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.”

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.

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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