2.0. Think Tanks’ Public Relations Strategies and Collective Claim to Represent and Address ‘Civil Society’
Evoking think tanks may summon laudatory images such as scientific rigor, dialogical debate, innovation, and production of socially useful knowledge, dynamic engagement in the “battlefield” of ideas. Think tanks PRs’ strategy might rely on these narratives. Conversely, think tanks may summon images as lack of transparency concerning their work methods, “cargo cult” science suspicion, closed homogeneous elite groups, theoretical ivory tower thinking, ideological preferences, and poor assessment of their actual influence on public policy decisions. In the French context, some clubs, parties, unions, university-based research centres, lobbies and advocacy NGOs are even close to fit selective definition criteria.
Think tanks are hybrid yet persistent organisations where people claim to study public policy issues and to debate. Another key criterion is that they wish to spread analysis and ideas meant to inspire public policies decision-making processes and have an impact on societies. Then, they would hire communication professionals or call on public relations consulting companies to maximise their chances to have such an impact. Think tanks are professionalising their influence strategies by diversifying their outputs (books, white papers, position papers, articles, interviews, pamphlets, texts, computer graphics and short videos). We examine the joint trends of think tanks’ PR’ professionalization, and of the blurring frontiers between grass roots lobbying, advocacy and ‘think tanking’. Some think tankers enjoy direct access to government officials and elected representatives. Nevertheless, they all rely on traditional print or web media to get the attention of supposedly influential people. 2.0. microblogging platforms like twitter can be used as echo chambers, to send up trial balloons, or network. We focused on twitter as being a key social media perceived as prone to dis-intermediation, and spurring closer links with the general public.
French think tankers claim they are and should be more involved in science popularization and open to citizens’ ideas. Their “raison d’être” also being to promote and enrich democratic debates. Think tankers try to present themselves as spokespersons for the fuzzy category of “civil society”. Think tanks diversified their editorial formats and diffusion channels as well as the voices speaking in their names, their discursive regimes, subgenres and rhetorical strategies.
We studied how digital formats, devices and platforms provide a polyphonic gloss to some European leading think tanks’ discourse. Doing our researches in communication science, we analysed the semiotic marks of collective writing within a sample of 12 think tanks’ writings during a short time of two months in 2019. We analysed think tanks’ homogeneous vision of civil society as well as their claim to represent and address civil society in a ventriloquist perspective. So far, we did recent research interviews with eight top think tankers and only three PR professionals working for or within think tanks. We also took part in think tanks meetings and events with the status of “guest” social science researcher (organisational extensive ethnography). Think tanks’ influence strategies are best-kept secrets. Informal talks with think tankers, assistant level staff and interns also proved to be fruitful.