I am often asked something along the following lines: “I need to convince 50 key decision-makers in Brussels about our position. My colleagues deal with others (stakeholders at national level, media, customers etc.) I’m sure digital/online/the web/social media (take your pick) is important to them because their audiences are big, but is it relevant to me given that my remit is just the 50?”

Quick answer: yes, it’s always relevant, but how and why varies according to the nature of your issue and how the 50 operate online.

My two key points are as follows:

99% of MEPs use online search to conduct research on policy and 80% read interest group sites (FH’s EP Digital Trends Survey, 2011). Your audience of 50 will fit in there so you need good online content when they look you or your issue up i.e. you need a content strategy first and foremost. And here’s the first key consideration in your strategy: content type, should your arguments be more technical or value based? Is your dossier highly technical and not of interest to anyone beyond the bubble? In that case, keep your arguments technical (but do simplify, not all readers are experts.) Is your dossier linked to a mainstream issue that at least some part of the public knows or cares about? Then your audience of 50 won’t care about technical argumentation because they’ll likely align with public opinion no matter how good your meticulously researched data is. You have to – as far as possible – show that you reflect public interest and make your argument more value-based (health, safety, environment, personal freedom, personal gain, human-interest etc.) And it’s imperative to hook up with the aforementioned communicators targeting other audiences and look at how, together and over time, you can work at enhancing brand and reputation. Yes, that means looking outside the Brussels comfort zone.

The other part is: how do you then deliver the content to the 50? Online at least, the only words on people’s lips seem to be social media, but that’s only part of the equation. The key is being found through search: all decision makers search via Google, few tweet or use Facebook to interact with constituents, let alone interest groups. So a search strategy is usually step number one. Step two is to assess if social media engagement with the 50 is viable. How? See if the 50 blog or tweet, and then assess how they do so. If they use them infrequently and as one-way channels, don’t bother. If you spot one or more of the 50 sharing information and thoughts with others, then make an effort to connect and tentatively provide value back.

Originally, this post was meant to include the image below and a couple of bullets. Went overboard, but here’s the visual anyway:

A few acquaintances looking to recruit people with digital expertise for positions in Public Affairs have recently asked me what sort of profile I’d recommend. Not the easiest of questions: digital PA people are few and far between, given that it’s a new field, so candidates usually have to be selected based on a good balance of skills gained from other disciplines, rather than spot on relevant experience. Plus there are many areas within digital which are relevant to PA – strategy, intelligence gathering and analysis, community engagement, operational, measurement etc. – and one person won’t usually cover the lot.

Nonetheless, here are my thoughts on what I’d look out for if I were looking for a first digital PA hire with a balanced skill-set, but primarily focused on strategy and a good understanding of how to integrate traditional PA practices and digital.

Digital PA is not as “whacky” as online consumer PR, digital marketing and the like. Most issues are niche which means you tend not to have a critical mass of people to play around with, which tends to be where the whacky stuff comes in (community building, user generated content etc.) Don’t get me wrong, campaigns within PA can potentially include the full suite of online tactics, but usually not. The key is usually to not get too carried away: have a good listening set-up, sound content strategy aligned to your offline narrative, and a search strategy. Sometimes more, but often not.

For this reason, I’d argue the following:

Don’t go for the super eager early adopter: the person who is on 12 social networks and has 15,000 followers on Twitter. They’ll sound like they know their stuff, and they probably will. However, as good as they’d be at other online pursuits, they may well struggle with digital PA as they’ll likely look too much at how to harness the power of networks. For tiny niche issues on which you’re trying to communicate subtly (and slightly below the radar), you don’t need that just yet. In fact, in digital PA, it might even hinder the more measured, cerebral approach which is often required. If you happen to find a geek, rather one who is into politics then technology rather than the other way around.

Beware of the PA professional who has developed a sudden interest in digital. If they’ve grown to realise that government relations plus the odd press release is the Public Affairs of a bygone age and comms is becoming increasingly important (including digital) then fine. If it’s just digital, beware: they’ll tempt you through their mastery of PA and enthusiasm for digital, but they’re unlikely to have a holistic view of communications in which government relations and digital are just two elements amongst many others.

Likewise, beware of the PA professional who has dealt with ICT issues and thus thinks they can do digital. Some agencies have (bizarrely) put digital communications under the remit of their ICT experts assuming that given that you’re dealing with technology, surely it’s all the same. These people know what Facebook and Google are up to but won’t know how to reach an audience through them.

Instead, do look out for generalists who like communications and politics and appreciate where the two intertwine. They should be comfortable with technology, but not obsessed with it. Where are you most likely to find them? Probably not in politics or digital marketing. Possibly in existing PA roles with a strong generalist comms remit rather than government relations. Most likely, in media and PR.

Good effort, although the video is presumably missing some valid counter-claims the bankers are making. I don’t know, I haven’t followed the issue. Nevertheless, my first thought was: there must be potential in breaking rank and being the first bank to say “yes it’ll cost us, but the reality is that we can make a difference, and so we’re supporting the tax.” Sort of what BP did in the 90s when admitting that climate change was real, which swiftly transformed them from the worst to the best of a bad bunch in public perception terms.

Again, I don’t know the ins and outs, but on the surface, given the ever-increasing value consumers place on good corporate citizenship, the vitriol that’s still aimed at banks and bankers following the credit crunch, and frankly, the fact that a bank’s a bank i.e. there often isn’t that much that differentiates them, isn’t this a fantastic positioning opportunity?

