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?

A lot has been written recently on how political bias defines prevalent viewpoints on two of the most scrutinised issues of the day: climate change and GMOs.

In particular, this question is posed: why do people who define themselves as left of centre believe that climate change is real, citing good science, while being almost universally anti-GMO, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus being that GMOs are safe and beneficial?

Probably because a more dominant component of the traditional left of centre worldview takes over i.e. mistrust of big business. Given that GMOs are seen as a product of big business, and contribute to their profits, the science is overridden.

What’s the communications slant on this?

The GMO case is one of many where companies ignore human nature in favour of rationality. In that industry, and countless others, when looking to defend themselves against attack or, more broadly, to manage their reputations, they argue at the wrong level, basing argumentation on fact, ideally backed by science.

But what’s really under attack is often not the facts themselves, but the legitimacy of a profit-making organisation. So what should companies do? Grossly oversimplified, the following: foster a culture where being nice, honest and engaged trumps all; then communicate that culture through real people, not highly polished corporate speak.

I’ve often heard corporate communicators representing organisations under attack cite one of these three approaches and declare that they’ll turn a corner as long as they aggressively pursue it:

  1. No one understands what we do. “We’ve been too quiet and have not explained exactly what we do – when people understand how we operate, they’ll be supportive.”
  2. Fact vs. fiction. “There are too many falsehoods being perpetuated by critics. We need to rebut these far more actively, ideally using 3rd parties.”
  3. Draw a line the sand. “By being too quiet, we’ve let critics get away with murder. Enough is enough. Let’s send in the artillery and attack the opposition.”

The truth:

  • 3 is unlikely to work: belligerence makes things worse.
  • There’s nothing inherently wrong with 1 and 2, but they don’t work in isolation. If both are practiced simultaneously, and with great skill, they’ll buy some time.

So what does work?

  • If 1 really is true i.e. “no one understands what we do”, a campaign outlining how the organisation operates is not enough. There are probably deeper cultural realities that need addressing: why does no one know what it does? Presumably, they’ve appeared secretive, conceited or combative over the years (possibly all 3). Beyond information provision, a more deep-rooted change in tone and manner is vital: transparency, humility and a willingness to answer questions need to be palpable, with real people at the forefront, not just the polished spokesperson.
  • If there is no truth at all in 1 i.e. if the organisation in question operates in a space in which no amount of cultural change and information provision can improve a damaged reputation, the communicator is fairly powerless. Reputational enhancement can only come about through significant business change i.e. dropping an unpopular product or service, or adapting the operating model or parts of the supply chain. Clearly, these sorts of big decision are C-suite remit and thus (usually) beyond the communicator’s jurisdiction. Unless real change is likely, the communicator is left fighting fires and attempting to stall the inevitable.

I developed the digital public affairs wheel a couple of years ago, which does a decent job of summarising how digital can support the three main components of execution in Public Affairs i.e. intelligence gathering, message delivery and relationship/coalition building. What it misses is the background stuff i.e. the unseen work which makes the execution actually work. To this end, I think the following 3 + 3 split works quite nicely i.e. you still have the execution (the “seen”) but in parallel we have the “unseen.”

digital public affairs

Heard recently: “how would we target a digital audience?”

Although there’s far more overlap these days, most communications specialisms still focus on an explicit audience: public affairs on stakeholders who impact policy-making, brand marketing on end-consumers, and so forth.

But there’s no such thing as a “digital audience.” Digital is horizontal, straddling every communications discipline, and should therefore be ingrained in each.

The fact that the question is still asked, however, helps to explain why some communications professionals still feel comfortable omitting digital from their toolkit: if a “digital audience” is something entirely different, it’s for someone else to worry about.

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