By Will Paxton

Disclaimer: This interview originally appeared on the On Think Tanks website, which can be found here: https://goo.gl/H8zOrU

Two years ago the Zambian think tank ZIPAR had no dedicated communications capacity. Their reports sat on shelves and the organisation’s impact was limited. Today, ZIPAR has a dynamic and effective approach to working with the media as part of their wider approach to influencing policy. Euphrasia Mapulanga, ZIPAR’s Knowledge Manager, has led the transformation of the organisation’s approach. Kivu International’s Will Paxton talked to Euphrasia in Lusaka.

Kivu International: Two years ago ZIPAR didn’t have an operative communications strategy. How did you set about changing that?

Euphrasia Mapulanga: The first thing was that the ZIPAR team – from the Executive Director down – felt that the presence of ZIPAR in the media was too low. They had tried to push their work on a few occasions, but it had not yielded the desired results. The team always realised that other advocacy approaches – private meetings with government ministries, for example – mattered, but our work was just sitting in the office and not being disseminated.

So, starting with the media – which is, of course, part of a think tank’s wider communications strategy – we needed to find out about the relationship between ZIPAR and newspapers and broadcasters. To do this, we carried out a ‘perception audit’. We talked to both ZIPAR staff and media houses in Zambia. On the ZIPAR side it releveled an openness to work with the media, but a lack of the contacts or skills. On the media houses side the audit revealed worryingly little knowledge of ZIPAR let alone interaction with us.

But interestingly, it also exposed the hunger from the media for evidence and information. Mostly the journalists found themselves reporting politically motivated reactions to issues. The ruling party says this; the opposition say this. The idea of more balanced information from an institution like ZIPAR appealed. The audit also allowed ZIPAR to better understand the Zambian media: it’s very different to the media in developed countries with limited capacity and inadequate equipment. We really needed to understand how the media operated and what works best for them in relation to ZIPAR.

So overall the perception audit was critical – we couldn’t cook something up sat in our office! It was important to find out what the media knew about ZIPAR and then learn from our mistakes.

KI: So today, two years on, how does ZIPAR approach the media as part of its efforts to influence policy?

EM: Well, we now increasingly appreciate that the media set the agenda. ZIPAR uses the media to help influence the climate of debates. Today the press – whether the newspapers or Radio – will pick a story from ZIPAR and tomorrow the policy makers and other key stakeholders will see it.

We also understand that just publishing reports is not enough to get the attention of policy makers. Instead, the moment something appears in the media, government is racing to respond. People in the ministry and MPs are all busy people and may put a report on the shelf, but once something is in the public domain, we get real interest. A good example of this is our work, last year on government borrowing (so-called “Eurobonds”). Right from the start of this project the government knew we were working on this issue. We used the media from day one and started to get interest from the Ministry of Finance because they had seen the coverage in the media. In the case of the Eurobonds, this helped get some of our recommendations adopted.

KI: And how would you describe your role in the organisation now?

EM: My role covers media work, but as part of a wider approach to communications and what we call ‘knowledge management’ – by this I mean how ZIPAR uses the knowledge generated by the researchers.

This involves some internal work, for example we have ‘Brownbag meetings’ and in-house seminars where researchers share their work and ideas. I co-coordinate these in collaboration with the Researchers. But mostly I work on how to disseminate ZIPAR’s work. Most importantly my team (which is just myself and one colleague, Singani) manage the timely production of reports, our newsletter, policy briefs and so on. And then I co-ordinate all our press work: the media houses have to come through my office to make sure we are communicating the right messages in a consistent way. My goal is to disseminate work at the right time and in a way which receives maximum coverage.

The other thing is more behind-the-scenes advocacy. I manage and plan much of this, for example any private seminars with MPs. I also liaise with the researchers on which ‘advocacy targets’ to engage and how. On advocacy, having a common and co-ordinated plan is key. Another more private form of advocacy is our presentations at exhibitions, for example the Lusaka Agricultural and Commercial Show – these are actually a very good way of reaching policy makers because it is a time when people move away from their offices and are looking for information.

So, my role takes in both the public media work and also more private advocacy. Of course you have to strike the right balance here: sometimes ZIPAR will use the media more and sometimes it will focus more on the “inside” advocacy. We make a different judgement issue-by-issue.

