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Sunday, July 10, 2005 

Shake'n'Bake Think Tank

So there I was, browsing for interesting Ann Coulter pics political websites and I came across this "Atlas Economic Research Foundation" outfit on the internets. So far, so what, says you.

Well, this Foundation (which seems to have been set up by the U.K.'s pioneering battery chicken farmer) turns out to be a leader in setting up 'local' Libertarian astroturf operations think tanks worldwide.

Apparently there's not too much involved in getting these things going. In fact, the Atlas Foundation even supply a helpful toolkit, which I hope lefties out there don't get hold of. My attention, needless to say, was immediately piqued. My very own think tank? Why not!

First, some necessary precautions.
"Political Affiliations
Because the work of an institute involves national and local policy issues, there is inevitable confusion as to whether the institute is 'political,' or whether its free market preferences automatically associate it with 'conservative' administrations. It is imperative to avoid reinforcing misperceptions by affiliations with political persons, i.e., on the board or among the authors. Potential donors are shy of sponsoring a party-oriented group. Our objective--to find and publish better solutions to problems in hopes of assisting policy decisions--is a totally nonpartisan approach. Many issues have not been adequately studied (i.e., money systems, educational systems, retirement systems, etc.), so no literature or body of opinion, whether left or right, supports any course of action whatsoever."
True. We wouldn't want to be recognised mistaken for being little more than a front organisation for radical right-wing political hacks.

I also learn about employees, whom I'm pleased to say are subject to cutthroat 'free-market' personnel management practice:
"Regarding the firing employees, here’s a parting comment that Brian Tracy, one of America's leading authorities on the development of human potential and personal effectiveness, once shared. He asked the question "When is the best time to fire someone?" The answer he suggested: "The first time you think about it." Though it sounds terribly cold and impetuous, he explained how most methods of trying to work things out eventually lead to a firing anyway. By cutting losses immediately, everyone is spared the hurt and costs of a long drawn out process. Again, as Joe Lehman warned above, these ideas may not work for everyone, but they are certainly worth considering based on the experience of these management experts."
All good advice, I'm sure you'll agree.

Then we move on to areas of opportunity:
"Products, Publications, and Programs
Use Scarce Resources Wisely and Borrow Shamelessly

There is a host of low-cost, easily reproducible products that can help get your institute off the ground. Most institutes in the Atlas network will freely offer reprint and publication rights of their articles. If you see an article that addresses a topic that you would like to get involved in, check with the institute. Ask if you can publish their piece, perhaps with a new cover that would better reach out to your audience. Of course, clear credits to the home institute will be required, but that reinforces the message that you are part of a broader, cohesive network.

[...]

One of the cheapest and quickest ways of getting a book out is to grab some worthy academic on his way through your country and build a seminar around him; get all your supporters in for a dinner, then publish the findings. (Greg Lindsay, Centre for Independent Studies, Australia)

When we started up, we 'borrowed' the IEA book, Verdict on Rent Control. About half of our best selling book, Rent Control: Popular Paradox, was purchased from the IEA for $500. The other half we added for local interest. I recommend it as a tactic for smaller, newer institutes. They are welcome to any of Fraser Institute's back publications without charge, and I am sure the IEA would be willing to allow that as well. One crucial point, however, is that there must be a section of the book that relates the broader international experience to local circumstances or else the locals will miss the point! (Michael Walker, The Fraser Institute, Canada)
Blatant plagiarism is good? Perhaps I might want to set up a blog for our 'output', just in case I get called on it.

Next, we learn about the importance of networking with other activists independent think-tanks:
"Building Coalitions
Intellectual entrepreneurs frequently ask about building partnerships with other think tanks, institutes, and organizations. Two general rules will help guide you in making decisions about this: 1) stay true to your mission, and 2) draw from available resources to garner strength. Take advantageous of opportunities that enable you to achieve both. For some issues, you may find that you can come together with organizations that your institute is traditionally at odds with. This may offer an opportunity to show that you are wedded to guiding principles, and not political winds. Remember, coalitions, need not to be permanent, and in many cases, they should not be. Instead, they should be viewed as opportunities to marshal greater resources to achieve a specific objective.

In contrast to the temporary coalitions, several institutes in the Atlas network have had great success in building longer-term coalitions that meet regularly, following the Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform) idea. In this model, institutes invite different organizations to participate in monthly meetings. The idea is to offer a venue to invite local organizations – from taxpayers associations, to real estate people to bankers – to hear the ideas and join in support."
Grand, duly noted.

So, I now have my blog, but how to spread my propaganda analysis out to the general, non-blog reading public? Happily, I have a roadmap to bluffing my way on to the nation's airwaves:
Communicating Your Ideas - Develop Media Lists
(The comments below are excerpts from the article, "How Can Think Tanks Win Friends And Influence People In The Media?" by Brian Lee Crowley. The full text is available on the Atlas website)

Having sound ideas and doing the research to back them up are certainly a key aspect of your work, but it is only one half of your job. The other half is putting a lot of energy into strategic thinking about communications, and putting that strategy into effect.

