After a long career at the BBC where he edited The World Tonight for 10 years, Alistair Burnett is currently the interim MD of Communi-cations and Publishing at leading international think tank Chatham House.
What is your job title?
I am the Managing Director Communications and Publishing (Interim) at Chatham House.
Where do you work?
Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, which was set up in the wake of WWI, 101 years ago. The thinking behind its foundation was that the world needed a greater understanding between countries in order to prevent another conflict. In its early years it was mainly a place for people to meet to discuss the many things that were going on in the world. Then there was WWII and de-colonisation and over the years Chatham has had quite a significant influence on British foreign policy. In recent years, it has positioned itself as a global think tank, based in London with less of a focus on British foreign policy. The Institution convenes both public conversations as well as more discreet ones alongside its large research output. Our mission has been redefined for our second century to build a sustainable, secure, prosperous and healthy world. We have thematic programmes including international security, global health, environment and society plus the sustainability accelerator. The largest programme is our environment and society programme. On top of this we have several regional programmes that cover the globe. It is a combination of thematic and regions-based research.
What do you do?
My department ensures that all the work of the think tank gets to the audiences we want it to and influence policy, without campaigning or advocating. Day to day that means I oversee five teams including publishing; digital content; media relations; The World Today magazine and the International Affairs journal.
What was your route to getting here?
I graduated from Edinburgh University in 1982 with an MA in History, right in the middle of the Falklands War. I didn’t really understand the jingoistic environment in the UK at the time and wanted to live somewhere else. The easiest way to do that was to get a qualification and Teach English as a Foreign Language. I taught in Italy for 3 years before moving to China for 2 years. I’d always been interested in current affairs and during that time decided I wanted to be a journalist and I wanted to do it at the BBC World Service. I came back to the UK and applied for BBC World Service journalist traineeships but while I was shortlisted, I didn’t get selected and was told that I should go and get some radio experience and reapply. I had an interview with the guy who ran BBC English by Radio but didn’t hear anything until 3 months later when he rang me up out of the blue and asked what I was doing on Monday. He offered me a 3 month contract which turned into 26 years. In those 26 years I gradually worked my way up into more senior positions in news on The World Tonight, the Today programme and returned to the World Service to run Newshour before eventually becoming editor of The World Tonight. I spent 10 years editing The World Tonight which was the best job at the BBC as it was the only programme on national radio that covered global news. After 10 years I took voluntary redundancy during one of the many BBC restructures and decided I would like to go into communications, perhaps with a focus on the environment or development. I took an interim role at the International Union for Conservation of Nature running their global media team as well as continuing to write a column for HuffPost. I wrote a few columns about the Sustainable Development Goals which came to the attention of someone at Sightsavers, a health NGO. They approached me to become their Director of News, a senior communications role where I focused on getting them on the map. Then they decided to restructure and, as I had achieved my goals there, I decided to leave that role.
Which is when Chatham House came to me to ask if I would come in on an interim basis as the longstanding Communications Director was standing down. They wanted to use that moment to conduct an overall review of their marketing and communications. For many years I had been in touch with Chatham House and had served for 6 years on their Council, so they knew me quite well and it was a good match!
Why a think tank?
The reason I got into journalism was my interest in the world and global affairs and how to make sense of that world. While I was at The World Tonight, think tanks were one of the main sources of analysis and thinking on the way the world is going. When I was Editor, I developed a partnership with Chatham House and other similar organisations, such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Endowment in DC among others and became more and more interested in what think tanks do. Producing a global affairs radio programme is fun and valuable and serves a public interest, but what you don’t know is what listeners do with the information they receive. There is arguably a more direct impact in organisations like Chatham House that aim to influence governments and policy and that was attractive to me.
What is rewarding about your sector?
When you see you’ve had influence, although measuring that is not an exact science. Maybe when you’ve upset someone!
What is success for you?
When you set yourself an objective and achieve it. In this role for example, if you can say you have raised the profile of the brand for research as well as convening and the brand elevation work you are doing has led to an increase in funding, particularly unrestricted funding, that’s success. Personally, it is building the teams that can deliver that and seeing people reach their potential and do their job well.
What are the challenges facing think tanks?
There are a multitude of them! Think tanks are facing stiff competition from sectors that they traditionally probably didn’t, including universities and large media houses who are moving into the same space and doing events and podcasts (e.g. The FT). Think tanks themselves are also mushrooming. It is a much more competitive space where we are competing for talent, for resources and for bandwidth and audiences’ attention. In the UK especially, we haven’t had the benefit of the large endowments many US think tanks have had. A lot of funding is therefore tied to what donors want rather than what you might necessarily choose as the areas you would like to focus on. It’s a difficult balancing act.
Nowadays there is also a lot more scrutiny of think tanks by the media and reputation management has become a bigger part of the role.
The other area of challenge is the rise of populism and the rejection of evidence-based argument for beliefs such as we’ve seen with the disinformation about vaccines during the pandemic. Think tanks are seen as part of that expert elite community so a challenge is how we overcome that and reach sceptical audiences as well as remaining relevant to policymakers. On the other hand, there is an appetite out there for ideas as the world faces existential threat and research and evidence-based think tanks are well placed to help with that.
What has been your worst job experience?
I did a 6 month stint in the old radio newsroom at Broadcasting House where they wrote all the news bulletins for the national radio stations. The news editors were all ex-print hacks who, after the main bulletin, would all go to the pub and leave me to ring them if something happened. It was awful. I’d come from the World Service and so was considered to be a bit of a pointyhead. The job was so boring and I also had to put up with unhelpful comments the entire time, but I learnt a lot and condensing the news is a good journalistic skill to learn early on. But it was horrible…
What has been your best job experience?
Not any one experience but, for personal achievement and job satisfaction, editing The World Tonight would be it. I had great autonomy, my own team and a really good boss who let me just get on with it. I achieved my goal of putting the world back into The World Tonight, growing the audience by a quarter during that time.
What would you tell those wanting to work in the sector?
You don’t need to be a researcher, you can join (for example) as a project manager then become a researcher. Or start as a journalist and then move across to research. Don’t be put off if you don’t have a specific post-grad discipline. Lots of people at Chatham House do have MAs, but some also complete them while they are working for us. Likewise, there are lots of different roles in think tanks outside research such as events, fundraising, partnership-building, digital comms etc. If you are interested in global affairs but are not a researcher, then don’t be put off.
What do you look for when hiring?
Curiosity, open-mindedness and modesty. The ability to ask intelligent questions or knowing the right questions to ask, being curious and wanting to share your knowledge and understanding.
If you had one sentence of advice, what would it be?
Have the confidence not to be put off by reputation.
First job after graduation
Morning lark or night owl
Summer or winter
Worst paid job
Accounts office of WHSmith
Favourite policy area
China’s emergence on the global stage
Reports or events
What are you reading right now?
The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Russian Imagination, 1857 – 1957 by Asif A. Siddiqi
When you’re not working what are you doing
Watching footie, listening to music, watching police/detective series, walking our beagle
Most excited about in 2022
What I’m most worried about is the US and China situation. The thing I am excited for is the prospect of real determined action on climate change. We are beginning to see a sense that the public has woken up now and politicians are having to respond and develop a language and an approach. There is an exciting opportunity there where we might see real action rather than just talk.