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, most likely 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)?
- 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.