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.

Message is not strategy

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.

Social purists claim that one-way corporate communications and message control are a relic of a bygone era; dinosaurs (in grey suits, no doubt) rigidly hold on to them because they know no better, or because they’re cynically defending their grip on power from the onslaught of democratised communication. In the purists’ mind, communicators should embrace open dialogue – “the conversation” – and complete transparency in all fora. By doing so, people (employees, customers, regulators – whoever!) will supposedly be happier and outcomes (product or service quality, product/service development, political momentum – whatever!) will be exponentially superior.

I do agree with the premise: embrace social or wither (at some point but probably not tomorrow). The global market place, universally accessible channels of communications, and a (gradual) shift towards warm and fuzzy values mean two things for business: amplified expectations of quality, service as well as ethics; and greater scrutiny, both internally and externally. In practice, they now compete globally with instant benchmarking just a click away, so products and services have to be excellent to in order to sell; companies that demonstrate sustainable practices (themselves and their supply chain) do better than those that don’t; talented employees need to be coddled or they’ll be snapped up by competitors on LinkedIn; and regulators will bite unless organisations are on the right side of the public debate and can prove it. To handle this complexity and the change it entails, enhanced understanding across a variety of internal and external functions is required. Leadership, product development, talent retention, customer care, sales and marketing, public affairs, supply chain management and the actual supply chain itself are suddenly intertwined. It’s clearly a big deal and communications needs to play a central role.

This is the point at which I take issue issue with the social purists and the utter sanctity of “the conversation” as an end in itself, largely for two reasons.

It reduces social to engagement on social networks, which is not doing it justice. Yes, collaboration and/or dialogue on social networks can improve functions ranging from product development through to customer care and marketing, sometimes drastically. But the buck does not stop there: social represents more than actual dialogue. Social data can provide a mammoth, global yet hyper-local, real-time market research and intelligence tool (3 PR buzzwords in one sentence – shoot me now). It can drive strategy and/or innovation more than conversation: think Apple, who don’t openly converse, but still no doubt harness social to measure reach and impact, gauge market conditions, manage risk, benchmark the competition and what-not. Moreover, digitising processes through social can improve efficiencies, reducing cost and frustration in equal measure, while potentially improving real business stuff like production, distribution and speed to market. Again, this does not entail people actually chatting, but executing run-of-the-mill activities using social channels e.g. delivering basic information and sharing knowledge through to managing the supply chain more efficiently day-to-day. It may not be as sexy as crowdsourcing, but might be more likely to improve the bottom-line.

It belies human nature. As odd as hyper-connected digiratis might find it, most people do not feel comfortable with engagement. Indeed, most people use social channels to be informed, not to share and engage (over 90% some claim -hence why content marketing is now arguably more prevalent than community management). People with certain character-traits can dominate online conversation, resulting in in people being left out, most probably the inexperienced, people on either extreme of the age gap (youngest and oldest), introverts or those from more intrinsically hierarchical cultures. If the spirit of social embraces democratisation, obsessing about open dialogue is not the only way to go about it: social should be more of a mind-set than a set of channels; it should embrace openness, transparency and freedom to opine in whatever medium a person is comfortable with, perhaps even (shudder) face-to-face conversation.

In corporate communications and public affairs, we often look at clever political campaigns and admire their ability to utilise the web to build support from the ground up and – sometimes – drive public opinion.

One mistake we often make at this point however is to gush at the ability of these campaigns to build communities of support on social networks, assuming this represents the silver bullet.

Providing material and engaging on social networks, if done well, can no doubt help position a person or entity, galvanise existing supporters and reach new ones.

But in top-tier political campaigning, social media is more powerful not for its role in community building, but as a source of data. Using social data to scrutinise audiences can allow political campaigns to micro-target based on very specific touch-points shared by small segments of people. The online outreach tool of choice at this stage is then often email, as it is a 1-on-1 channel and can be entirely tailored, unlike social networks, which still ultimately rely on “spray and pray” of single broader messages, with the added bonus of dialogue.

Communicators looking to segment and micro-target to this extent face challenges: micro-targeting is complex and expensive and thus beyond the means of most, years of neglect and data protection laws mean we often have poor email lists, and moreover, it’s difficult to match email addresses and social data – it is frequently a manual and inaccurate exercise.

But the lessons remain evident: email is still very useful, an email database can be a very valuable asset, and social should be harnessed as a source of data as well for building community.

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)?

  1. 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.
  2. Fight an ethical battle; build legitimacy passionately not rationally, and don’t be afraid of getting into a scrap.
  3. 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.
  4. Don’t just rebut your opponent’s position: create an alternative narrative rather than seeking to reframe the prevailing one.
  5. If you do rebut, don’t belittle the recipient: you know where they stand and see their point, but beg to differ.

Social business by accident

February 20, 2015

I’ve recently come across organisations – one medium sized and one large – that are embracing social business* by accident. Meaning that they are harnessing the collaborative nature of social media for both external and internal communications ends, in these cases specifically by crowd sourcing stories and a cross border/silo communications pilot run on an enterprise social network. By having no method to the madness, I’d argue two of the cornerstones of social business remain unheeded:

  • In social business by accident, social media is another tool used to help meet a communications objective. Real social business incorporates social in other areas of business (where relevant) e.g. R&D, talent development and risk management, and consequently has greater overall value to a business.
  • Given that real social business invariably involves new business practices, the flattening of silos, new forms of collaboration across all business units, and greater transparency and scrutiny –  a substantial cultural shift is required within any organisation that embarks on it. That shift makes organisations well-placed to succeed in a hyper-connected world. Social business by accident doesn’t.

* Social business, as defined by Altimeter, is “a set of visions, goals, plans and resources that align social media initiatives with business objectives.”

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