Corporate issues communicators often have unrealistic expectations.

A typical exchange:

  • Our programme isn’t working
  • What are you trying to do?
  • Change people’s opinion of us. We want them to understand that we’re good, not bad. They just need to hear our story. But we’re drowned out. We have less than 1% share of voice on the issue although we keep pumping out our message across multiple channels.
  • Who are you targeting?
  • Everyone.
  • Where?
  • Globally.
  • Do you localise?
  • No, it’s all in English.
  • Any idea on what might make people change their minds?
  • Not really.
  • How many people have you got?
  • Two, including a consultant on a tiny retainer.

At the risk of stating the obvious:

  1. Affecting influence and/or a change in opinion requires a fairly hefty investment (budget and people).
  2. Changing opinion is very difficult; you’re better off targeting people with no opinion!
  3. In either case, influence/change requires a deep understanding of what could affect a shift and an apposite strategy, not just publishing lots of “stuff”.
  4. The other side (i.e. activists) are better funded and approach campaigns strategically. They’re targeting you because they know they can win.
  5. Global campaigns are usually pointless. Always focus on markets in which influence/change is most realistic.

In my last post, I considered 2 levels of campaigning in public affairs:

  1. Campaigning as a necessity when an issue is politicised and on the public radar
  2. Campaigning on a non-politicised issue to gain an early advantage

As ever, I was guilty of over-simplifying. I implied that an organisation that campaigns as a necessity due to issue politicisation is on the wrong side of the public debate and needs to reframe it (e.g. sugar or GMO, say). And that an organisation that campaigns to gain an advantage on a non-politicised issue will invariably be on the right side of the public debate (e.g. fish discards).

There are further nuances to consider:

  • An organisation that campaigns on an issue that is heavily politicised can clearly also be on the “right” side of the public debate (e.g. anti-fracking campaigners; indeed, most activists).
  • An organisation that seeks to gain an advantage on a non-politicised issue will not necessarily be on the right side of the public debate (once debate ensues). Indeed, forward-thinking organisations that know they’ll face a backlash should seek to gain an advantage by framing their issue before it is on the radar.

In summary, a checklist for anyone considering PA campaigning:

PA campaign






Organisations scoring 2 or 3 in the left-hand column will likely have to run a resource-intensive, multi-market, multi-discipline campaign. Conversely, with 2 or 3 in the right hand column, a smaller, single constituency campaign might work. It’s never easy though.

A public affairs campaign revolves around a single, clear policy goal. The goal can be defined in one sentence. It’s channel agnostic and has a visual identity. It has an end-date. And it seeks to build and/or showcase some form of public support (sometimes broad, often narrow). Keep me Posted is a PA campaign. As is Save the Internet.

PA professionals don’t always need to campaign. In Brussels at least, the quality of technical information provided to facilitate policy-making remains the most important determinant of interest group success on most issues. Frankly, PA professionals should avoid campaigning if possible. It’s time intensive, expensive and bloody difficult.

Enter the two levels:

  1. If an issue is highly politicised (nuclear, sugar or GMOs, to cite obvious examples), campaigning is a pre-requisite because policy is broadly dictated by public sentiment. However useful the technical input provided.
  2. If an issue is not politicised but an organisation could benefit were it to be so (Keep me Posted, for instance). Competent campaigning will put an organisation on the radar and increase the likelihood of a win.

There is a vast difference between the two levels.

On highly politicised issues, organisations are potentially up against pre-existing beliefs held by millions of people. Shifting the pin will likely require a 7-figure, multi-year and multi-market investment. Culture and business practice change may be needed before campaigning even begins. And the campaign cannot be PA driven: a broad marketing-communications line-up is required.

On level 2 issues, an organisation can start much smaller because there is no well-known, existing frame to counter. Starting afresh means headway can already be made by building a modest community of support in a single constituency and channelling it via lobbying.

Unpopular industries continue to run campaigns either trying to affect public sentiment on the cheap or seeking to influence policy without channelling some form of public support, however narrow. They should probably not bother.

