opinions ever be declared on Twitter? I think that’s unlikely, but surely that is where the BBC has a vital role in the age of fake news.

Thirdly, where does this leave people reading this piece, people working in PR and communications? Is it right to work with think tanks whose funding is opaque? Is it right to advise clients to be opaque about funding? I think maybe not. I think transparency brings accountability and honesty in a way that’s needed more now than ever. And transparency protects clients for the long term. (It’s like an ‘Eastenders’ plot line – it always comes out in the end.)

In this era of unprecedented change, let’s act as trusted advisors to our clients and lead them to do the right thing, first time around. Let’s encourage them to be transparent and see it as a strength.

And for think tanks out there – tread carefully – lack of transparency now may be convenient, but the money you take now might be more expensive than you think, in the trust you lose later.

Lauren Branston is the founder of Lauren Branston Consultancy

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