Weber Shandwick recently ran a survey in which they found that UK consumers under the age of 35 are far more likely to be influenced by newspapers than those over 45. By some margin too. So the myth that younger people consume endless amounts of online media but won’t ever be reached offline can safely be dismissed. Another feather in the cap for an integrated approach to communications.

Slight tangent on the topic of demographics and the web: I’d urge you to have a look at Forrester’s Social Technographics graph, which showcases internet users’ behaviour based on how they consume and produce content online, from those that merely read, right through to those who regularly publish. Forrester also have a consumer profile tool which allows you to view the data based on various age groups, sex and country (13 so far.) What am I getting at? That traditional demographic trending used in marketing goes out the window when it comes to the web. If you’re an organisation looking to reach a certain target group online, choosing the right message and channel – and the sort of engagement or other behaviour you can expect – is a far more complex exercise than you might previously have imagined, and requires some skill to get just right.

I came across an article on Euractiv which I’d missed earlier this summer entitled Business warned against ‘uncoordinated’ PA strategies which makes interesting reading. In short, it states that aggressive communications can put companies at risk and that Public Affairs and Corporate Communications strategies should be more closely aligned.

I could not agree with the latter more (or the former for that matter, but I’ll save that topic for a rainy day.) I’d probably even take it a step further. I think all communications activities, including marketing, should be under the same roof and closely integrated. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but how can a legislator take a lobbyist seriously if he’s saying one thing while an EU media campaign is saying another and the ad in a trade magazine aimed at customers something else?

The web also makes integration more crucial than it’s been before. How? In particular, the nature of search (how +90% of information is accessed online) is such that it’s harder to compartmentalise according to target audiences online than it is offline. Look up a key term on Google and you’ll find the same thing wherever you’re a customer or policy-maker, pauper or CEO.

So what’ll the landscape look like in a few years? Even more so than is the case in forward-thinking organisations today, communications, be it PR, marketing, PA, advertising and so on, will be in the same building, have one boss and one strategy; and what’s more, they’ll be more closely connected to the “business” operations arm of the organisation than is the case today.

In the four pillars I’ve been raving about recently, I speak of an almost “organic” growth towards a community if you have the right building blocks in place and do the right things. Meaning that if you listen and bring together information, start using social media effectively, enabling stakeholder dialogue, this can eventually develop into a community of people who act as mobilisers on your behalf.

Abstract example of how the model should ideally work:

  • My organisation does wonderful things but nobody knows.
  • I start finding out what people are talking about in my sector or on my issue and who might be interested in the things I do. I bring them together.
  • I start engaging with them online, humbly, and they like me and get excited about what I do because they feel I have something to offer.
  • More people are brought in; they talk and engage.
  • Eventually, I have a community of people excited about what I do who help me spread my message, attract members or maybe even advocate my take on an issue.

However, this is the point at which I want to announce my warning: it’s really not that easy; your community will not be totally self-sustaining. Maybe it won’t need you, but fact of the matter is that you need someone to “feed” the community. Even community benchmarks from across the field from say Ben and Jerry’s Facebook group to Barack Obama’s online platform worked because people engaged and spread the word, but they both needed people from the campaigns themselves to listen, respond, feed information, and generally animate. Again, it needn’t be you; it just needs to be someone who takes charge. On Firefighternation (one of my personal favourites) it’s active firefighters who are not necesarrily the founders who have taken the lead in animating their community.

In marketing, companies have made the journey from being brand-focused, to now being ever more consumer-centric (didn’t make this up; I heard it as recently as this morning in a podcast with Saacthi CEO Kevin Roberts.) In practice, companies are increasingly looking to create outstanding products and services that are easy to use or that match the most intricate customer needs. By doing so, they can instill in their customers a sense of loyalty which a branding approach alone could not achieve. Consumers are more cynical now; creating a fantastic brand which conjures up abstract images (I too can be the Marlboro Man if I smoke Marlboro reds) won’t work on its own anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. Branding still matters. But people expect the world, and no amount of smart branding can prevent a non-customer-centric company from appearing distant or to fail to meet the “what’s in for me/does it really do everything I could possibly want” tests.

Can we transfer this thinking to the world of issues, where companies and other organisations don’t try to sell directly but are looking to influence the general public and other stakeholders in order to showcase their activities in a positive light?

Certainly. Organisations need to be customer-centric on two fronts now: in terms of the tangible goods and services they produce, as described above, but also by matching customers’ demands for organisations to do good things and for their goods and services to be more sustainable. They reward companies that are doing their bit for their communities or the wider environment; to the expense of companies that aren’t although they might make fancier shoes (or whatever.) What’s more, this trend is accelerating, and customers are also citizens whose whims legislators are responding to at a fast growing rate.

So what should you do to remain customer/citizen-centric on both fronts? For a start, do the right thing, full stop (or start heading in the right direction.) No amount of smart PR (or branding..) will make you seem nice when you”re really not. Modern-day customers are too smart and cynical. Next, communicate on the customer’s turf rather than where you can make a big splash. Go where customers and citizens themselves are, listen to their concerns and respond to them. Meaning that you may need to spend more time looking at iPhone apps, Facebook, Twitter et al than getting into your paper of choice or getting on a billboard at the airport.

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