Meeting People Where They Are

By Daniella Gibbs Léger
Center for American Progress

This piece originally appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) as part of Making Ideas Move, a series on the power and potential of social sector communications produced by The Communications Network in partnership with SSIR.

Brilliant experts can write compelling policy papers filled with breakthrough ideas to make our society better. But they can’t influence and shape the debate if no one is reading and digesting their work. This is something that John Podesta and the founders of the Center for American Progress (CAP) understood when they set out to create a new kind of think tank; they knew that to have impact, you have to be forward-thinking in your outreach and strategic about whom you are trying to influence. That means organizations must invest in communications. CAP has. As a nonpartisan educational institute, communicating is part of our culture: Nearly 50 percent of our operating budget is devoted to communication and outreach work. Is this innovative? Yes. It’s also entirely necessary to ensure that people hear the ideas we develop and champion, and that that those ideas “move.” Creating change begins with meeting people where they are.

CAP was an early adopter and pioneer of social media in the policy world for precisely this reason. Our blog-based website, ThinkProgress, is today one of the most highly trafficked policy sites on the Internet. But when we launched it in 2005, it was a bold and untested idea. CAP’s Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter channels were already up and running, and driving conversations before virtually everyone else in Washington; we knew that critical audiences were assembling and sharing ideas and information on social media. New technology enabled us to enter new conversation spaces, and data (including sophisticated new email tools and diagnostics on our social sites) enabled us to see our ideas spreading.

This led us to create a robust outreach and event platform. We know that information moves (and sticks) when people gather in person, but here again, we feel obliged to break the mold. As we like to say, we’re not your Grandma’s think tank. In addition to producing panel discussions and speeches, we developed our Reel Progress movie-screening program to draw people to powerful, progressive-minded feature and documentary films. This reflects our understanding that there is more than one way to reach an audience. Sometimes the way to make a policy point on immigration, for example, is to hold a screening for a movie about DREAMers (individuals who meet the requirements of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), or participate in a discussion about policy and the power of culture at the Sundance Film Festival.

But at the end of the day, what matters most are the ideas. In late 2005, for example, the conversation around the Iraq War was complicated by fear and confusion about US security. It was particularly difficult for the progressive community to express their uncertainty or downright opposition to the war in such a charged political climate. Those who didn’t completely oppose war needed to find a way to be critical of it while still honoring national security sentiments and concerns. It was in this environment that CAP released “Strategic Redeployment,” our blueprint for ending the war in Iraq. Not only was it a great plan, it empowered progressives to shift the conversation from the extremes (immediate withdrawal versus staying the course) to how to reasonably and responsively draw back troops. That message shift could not have been more delicate or more necessary. The plan created the space for policymakers and influencers to speak their minds about the war without losing a nuanced national security perspective, and we began to see a shift in the national conversation around US engagement in Iraq. This didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen because we just put out a press release. Our team developed and executed a strategic communications and outreach effort to get our plan in front of as many eyes as possible—including reporters, Congressional leaders, and progressive activists.

Nearly a decade later in 2013, we found ourselves fighting another tough battle, this time around the federal budget. Fiscal austerity had dominated budgetary and political debates for months in Washington, DC; it was bad policy and, coupled with the federal government shutdown, it fed an unhelpful narrative about government ineffectiveness. In that crucial moment, CAP released a report titled “It’s Time to Hit the Reset Button on the Fiscal Debate.” The report, which we moved through a series of strategic communication initiatives—including high-level media outreach and a concerted social media push—resonated, and its impact among policymakers marked a shift away from a narrative focused around austerity, showing that economic conditions had changed but the budgetary process and the conversation around it had not. As with “Strategic Redeployment,” the conversation shift didn’t just happen by serendipity. It took crafting and implementing a thoughtful communications and outreach strategy to influence the debate.

For more than 11 years, CAP has put much care and thought into the policy ideas it creates, and the way those ideas enter the political and policy bloodstream. Our senior team has embraced and invested in communications, and everyone at CAP sees communications as part of their work. I believe this is what sets us apart from many of our peers and why CAP attracts some of the brightest policy minds. And if you look at the most successful organizations—no matter their mission—you’ll see that a strong and fully integrated communications strategy is always an important part of what they do.

Daniella Gibbs Léger (@dgibber123) is the senior vice president for communications and strategy at the Center for American Progress. Prior to rejoining American Progress in 2011, Daniella served as a special assistant to the president and director of message events in the Obama administration.