We’re almost finished with a big reputation study for an international client. We talked to almost 100 policymakers and influencers in global health and development. I decided to do the UK interviews and some of the international ones myself. I was really shocked by one element of the findings. I hope that my colleagues in the other countries that we’re studying (two in Africa, one in South Asia and two in Europe) will come up with different findings.

We tried to figure out how key influencers find things out. Where do they source information for their decisions? We used a variety of questions and techniques — for example, we asked how they had heard about the most recent three pieces of news that they thought were important to their work. We got them to rank which sources of information and which news outlets helped them most in finding out about major development and global health issues. We promised that no reader of the report would ever be able to attribute any answer to any individual and we gave respondents the guarantee that our work would be overseen by an ESOMAR member working under the ESOMAR code.

Many people running government departments, think tanks and divisions of NGOS read very little. Most of them never listen to the radio (and those who do listen to National Public Radio in the US, BBC Radio 4 or the BBC World Service). Most rarely watch TV news unless they are in a hotel room. Very few read a newspaper — in print or online — regularly. Many read The Economist but other general magazines are rarely mentioned. Only one or two have time to browse peer-reviewed journals. None look regularly at specialist news sources such as SciDevNet, Interpress or All Africa.

Instead, most of these policymakers and influencers get their news from a small circle of colleagues who send them links or summaries. For those in their 30s and 40s, this is most likely to come through Twitter. For those in their 40s, 50s and 60s, it is more likely to be from blogs (to which they subscribe) or emails (often internal summaries of interesting articles). When they click through and read, they often fail to notice what they have clicked onto: it might be the New York Times or it might be the Ascension Island Islander. For these respondents, credibility comes from the person who sent the link, not the journalist who wrote it or the publication that gave it space. Although, they do, of course, notice pieces that are badly written or internally inconsistent. Of course, the risk here is that they all refer one another to a tiny list of findings and stories that simply reinforce a common worldview.

Even those working on advocacy or campaigning usually see none of the publications or outlets which are the target of their work. A surprising number don’t even own a television. None, except elected representatives, browse popular dailies, watch the most-viewed news bulletins on network TV or listen to mass-appeal radio stations. Most do not even read the “quality press” regularly. They rely on Google Alerts and also hope that colleagues or friends will point them to anything important. Most say they want mass support for development spending or policies that favour the poor. I have no idea how they hope to get it if they never read the Daily Mail or USA Today and they never watch Sky News or Jon Stewart.

The implications of this are massive for groups trying to influence development, environment or health policy. If your target is the decision makers and those who influence policy directly, those hours slaving over an op ed for The Guardian or securing an interview on CNN are probably wasted . You would be much better off trying to establish the small circle of people whose emails, blogs and Tweets these policy élites rely on. You do need an article or video for those Tweets to link to but you might as well put it on your own blog as spend days working with a sceptical journalist

AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT: these are just raw reflections from my interviews in the UK and with international stakeholders around the world. Analysis has only just started on our reputation study and things may look very different when we review the findings systematically. The anecdotal impact is, though, striking.

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