The place to start is not with ideas, but with personal relationships. Journalists are moved much more by personal contact than by the best ideas in the world. One way that they economize on scarce time is by having a stable of people, experts in their field, in whom they can have confidence, knowing that if they are told something by these people, they can put a great deal of weight on it without running the risk of looking stupid or foolish.

Put your expertise to good use. Scour the newspapers and television for people who habitually report on issues that you are interested in. Begin to feed them information, on a piecemeal basis, through calls and letters. Be selective. Carefully cull information that they can immediately recognize as allowing them to write better stories on these themes - more hard-hitting, insightful, and controversial. Be very certain of your facts (remember, this is a confidence-building exercise) and document them with care. And (this is very important) don't be concerned at this stage about getting credit. Let the journalist look good thanks to your efforts. You will have accomplished two things. First, you will have established yourself in the journalist's mind as a credible source, and he or she will have a sense of being indebted to you. Then, and only then, can you really expect media people to take an interest in the things that you think are important. (Brian Crowley, Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, Canada)

Through our programs and publications, we "platform" people. Once they are on media lists as experts, they pop up for years, even decades, on radio and television - all because of one institute publication. It is very attractive and we do not pay much at all because the "research" is a sunk cost.! (John Blundell, Atlas and Institute of Economic Affairs, United Kingdom)"
Wow, I'm learning a lot.

Now I've come to the thorny issue of what to name the thing. Fear not, dear readers. The Atlas Foundation have thought of that too. They provide the following helpful advice:
"Select a Name
In choosing a name for the institute, there are several things to think about. Is there a readily apparent "nickname" or abbreviated name that flows easily? ("Atlas" from "Atlas Economic Research Foundation" works, but "Michigan" doesn't from the "Michigan Public Policy Institute") Is this nickname unique or do others also use it? Is it one you would like to be known as? Remember, press credits are difficult if an institute's name is too long. Does the acronym work, or does it spell anything odd?

Names such as "Freedom Institute" are not very descriptive. Then again, some institutes deliberately pick names that convey little information in the hopes that it will enable them to participate in a wider variety of opportunities. Think about the level of information you would like to convey in your name. Your decision may rest on the culture within which you work - if the name you choose is likely to generate hostilities because of misplaced assumptions associated with certain words, you might want to go with something less descriptive."
And very wise counsel that is too. After all, something as innocent-sounding as the given "Freedom Institute" example may turn out to be already taken by someone who perhaps failed to read the instructions properly. They go on:
"We started with another name, and then changed it to the Adam Smith Institute, something more recognizable. We try to cultivate an image of standing very high, because the higher you stand, the further your voice carries." (Eamonn Butler, Adam Smith Institute, United Kingdom)

Some institute entrepreneurs also caution against picking a name that has an "ideological" word like “freedom” in it.

In all that you do, make it difficult for the opposition to tear you down. If you put the word ‘freedom’ in you name, for example, you will be making it easier for your opposition to stigmatize you as ‘ideological" or more specifically, "right-wing." While there’s nothing wrong with being ideological (indeed, it’s usually a sign of consistent thinking), the opposition unfortunately has been largely successful at convincing the broad public that there's something wrong, narrow-minded or biased about people who have strong, clear conclusions that follow from solid premises. The work you put out will quickly convince the already-converted that you are indeed pro-freedom, so you don't need "Freedom" in the name to attract them. Generalize the name a little more and you can potentially attract the attention of others who are not yet completely on your side and engage them in a conversation about the ideas. Think of the CEOs of companies you want to attract to your board -- because they don't want to lose customers, they steer clear of things that seem to be tagged as strongly of one perspective or the other.” (Lawrence W. Reed, Mackinac Center for Public Policy Midland, MI)"
Of course, a major problem we're going to have with my our new think tank is that we're likely to have sniping by begrudging Irish smart-asses.

But of course, we at DICK (Dublin Institute for Culture and Knowledge) can reassure ourselves that it's down to jealousy by our intellectual inferiors. After all, the Institute is a ground breaking new initiative, designed to develop policies to make Ireland a better place for all of its citizens. Our principles can be described in four key points, namely pro-kittens, pro-happiness, anti-bad things and against dying.

The core activities of the Dublin Institute are simple. We bitch regularly to influence citizens to support our principles. Our staff are always available to discuss our position on any issue with the media, under the influence or sober. In addition, we propose to organise regular seminars throughout Ireland to spread our message, in a public house of your choice.

Membership is free to all, though buying a pint always gets you brownie points - and maybe a Senior Associate title, too, if we're in a good mood.

"Libel"-Richard Waghorne
"Attack blog"-Damien Mulley

About me

  • An early-thirties male Irish technologist living and working in Dublin, I'm a former (recovering) member of both Fianna Fáil and the Roman Catholic Church.

    I'm not a member of any political party these days, but my opinions can be broadly categorised as 'lefty' and republican. I am also a former member of the Irish Defence Forces.

    Please feel free to check out the FI Fie Foe Fum group blog, where I was once a regular contributor, and the Cedar Lounge Revolution, where I can usually be found in the comments.

    (This blog and its contents reflect only my own personal opinions as a private citizen, and not those of any other person or organisation.)

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