One of the numerous slightly artificial splits in communications is between brand (seeking to reach a consumer with a view to selling) and corporate (seeking to reach audiences that don’t necessarily purchase, but are otherwise essential, like investors, regulators, employees or analysts).

Brand and corporate people tend not to like each other much. Brand think corporate are dull, smug and behind the times. Corporate think brand are vacuous and gimmicky.

But in the digital age, it’s harder to keep the two separate: brand and corporate audiences consume the same media. Moreover, brand and corporate positioning increasingly overlap. An organisation’s purpose beyond profit, the way it treats its employees, or how it manages it books – for instance – are of interest to audiences across the brand/corporate spectrum.

This also means that people like me, whose comfort zone is corporate, can’t avoid brand gigs. Indeed, I’ve done more brand than corporate over the last few months, and it’s been an eye-opener.

What key lesson can each learn from the other? (NB: I’m generalising, clearly.)

Corporate communicators tend (stress: tend) to value knowledge more. They know more about the sectors they operate in. They need to, given that their audiences – investors, regulators and the like – know their stuff. Brand folk can indeed be a bit vacuous in this regard, choosing not to value and accrue deep product and sector knowledge. Instead they focus on short-term attention grabbing, rather than imparting expertise and building relationships over time. Given the nature of present-day content and influencer marketing, this is a mistake. With mountains of content a mouse-click away, consumers often know more than they are given credit for. They may wish to examine a product in detail, learn what others say about it, or determine whether the company in question aligns with their values. Meanwhile, consumers who adore a brand have the means to be its most potent advocates. In both instances, provision of top-tier material and ongoing interaction are what’s needed, not another bloody discount coupon.

Meanwhile, brand people tend (again, I stress: tend) to be more results focused. Corporate communicators can talk for hours about the intricacies of pharma pricing or preferred climate change mitigation mechanisms. However, while wooing analysts – and their bosses – with their know-how, they often fail to think about, let alone measure, whether they are having a genuine impact on awareness, influence or sales. They often act as if metrics were somehow beneath them, arguing that their environments are too complex to measure. Tosh. Given that brand folk don’t have much knowledge to woo their bosses with, they need to impress through results. So they have clear, measurable objectives that all activities stem from. Although I many not agree with some brand folks’ preferred metrics (often short-term awareness and sales rather than long-term preference and advocacy) at least we know whether they’re meeting objectives and they are held accountable.

There you have it: brand folk, do more reading and don’t treat customers like fools; corporate, get off your high horse and determine whether you’re having an impact or just making noise.


A visual from a recent presentation of mine on stages of digital and social media maturity in corporate communications (including public affairs):

digital & social in corp comms

p.s. if you’re still in basic, fret not: 90% of the organisations I come into contact with are. This is fine, as long as there’s a vision for where the bar should be set (i.e. intermediate then advanced).

Returning from Brussels on my customary trek last week, I did something a bit silly. Probably driven by exhaustion. And my chronic impatience with authority figures. Especially when I think they’re strutting their feathers to feed their narcissism.

The backdrop. When arriving at St Pancras station from the continent, UK Border Police sometimes asks to see your passport and ticket. Apparently this is due to the Lille loophole. Someone with a Brussels-Lille ticket could conceivably stay on the train past Lille and enter the UK illegally, if they are a non-EU citizen and are unentitled to be in the UK.

I have never understood why they ask EU citizens to show their tickets. EU citizens have a right to be in the UK even if only bearing a Brussels-Lille ticket. Surely Eurostar, not the border police, should care whether you have the right ticket (I assume?)

Hence why I always ask why they want to see my ticket, given that I am an EU citizen. Answers have varied from “I don’t know” to “it’s the Lille loophole” to “the UK has a strict asylum policy” to “I can tell you, but I’d have to kill you” (best reply ever). Clearly none of these answers are satisfactory (apart from the latter, clearly). I suppose the honest answer would be “I have no idea what countries are in the EU so I had best check all tickets and passports.”

