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.”

Given that there’s lots of overlap between the two, and the fact that the toolkit for each is the same, we often fail to differentiate between campaigning and communicating. But we should.

Campaigning has a single goal and an end-point (e.g. an election, a parliamentary vote, a product launch). It tends to be about framing or reframing the prevailing view (or in the case of defensive campaigning, defending against someone who is). Timeframes are usually tight. Campaigning is a slog and most top campaigners are tough and combative.

Communicating is an ongoing endeavour with no specific cut-off point. It should centre on maintaining (and gradually improving) relationships and the status quo over time. The best communicators are patient, and are as good at listening as they are at getting heard.

Most organisations invariably need to do both, often at the same time, so does this matter? Yes. Longer term communications builds the foundations for successful campaigns. And in practical terms, strategy, process, team composition and urgency will likely need to differ – often radically.

I’ve heard this statement in various guises over the years. Supposedly, non-profits win over public opinion by duping gullible citizens through emotive, exaggerated if not outright false tales, which compels decision-makers to approve regulation that unfairly and disproportionately damages business.

When corporates think so-called emotive campaigning makes up the entirety of the activist’s toolkit and leave it at that, they’re guilty of malpractice. And I doubt most citizens are quite as dim as they think.

We’ll overlook two pertinent factors:

  1. Corporates do quite often win. Indeed, market power scale (i.e. job creation and investment) has been proven to be a key determinant of decision-making at EU level.
  2. Non-profits don’t always peddle misinformation: they’re often on the right side of the public debate based on hard fact (think CFCs) although I appreciate this is not always the case (think GMOs, where pseudo-science and demonisation largely trump reality).

Instead, let’s look at a few areas where non-profits, especially those that are larger and more professionalised (including foundations) often do better than most (not all) of their corporate counterparts.

  1. Picking the right battles

Public affairs professionals are always oh so busy working on their 20 dossiers. No one can fight, let alone win 20 battles. Non-profits are vocal about some things but not others because they pick their battles well: they select those they think they can win. I appreciate it may be easier said than done, but corporates should be looking at their issues and determining which are most commercially beneficial AND winnable, and focus on those. Also, some companies get hit more than others that make the same products for a similar reason: again, non-profits pick battles they’re more likely to win. They analyse the competition and attack the companies that are worse equipped to retaliate. Methodologies for commercial competitor analysis are well advanced yet in public affairs they’re patently not. Why?

  1. Start early

Public affairs is often reactive, yet in policy-land, the longer one waits, the harder it becomes to win. Corporates need to start reputation building activities early, way before it even looks likely that regulators might strike. As highlighted above, picking the right battles involves identifying vulnerable industries or companies that have failed to build reputational equity; starting early helps to mitigate this (unless the product or service is overtly nasty).

  1. Fund battles properly

One of the great myths of policy-land, which is gladly espoused by NGOs, is that corporates engaging in public affairs are lavishly funded while all non-profits except possibly the foundations trundle along on meagre donations. This is not true. Public affairs is often seen as a mystifying cost centre and tends to actually be underfunded. At the same time, we’ve witnessed significant professionalisation of the NGO sector and new funding mechanisms, coupled with the advent of foundations and the growth of philanthropy. Overall, this has resulted in non-profits often being better funded than corporates.

  1. Study opinion formation

Corporates often do not know what makes their targets tick: how do they form opinions? And by extension, what can we do to get them onside? I hardly know the workings of all non-profits, but I’ve spoken to a fair few that have applied Values Modes to help develop outreach that targets a broader set constituents, not just “people like me” which tended to be the norm. Similarly, plenty of good academic research looks at the nature and determinants of interest group influence at EU level (some of the best is by Heike Klüver). Is any of this type of stuff ubiquitous in corporate circles? Not as far as I know.

  1. Be campaigners

Most NGO folk I know would gladly be defined as campaigners. A campaign denotes an outcome: I campaign in order to bring about said change. They are often subject matter experts, but also know the campaigner’s toolkit inside out, and are diligent students of both. Corporate public affairs practitioners are often subject matter experts but are uncomfortable with campaigning, or communications in general, which tends to make them knowledge rather than outcome focused, to their detriment.

Does media matter?

December 20, 2014

Of course it does, but in terms of influencing public opinion or the extent to which it dictates decision-making, probably less than we think.

In his book about Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003-04, Joe Trippi recounts how he felt following a car crash interview by Dean on Meet the Press: demoralised and sure their campaign was over. It was the first major political campaign to truly harness online grassroots mobilisation and fundraising, yet at that moment, Trippi, who managed the campaign, was guided by an outmoded paradigm: one in which blowing it on Meet the Press meant you’d get lampooned in every other media outlet and you could no longer possibly win an election.

What actually happened? Dean supporters were enraged: they thought the Republican interviewer had been unduly tough and proceeded to increase activity in support of their candidate. Result? Poll numbers and donations went up the week following the interview. Apparently this was the moment in which Trippi realised beyond any doubt that real people could trump traditional networks of influence.

What’s more, this took place more than 10 years ago, before the advent of social networks or ubiquitous and speedy internet access.

What are, still now, the lessons for communicators or campaigners? Not that we should ignore traditional media, but rather, that:

  • We should be channel agnostic.
  • We should be more meticulous in our study of opinion formation. Influence is infinitely more diluted than it was when everyone followed the lead set by parents or neighbours. What really makes people tick?
  • Obviously, we should re-assess influencers. Network analysis done properly can help us define who really carries clout within a constituency or other community.
  • We should measure impact, not reach. Dean’s Meet the Press interview probably reached far more people than any other single piece of content that week, but its impact on poll numbers was the opposite of what most people would have deducted from mere reach.

My digital public affairs wheel includes internal communications as a core component of the public affairs toolkit, which struck some people as odd. I’d argue that good internal communications is imperative for any large scale business conducting public affairs (but admittedly less so for non-profits or SMEs), given the following:

  • PA is often not understood by the wider business and/or seen mainly as a cost
  • The value that PA practitioners bring may be under-appreciated
  • Therefore, the PA function is often underfunded (and overworked) and thus ineffectual
  • At times, PA is not integrated in the wider communications set-up, which may result in perilous misalignment (policy maker hearing one thing from PA but reading another somewhere else originating from Corporate Communications?)
  • Similarly, PA practitioners might not be using thinking and material developed by other communications functions because they sit in different silos
  • Furthermore, PA can be ineffective because it does not contain enough real-world business proof points i.e. it gets caught up in policy-speak not real world outcomes

I have no doubt that leadership prioritisation, good hires, structure and/or silo reduction need to play a role, but I suspect improved internal communications would already go a fair way towards countering each of the points in my list.

A few years back I developed the digital public affairs wheel, linking the three components of day-to-day PA activity (i. delivering a message to policy-makers and other audiences; ii. building relationships with them; iii. gathering intelligence) with relevant online tactics. Basic but useful as it helped start conversations with the right premise: what someone is seeking to do rather than the tactic or channel first.

I’ve updated the wheel to include two further disciplines that the PA professional increasingly needs to handle: campaigning (building and mobilising support) and the oft-overlooked internal (informing and engaging internal stakeholders). It’s a bit messy but I hope it makes sense.

digital public affairs wheel

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