Amidst my rambling on a recent webinar for the Public Affairs Council, I was asked how PA practitioners in Brussels should handle diverse communications disciplines. The premise is that policy-making is often dictated by external events. This makes lobbying less effective than it might have been in the past as a stand-alone tactic to influence policy. In other words, good behaviour and high levels of trust, transmitted via brand and corporate communications, can play as much of a role, if not more, than lobbying.
Having thought further about it since then (and wanting to purge the memory of my rubbish answer) here are some thoughts on the matter.
Easy, in principle (not in reality): structure and access to different skill-sets. Within organisations, the public affairs function should not be in its own silo (or sit with legal). It should integrate with other communications disciplines, from internal through to corporate and marketing. All of these should apply a unified strategy and a somewhat integrated programme, with each making use of skill-sets prevalent in other teams.
I do appreciate this is unrealistic in most organisations: structures and cultures are entrenched, and individual disciplines usually do pretty OK as it is. Given this, public affairs departments that appreciate they may need a bit of the other stuff frequently attempt one of two short-cuts (or both). They hire a specialist (or two) or seek to transform PA practitioners into communications generalists.
I’ve been guilty of endorsing both in the past, but no longer do so. Hiring one or two specialists is not enough as culture and structure remain the same. Their impact will just be cosmetic at most and their hire does not represent a true statement of intent. Turning specialist practitioners into generalists is worse. It dilutes their expert knowledge when communications requires more specialisation, not less. There is room for generalists, but they should be experienced and very talented.
In short: do it properly (i.e. full scale integration with subsequent access to multiple people and skill-sets) and don’t bother with quick fixes until you can; government relations-centric public affairs done properly and in the right conditions remains effective.
June 14, 2015
Some communicators do this: think of lots of potential “messages” to communicate; have a message workshop/session/get-together/pow-wow to decide which ones they like best; test them on a focus group (sometimes); get back together for another workshop/session etc. to finalise their messages, probably ignoring the focus group findings and reverting to the messages they like best (can’t blame them in truth: most focus groups are iffy); blurt them out with a (metaphorical) megaphone over all their channels ad nauseum; sit back and wait for everyone to like them more because their message nailed it, upon which they win an election, sell more stuff, or have less regulation imposed on them (or whatever).
Except the latter does not happen because A MESSAGE IS NOT A STRATEGY. A strategy is action-oriented: it requires you to do something (or not, but only if that’s your strategy). It starts with words like position, re-position, differentiate or leverage. It is based on a thorough analysis of the convergence of three elements: what you want or need, what an audience wants or needs, and what you can really offer, and delivering on it.
Messages (if there’s even a need for them) stem from the strategy; without it, they’re hollow words.
Some corporate communicators and pubic affairs practitioners still focus too much on the message, and not enough on the target: audiences are defined as broadly as ”media” or “policy-makers” and even the meaningless “general public”.
As top-tier marketers and political campaigners have known forever, target audiences need to be narrowed down enormously: a communicator should ideally break down their target list all the way to single individuals within each audience segment, be it real individuals when audience numbers are small or budgets are huge, or more likely, fictional but highly representative personas.
This will in turn enable the communicator to: a) more easily determine what that person wants or needs thorough research and testing (possibly involving some scrutiny of social data); b) based on that, understand whether there is any overlap between their wants and needs and what the communicator can offer; and c) if so, communicate accordingly.
Again, too often, corporate communicators bypass these steps, and develop 2 or 3 broad-based messages that in theory should reach and influence all “media” or “policy-makers” or whatnot. What is far more likely to work is closer inspection of audiences, then targeting multiple segments applying tweaked storylines based on what’s most likely to affect each one. In essence, what political campaigners call micro-targeting.
Why is this not the norm? Why do we invest in “messaging sessions” without first knowing much about whom we are trying to influence? A mix of reasons no doubt, but first and foremost, it’s a legacy of old-school PR largely based on hunches and relationships, and communicators not being accountable enough for their output.
In a recent post – A business delusion: “non-profits win because they can peddle misinformation” – I implied that corporate communicators tend to underestimate the sophistication of the non-profit’s communications toolkit. Building on that, I’d argue that NGOs often win because corporates approach communications far too rationally.
We’re not rational beings. Think family, friends or political affiliation: do we evaluate each rationally i.e. weigh up pros and cons and then decide whether we like them or not? Of course not. Yet most corporate communicators must think we do. Show people facts, data or science – they claim – or tell them stories repeatedly, and they’ll be won over.
This ignores two factors:
- Confirmation bias: we invariably seek to confirm our existing beliefs; no matter how credible, opposing proof points are unlikely to change our fundamental views (and may even strengthen them.)
- NGOs don’t simply present their side of the story; they frame issues as ethical (them) vs. unethical (their opponents). And once you’ve been portrayed as unethical, you can’t fight the label by rationalising.
So what options remain for corporate communicators (including PA professionals)?
- Give up on trying to convince everyone. If confirmation bias is at play, beliefs run deep. Ignore and move on to groups whose views are not so set in stone.
- Fight an ethical battle; build legitimacy passionately not rationally, and don’t be afraid of getting into a scrap.
- Build legitimacy beyond issues; being top-tier (and credible) employers and citizens can have a greater impact than a credible take on day-to-day issues, for instance.
- Don’t just rebut your opponent’s position: create an alternative narrative rather than seeking to reframe the prevailing one.
- If you do rebut, don’t belittle the recipient: you know where they stand and see their point, but beg to differ.