Here’s what happened to me last week:

  • Border Police (BP): Can I see your ticket?
  • Me: Sorry but why do you need to see my ticket?
  • Me: But why. I’m a Danish citizen; I believe I’m entitled to be here, why do you need to see my ticket?
  • Me: But why? You’re wasting everyone’s time by asking EU citizens to show their tickets.
  • BP: OK, TAKE A SEAT OVER THERE (pointing at bench).
  • Me: (Thinking, shit, I should have showed him my ticket). OK then, here’s my ticket.
  • BP: TOO LATE! (Changes mind about me sitting down). Come with me. (We step behind booth). What do you think this is (signals room around us)?
  • Me: Um…
  • BP: It’s a border! Why do you think I’m asking for your ticket?
  • Me: Because you want to show us ghastly foreigners and Daily Mail readers that you mean business? (Immediate regret, clearly).
  • BP: (Fuming). COME WITH ME! (Takes me to baggage checking area by exits, which is empty. Asks a colleague to observe. Puts on rubber gloves).
  • Me: (Oh dear).
  • BP: Is this your bag?
  • Me: (Phew). Yes. (BP proceeds to open it, slowly removes everything. Looks through all pockets. Looks through all books. Runs weird gadget along inside lining then puts it in machine, which then beeps lots. This takes ages. He snarls at me. I assume he was beaten as a child, has self-esteem issues etc. and really wants to teach me a lesson. I worry a bit).
  • BP: Give me your passport. (Looks through passport – slowly). Do you travel a lot?
  • Me: Yes.
  • BP: Have you ever been arrested or stopped by us?
  • Me: No.
  • BP: Wait here. (Leaves me waiting for 15-20 minutes with other officer near me).
  • Me: (Crap).
  • BP: (Smiling, hands me back my passport). OK now listen. If you’d shown me your ticket and THEN asked me why I was checking your ticket I would have told you. Your manner was suspicious. I see all sorts in my line of work, so I had to check. But you’re fine to go. In future, just do as we ask!
  • Me: I’m sorry, I appreciate I may have come across as rude. I have lived here for a long time and am annoyed with the growing anti-immigrant, anti-Europe nonsense, and I assumed tough border checks were part of all that.
  • BP: Not at all, you’re very welcome in the UK (smiles, shakes my hand, pats me on the back).

Why the volte-face?

Was he first strutting his feathers because I dared to question him – but then having sensed that he’d made me suitably uncomfortable, felt he’d won? Had I truly been suspicious? I look more like a choirboy than a crack dealer, and surely a crack dealer with a bag full of gear would have shown their ticket pronto.

Who knows. In any case, lesson learned. Count to 10 next time. It’s probably not a Daily Mail inspired conspiracy. More likely, they’re instructed to check tickets due to the Lille loophole. And given that they can’t be expected to know all EU member states, they’re told to check ALL tickets.

I’m bored of hearing how people “don’t get it.” Supposedly, people do not do data mining, advanced analytics, mad large-scale content programmes or community management across every imaginable channel (or whatever) because they’re too thick to see the value.

Sure, some people are obtuse. But most aren’t.

Perhaps they work in a highly scrutinised sector and have weighed up benefits and risks, and decided that for the moment, it’s not worth the risk.

Perhaps they’re doing just fine and have other priorities for the time being: they’re still making money (if they’re a business) or otherwise succeeding (a politician winning elections, a fundraiser raising funds, an activist winning over public opinion).

Perhaps budgets are tight and they find they get more bang for their limited buck doing other things. They might not just assume this, they might know it for a fact.

Perhaps siloes and cultures are so entrenched, that doing anything beyond traditional is utterly impossible, and what is required is cultural change, not new communications activities.

Perhaps the people trying to peddle the fancy stuff are doing it badly: are they making it seem smart, strategic, achievable, scalable and can they prove ROI?


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