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.
December 4, 2014
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.
October 15, 2014
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.
March 15, 2014
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.
February 15, 2014
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.