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

Talk about the application of digital and social media in Brussels-based EU public affairs often centres on the potential for grassroots mobilisation, citing one or more of the following:

  • At national level, citizens are politically active online across the EU; given that they’re using the same social networks, the advent of the European Citizens’ Initiative, and activist sites like Avaaz are uniform and multilingual, pan-European campaigns should be on the up.
  • In part through digital means, citizens have dramatically reversed the tide on issues that seemed set in stone e.g. ACTA and fish discards.
  • Even corporate-led public affairs is veering towards greater engagement with downstream players e.g. consumers, retailers and unions, who are more able and willing to mobilise constituents.
  • Online grassroots mobilisation is inherent in US politics and where they start we tend to follow.

There’s some truth in all of the statements above, but they largely ignore the following:

  • On many (most?) Brussels issues, there is no major public interest angle; the sexy stuff (health, education etc.) is largely dealt with at national level.
  • EU policy-making remains more technical and less political than it is at national level. Unless an issue has become highly politicised, technical know-how and the ability to navigate expert groups and comitology is key to success.
  • Likewise, EU policy-making is more consensus-based than at national level; the ability to come with solutions that can form the basis of consensus is valued more highly than public support (again – unless this is considerable).
  • On the corporate side – let’s be frank – even if there’s a public interest angle, players are often on the wrong side of the public debate and thus have no interest in raising volume levels.

Does this make digital and social irrelevant in public affairs? No, but in most instances, focus should be on other elements of the digital/social suite, for instance:

  • Basic content and search: successful public affairs requires timely provision of relevant communications material; this needs to be available online (and must be easy to locate) but too often it is not.
  • Intelligence: various online intelligence tools and techniques should be applied more broadly e.g. network analysis technology can help map and prioritise relevant networks of influence.
  • Social business: a frequent complaint about business lobbyists is that they know the dossiers inside out but not enough about the business they represent; similarly, PA professionals complain that their business counterparts don’t value their work. Improved internal collaboration networks, one of the hallmarks of social business, could help both ways.
  • And…. the digital & social ethos: given the complexity of the subject matter and the background of most public affairs professionals (i.e. policy/politics not strategic communications), PA is too often knowledge – not strategy and outcome – focussed, making too much PA output dull and ineffective. In digital and social, given online information overload, highly discerning audiences and greater internal scrutiny, output must be strategy based, creatively executed, social by design and measurable – or it just won’t work.

Better communications

June 25, 2014

The full-service communications agency – and the generalist communicator – face a number of challenges.

The communications landscape

Media complexity:  it goes without saying that channel proliferation, low barriers to entry and information overload conspire to make reach, engagement and persuasion more difficult.

Evolving service offering: media complexity, coupled with the continuing commoditisation or insourcing of previously lucrative activities (from monitoring a few years back to the likes of community management now) means that the service offering needs to constantly adapt and expand.

The nature of opinion formation: communications alone cannot dictate opinion formation (which then shapes reputation, purchasing decisions etc.) Peer recommendations matter, so product quality needs to be optimal, obviously. In addition, an organisation’s behaviour can dictate opinion, and communicators are often powerless to affect areas that shape it, like culture, leadership, structure and business model, either because they don’t have the skill-set or a seat at the right table (usually both).

Specialisms: scores of agencies specialise in individual elements of the communications landscape; their ability to focus means they’ll invariably be best at what they do. Do-all agencies and generalists struggle, given the sheer number of specialisms. In the “beyond communications” space, dedicated digital transformation and change management players, as well as professional services companies moving into the intersection of their traditional offering and communications, present a real threat.

Culture

Enduring paradigms: in my previous stomping ground, Brussels, the government relations paradigm was seemingly shatterproof; in London, media relations still rules the roost (get a headline in a paper and self-satisfied back-patting ensues). Unless an organisation truly commits to specialising, focusing on a single component of the communications suite is too narrow given the intricacies of modern-day communications.

Measurement as an afterthought: the metrics for success in PR/PA used to be basic, not much beyond a story in a target publication (PR) or a meeting with a decision-maker (PA), for instance. Now, organisations demand measurement set against real business objectives. Despite some improvement and all manner of models, sophisticated measurement is not yet the norm.

Low bar-setting in execution: possibly due to the simplicity of traditional outputs of communications e.g. the press release, communicators too often fail to raise the bar for elements of our work where the output itself needs to be exceptional e.g. gorgeous creative or highly insightful research.

Rudimentary approach to assessing opinion formation: as a follow-up to the previous point, communicators too frequently fail to adopt a methodical approach to assessing what makes people tick (what makes them support a cause, make a purchasing decision etc.) Pollsters and market researchers have been doing it for decades, yet communicators in the PR/PA space have bizarrely neglected it.

So what do we – agencies, generalist communicators – do about it?

The obvious: hire specialists and pick up tricks from other disciplines (marketing, political campaigning, management consulting etc.)

