Not so long ago, think tanks operated under what author James McGann said was called the briefcase test.
If they wanted their research and information read and heard by a legislator, they needed to make sure the data could be read by policymakers during the trip from Reagan International Airport to the U.S. Capitol. That’s all the time they’d get to catch a person’s attention.
Think tanks have considerably less time to do so now.
To reach legislators, it’s about getting information mobile-friendly. To reach the public, it’s delving into the world of social media platforms and somehow managing to keep up with changing dialogue.
“All of this is a challenge, but also an opportunity,” said McGann, who runs the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program.
Think tanks and special interest groups now face the added pressure of the continuing flow of information, as well as easy access to information provided by the internet, cable news and social media, McGann said. That is particularly important when it comes to think tanks who need grant and donor funding while plenty of other sources also publish information.
It was a change think tanks had to adapt to earlier when McGann said the Heritage Foundation dropped the promotion of data that was getting overlooked by policymakers and instead started creating products that legislators could use. McGann said regardless of how people feel about Heritage’s conservative philosophy, it changed the way some think tanks operate and led to the creation of the Center for American Progress.
It’s social media that’s changing the think tank landscape now.
“We now have an increasing velocity of information and policy views. Before you know it, it’s here,” McGann said.
McGann said it’s an opportunity for think tanks to change with the changing demographics. Think tanks can now look at using more video and infographics and help consumers navigate the research.
“The way we do it now is different from the way we did it five years ago,” said Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, which houses the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. “It starts but doesn’t end with having valuable research and information.”
Herzenberg said getting their research to legislators and the public involves more than their traditional methods of sending information to the media. The center has a website, a Twitter account and a joint blog at ThirdAndState.org.
“We’ve learned over time that shorter is often better,” he said. “We have that fat research report somewhere on our website, but most (prefer short pieces of information). Some of them are reassured that it’s somewhere. It’s good for our credibility.”
Though the Keystone Research Center is often at odds in its research with the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, he said it’s been a learning curve for them.
“They have a number of ideas we think is nonsense, but that are pretty good at communicating,” he said. “We understand that it’s not just research.”
“Social media was nonexistent when I first started. Now it’s one of our biggest ways of sharing information,” said Nathan Benefield, vice president and COO of the Commonwealth Foundation.
The foundation has a website, Twitter accounts for its staff, an email list and a Facebook account. Benefield said they also work with the media in providing messages for the public and they also give information to people and citizen activists who can use the research and data.
He said, however, that social media is often only headline deep, and it does behoove them to get involved in a conversation where incorrect information is shared. The Commonwealth Foundation considers itself nonpartisan, in that it does not participate in party politics, so he said there are only so many social media conversations it will delve into in the world of “post-fact.”
“Generally, most of what we do ... is based on policy debates,” he said. “‘Fake news’ is more political and conspiracy theories. We generally just ignore all that genre.”
For smaller groups, the effort is a little harder.
Dan Doubet is the executive director of Keystone Progress and recently moved to Camp Hill after leading the cause and organizing activists in Erie. The group is a collection of citizen activists across the state.
Keystone Progress doesn’t get the grants or funding that either of the think tanks see, and Doubet said the majority of its resources come from individuals who donate less than $100. For his group, it’s more about grassroot efforts, starting petitions, developing a network of activists and organizing rallies.
For Doubet, the challenge so far has been steering the sudden political interest after President Donald Trump’s election.
“There are more people who want to take action,” he said. “The question is if we can build a sail to catch it and direct it in the right way. It’s sometimes a challenge.”
The activists of Keystone Progress don’t congregate around a desk (there’s no office) and they also don’t do much in the way of direct lobbying of officials. Instead they work locally to solve issues, such as helping create a transit route for workers to get to an industrial park in Erie.
“I saw a place where people really needed to get organized,” Doubet said of Erie. “We’ve done very well. We build public pressure.”