KI: Can you say a little more about the relationship between yourself and the researchers?

EM: The researchers see me as a ‘channel’ that they can use to get their work to reach their targets. So we have a very strong relationship. In fact, whenever we have a report to be disseminated it has to pass through my team. We don’t allow a situation where each researcher is at liberty to communicate on their own. I think of myself as a kind of ‘pillar’ or coordinator that researchers use to disseminate research. We always work closely together of course – that is critical. I have to be useful to the researchers and help them achieve their own ambitions to influence debate and policy.

KI: I expect ZIPAR have faced many challenges when it comes to boosting your media profile. But if you were to pick out one, what would it be?

EM: The main one, I think, is balancing the media’s desire for rapid commentary on issues and ZIPAR researchers’ commitment to quality and rigor in their work.

Over the last few years we have created demand for our work. The media now come to us asking for ZIPAR to comment on developments. They want to talk about an emerging issue within a short time window – they cannot miss the boat. But ZIPAR prides itself on policy analysis which is based on evidence. So how do we respond to the shorter timescales that the media operate on? How do you reconcile these two positions?

While we cannot compromise our standards too much, we also cannot delay our communications work to achieve the ‘perfect score’. My personal challenge is to help the research team here at ZIPAR understand that the media operate in a certain way – as far as possible we need to help them to do their job. ZIPAR needs to be commentating on debates and often needs to be able to respond quickly. Timing is almost always critical for achieving influence and we need to take advantage of moments when the media are interested in issues. The risk is also that if you refuse an interview request a few times you lose people. The media will simply turn to alternatives.

On challenges like this, we certainly have not reached a plateau yet. It is an ongoing learning process, but I am confident we will get there.

KI: One thing you have done a lot of is use radio as a medium for communication. Can you say more about that?

EM: Radio is a strong channel for communication in Zambia: people can listen to radio anytime and anywhere. They listen in the car and on the phone whenever they have a chance.

So, yes, we have run a series of radio programmes. We deliberately targeted ‘drive time’. Lusaka has a lot of traffic in the evening so our show goes out targeted 17.00 and 18.00. Even government ministers are stuck in traffic at that time! And we have used one of the most popular channels as well – it is widely listened to.

We have held 26 episodes of these shows now. Initially they were pre-recorded with ZIPAR experts and other stakeholders debating an issue. But then we realized we needed to be more interactive. So we moved to having live programmes where, after ZIPAR researchers sets out the issues, the show opens up phone lines to the public.

So what are we achieving? Well, most politicians will be more interested in issues which the public know about and are discussing. Politicians and other policy makers may not phone ZIPAR direct, but they get the messages as they will be monitoring these programmes. Also, the shows are heling to provide economic literacy. People phone in to try to understand the issues. The more people begin to talk about issues the more political players will see a degree of public awareness and the more they will understand there are some demands on them to make changes.

KI: Finally, what would your ‘top-tips’ be for improving a think tanks approach to media and communications work?

EM: That’s a tricky one. I would suggest three:

First you need to have a committed and supportive management team. They need to understand the strategy, adequately fund it (because good media and comms work costs money!) and promote it. I was lucky because the management team in ZIPAR have been very supportive – the Executive Director realised the importance of effective communications. So right from the top there has been support. I have never been some kind of “add-on”, but have been integral to how ZIPAR thinks about achieving it’s goals. With this degree of support, we have then gradually brought others on board. Some people will resist, but part of the task is to convince them.

The second is the importance of team work and team spirit. A good communications person cannot do things on all on their own. Instead they must involve the researchers from the start – the researchers themselves must own the media plans. Only with a sense of ownership will researchers put in the effort to help get their work listened to. Ultimately it is their work and ideas which is being communicated. For example, when I am writing a press release I need the researcher’s input: “have I diluted your message?” “Have I missed the main point?”

The third point is that good communications work never stops. It is not a one-off event. And you can always improve. For ZIPAR we need to have a constant and consistent media presence. We can’t let people forget us in the way they did in the past. One thing this means is asking yourself how you are doing? How can we improve? This is particularly the case in our media environment – if we let our game slip our position they will be taken over by the corporates. They have a lot to offer journalists – so a think tank needs to keep journalists involved and make them feel important.

I could think of many other lessons from my experience in the last few years, but these would be the main ones.