At this year’s Netroots Nation convention in Las Vegas, I moderated a panel called “Think Tanks and Netroots: Best Practices for Working Together.” The panelists included:
Bill Scher, Campaign for America’s Future and Liberal Oasis;
Lynn Parramore, New Deal 2.0 blog at the Roosevelt Institute;
Alan Rosenblatt, Center for American Progress and CAP Action Fund; and
Murshed Zaheed, senior adviser to New Partners and long-time new media strategist.
I work for Demos, where I run a special project called the Progressive Ideas Network, an alliance of three dozen federally-focused, multi-issue think tanks.
You can watch video of the entire 75-minute panel here, which contained lots of history, context, and other ideas; what follows is a digest of our key takeaways.
Our audience was mostly folks who were coming from the think tank community and looking for insights into engagement with bloggers and the blogosphere, so let’s start there:
For Think Tanks
No organization has mastered blogging or interacting with the blogosphere, because the business of moving ideas and shaping public opinion is complex and constantly changing. (Scher)
A dedicated staff position (e.g., “New Media Strategist”) does not work well when it is siloed into one corner of the organization or campaign (e.g., Communications). The key function of this role is building community and consensus, so it needs to be able to touch and influence all areas of an organization. (Zaheed)
Academics and policy wonks, perhaps especially those from older generations, sometimes resist the public yet informal nature of the blogosphere. Dedicated staff can help these folks by playing a translator and bridge role. This person translates academic prose into more accessible formulations; she also educates experts on the value of blogs for testing and sharpening ideas, while steering the blog’s community away from unproductive infighting. (Parramore)
Join the communities that already exist around your issue — not only for disseminating your content, but also for engagement with the work that others do there. Most people will never visit your organization’s website, so the best practice is to go where they are. (Scher, Kendall)
Organizations can often create accounts and repost content on group blogs, which include many of today’s most prominent sites. Daily Kos, Firedoglake, Open Left, Smirking Chimp, and Truthout are just a few of the better-known examples. (Kendall)
If no community exists around your issue, then that could be an opportunity to create one. Find the bloggers interested in your issue and build community with links, e-mails, praise, and civil debate — establish each other as the experts on your issue. The New Deal 2.0 blog did this successfully for financial regulatory reform. (Scher, Parramore, Kendall)
Avoid lecturing bloggers or telling them what they should write about. Engage rather than pitch. (Scher)
Package your work for bloggers into nuggets of data: a single stat, cool chart, idea sketch, argument rebuttal, top-ten list, a short video. They should be timely, newsy, short (140 characters, shortened URLs), accessible, and interesting.
To engage with blogs, assign staff to follow the tags that are appended to blog posts and comment on relevant posts — again, not just to pimp your organization’s work, but to engage with the ideas and analysis that the bloggers present. This can be an especially useful strategy for monitoring framing/messaging and encouraging the use of tested communications frameworks. (Susan Gardner, Kendall)
Think tanks can provide bloggers with a valuable source of expert quotes, so advertise this and then, when asked, turn them around quickly. Progressive Map, which is currently under construction, will provide a central resource for this sort of expert listing when it launches. (Susan Gardner, Kendall)
Post links to your blog posts and new reports on Twitter (and Facebook, Digg, Delicious, etc.), and explore the functionalities of tools and conventions (hashtags, lists, replies and direct messages) to find and build an audience around your issue. Today’s audience thinks in terms of causes and issues, not organizations. (Rosenblatt)
An audience member suggested treating blogs as the new mass media, and therefore the way to reach and move mass audiences, rather than trying to use blogs to demonstrate impact on policymakers. Blogs can be particularly effective at pushing stories into traditional media. (Andrew Hoerner, Parramore)
The next level of think tank-netroots collaboration will involve both policy interaction and shared dissemination strategies. Alan Rosenblatt is leading on a project called the American Progress Action Network to create a space for these activities for bloggers and social media influencers at CAP (which you’re invited to join!). (Rosenblatt)
Provide added value to bloggers with online conferences, webinars, social media strategy sessions, and issue briefings that help them build influence and do their jobs better. (Rosenblatt)
Remember that we are in a war of ideas with the right wing, so think tanks should try to anticipate conservative arguments and provide pre-emptive responses to bloggers. (Zaheed)
Twitter, RSS feeds, and e-mail newsletters are easy ways to track the latest research, analysis, and blogging from think tanks and similar organizations. Specific resources: 1) Follow @ThePINPoint on Twitter, which aggregates content from its 36 member organizations and other progressive policy outlets; 2) Subscribe to Progressive Breakfast and the PM Update from Campaign for America’s Future, e-newsletters that collect many of the day’s hottest blogs and articles; 3) Read (or subscribe via RSS feed) to the Daily Digest on New Deal 2.0 for a round-up of economic writing; and 4) The Progress Report, the invaluable daily e-newsletter from CAP (Rosenblatt, Parramore, Scher, Kendall)
To move your ideas into think tanks, link to their work and comment on their blog posts (both on the organizations’ websites and elsewhere, e.g. Huffington Post) in order to build community and demonstrate your participation in it. Also, where possible, participate in offline (in-person) gatherings and events with the organizations. (Scher, Parramore)
Invite organizational staff and policy experts to participate in your blogs, events, and gatherings. (Parramore)
PIN and Progressive Congress are building the Progressive Map, which will be a wiki that will serve information about policy resources in the progressive movement to busy political activists. (Kendall)
So, what did we miss? What are your ideas for best practices for think tanks and bloggers working together? What questions are still out there?
Barry Kendall directs the Progressive Ideas Network at Demos.