Genuine commitment to partnering: this should already be rife, especially within the giant marketing and communications conglomerates where scores of agencies supposedly share their specialisms and guarantee economies of scale, but it’s not ubiquitous yet. No surprise, given that the prevalent business model still favours keeping work in-house.

Eradicate the junior generalist: not literally, but a young communicator who isn’t specialising in a particular discipline of communications is an anachronism, given the complexities described above. Assuming they’re talented, experienced counsellors can still be generalists, as their role should centre on translating business problems into strategy. So knowing what the smorgasbord of specialties without actually being an expert in any of them can suffice. But what good is an inexperienced junior whose role is to execute, when they’re expected to do so across multiple disciplines, non of which they’ll ever master.

Phase out the alpha fixer: too many experienced communicators belong to the school of the alpha fixer – confident, with a quick and irrefutable answer to every concern. Given the complexities of the communications landscape, the alpha fixer cannot know it all, and should change tact. Their role should be to ask the right questions, translate business problems into strategy, then point to the experts within specialisms.

I’ve been mostly London-based for just over 6 months now. Three divergences in the practice of Public Affairs have stood out for me so far (although there are many more):

1. Media matters

Few truly pan-European publications exist (the FT and the Economist to some extent), while Brussels-EU media are information aggregators or news sources more than reflections of – or shapers of – public opinion. So when trying to influence an EU-level decision-maker via media, the PA professional either has to target pan-European publications (difficult – story needs to be bloody good) or go via national press (virtually impossible at scale – trying to do media in up to +20 markets requires more resource than PA teams tend to have). There’s a place for media in Brussels, but in a single national market with a concentrated, established suite of leading media outlets, media relations is easier (although by no means easy) and more impactful.

2. Sheer number of stakeholders

The bane of Brussels: finding someone who cares. Stakeholders i.e. people or organisations with a stake in your issue, largely only exist at national level. Obviously. This leaves Brussels PA folk with a variety of challenges. How to get national level stakeholders to take a real interest in Brussels? How to not offend by using too many stakeholders from a single member state, or only large member states, or only rich member states? In the UK, most stakeholders you’re interested in tend to care about the issue, and to boot, they’re usually not too far away.

3. Polling as a PA tool

Most issues in Brussels don’t have much of a public angle: they’re often too technical or niche for a wider audience to take any real interest. This almost always makes polling an irrelevance as a PA tool: why poll people, ostensibly in the hope of showing that you have public support, when the public knows nothing about your issue? Alternatively, there may be a public interest angle, but how are you going to poll across multiple member states without breaking the bank? In a national market, there’s almost always a public interest angle, plus polling is more economical to carry out, making it a far likelier PA tool (assuming you have a fair share of public support, clearly).

I suppose the overarching theme is that shaping the environment in which policy making happens is more prevalent in London – and other national markets no doubt – than in Brussels. Effective government relations alone tends to not be enough to win, making the practice of Public Affairs a broader – and I’d argue, interesting – exercise.

For the communicator whose focus has been applying digital and social to corporate communications, efforts have tended to centre on building foundations:

  • Evangelism – continually proving the value to internal audiences, given the peculiarities of corporate communications (smaller audiences and a – supposedly – more cerebral message)
  • Channel strategy – given the niches, channel strategy has been front of mind as the corporate communicator has tended to be unsure of the value of most channels and usually wants to only be present on one or two
  • Operations – corporate communications teams tend to be small; how can they, operationally, manage online content and engagement given the stress it places on resources
  • Governance – corporate communicators are the guardians of reputation and their remit covers crisis, so clear governance has always been imperative

Although many organisations are still grappling with the foundations, others have got those boxes ticked. So the token digital and social person in the room now frequently needs to address other needs which represent the next phase of digital in corporate communications: doing it bloody well. Most of all, this involves:

  • Planning – the insights and ideas piece. We’re producing content, but so is everyone else. What’s the target audience insight that matters most, and what’s a smart idea for getting their attention and influencing their views?
  • Creative – how can the smart idea best be presented?
  • Subject matter knowledge – whereas knowing the channels and the principles has usually been enough, the person wearing the digital hat is also expected to understand the issue and/or sector in question more than has previously been the case

In effect, in the latter scenario, the digital person in corporate communications is no more. Basic planning, creative and subject matter knowledge don’t stem from knowledge of digital; they’re the hallmarks of a competent communications generalist. Purely “digital” people tend now to be experts in a single element of digital (a single component of social, user experience, listening etc.) As for the generalists, they should be removing “digital” from their job titles.

There are staple questions in corporate communications, such as:

  • What’s the broader business imperative?
  • What’s the communications goal that will support the business imperative?
  • What’s the audience (implicitly meaning, who should we be trying to ultimately reach, or influence in order to gain their support?)

All very well, but we too often fail to flesh out the audience questions; we should also be asking:

  • An audience is never entirely uniform: what are the audience segments?
  • What are the values, traits and habits of each audience segment?
  • Can each audience segment be influenced at all?
  • If so, based on their values, traits and habits, what is likely to influence each segment? 
  • How do they consume information?
  • How will our opponents target the same audiences?
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