The notion of ‘influencers’ has been all the rage in Brussels recently. Understandably. In the real world, influencer marketing – the practice of teaming up with influential people to help promote an organisation or product – can be highly effective.

The principle of influencer marketing is not new. We’ve all sniggered at grainy ads from the 50s featuring doctors flogging cigarettes that do wonders for a niggly sore throat. And in public affairs, we’ve also been at it for years – think pharma and patient groups, or agrochemicals companies and farmers – but calling it stuff like key opinion leader mobilisation (or whatever).

But in the social media age, the concept of influencer marketing has moved on a notch:

  • It is far easier to build a public platform, so there are simply more people who are influential (as well as plenty more who think they may be, but patently are not)
  • Similarly, it is easier to get an influencer in front of those one is seeking to influence online than it is offline
  • Higher levels of mistrust in entities like industry and media makes credibility harder to attain, and influencers can help

Cue: lots of people, including public affairs practitioners, with high hopes for online influencer marketing.

While not doubting the effectiveness of online influencer marketing when done well, I would urge caution to anyone expecting it to make a massive dent in Brussels. In the marketing world, influence comes from being able to help sell a product. In Brussels, the product for sale is policy impact, usually driven by: the provision of high quality technical information; proof of market power (i.e. the ability to generate jobs and growth); or proof of public support (at least amongst key constituencies). If online influencers can help deliver technical or market power information that supports one’s case but might otherwise not cut through the clutter, or whose reach can be taken as a sign of popular support – then great, they will likely deliver policy influence. But I doubt there are more than a handful of Brussels-based individuals who fit this bill. There may be plenty of people who are followed by the entire bubble and whose stuff gets shared because it is amusing, topical or controversial – but this does not equate to influence.

So should we discard influencer marketing entirely in Brussels? Not quite, but we may wish to alter the paradigm by which we approach it:

  • Online influencers that can influence policy (experts, high-profile green bloggers etc.) do exist, but usually at member state level. So if a key target stems from a country in which an all-powerful online influencer may realistically support your cause, by all means, explore the option.
  • Given how small the Brussels bubble is, the key triumvirate – entity seeking to influence / influential people / target audiences – have fewer degrees of separation between them than in the real world. And sometimes they are the same person. Spokespeople are sometimes cited as influencers, for instance. But are they not also targets? You might be seeking to influence, but are you not just one useful piece of online content away from actually being the influencer yourself?

In summary, for anyone seeking to use the online sphere as a means to influence in Brussels, I’d advise two things:

  1. Do not develop an ‘influencer’ list for Brussels, as there are not enough influencers, and there will be too much overlap between it and your target list. Simply create a target list that doubles up as an influencer list. It should include details on each individual’s online presence, especially a recommendation on how best to reach and leverage each e.g. target directly, target indirectly through paid, engage openly – or indeed, seek to leverage as an influencer.
  2. Try to become influential online yourself rather than seeking intermediaries to carry your message, through a really relevant and high-quality content strategy. Given the dearth of brilliant online content in Brussels – and the reluctance of many otherwise excellent public affairs practitioners to build their ‘personal brand’ online – there are rich pickings to be had.
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Below is a slide I developed for a recent presentation to a lovely collection of my countrymen.

It summaries viable digital tactics across three ‘types’ of public affairs activity:

  1. Technical i.e. classic government relations on a legislative dossier on which experts on every side are wrangling over the details of key texts
  2. Reputation building amongst policy-makers i.e. when an interest group is seeking to build a relationship with policy-makers beyond the technical wrangling through positioning/differentiation
  3. External environment shaping i.e. what Americans often call grassroots – the attempt to influence publics in order to indirectly influence policy

As ever, kind thoughts or even brutal take-downs would be appreciated.

Digital Public Affairs

A recent blog post got wildly out of control, resulting in this eBook. In it, I provide ten short reflections (commandments) that I believe are essential to the successful practice of digital public affairs in Brussels (and beyond).

While there are practical tips in it, it is not intended as a practical guide on channels and best practice. Plenty of practical guides exist already. Somewhat ambitiously, it is more an attempt at further professionalising the practice of digital public affairs in Brussels, by seeking to outline its impact and applications beyond the realm of just channels and tactics, which has sadly been the norm.

I had originally wanted to make this a collaborative effort but ended up writing it myself. In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement, and I would like to publish an update early next year in which I build on a few of the main concepts. So, if you spot anything you disagree with or you believe could be enhanced, please do let me know. It’d be much appreciated.

In public affairs in Brussels, we frequently skip from message to delivery: we blast our preferred message out through various delivery channels, be it face to face, or media, or digital – with little thought to how it will resonate with a target audience, but hoping that some of it will stick. Call it the sledge-hammer method.

Sadly, the bit in between message and the delivery mechanism is often overlooked – i.e. analysing what will drive influence and developing a corresponding strategy.

Why is this the case?

Perhaps it is cultural: we venerate knowledge, from understanding the complexities of the political process to the intricacies of a highly technical dossier, but are less interested in the communications methods required to drive awareness and influence, like audience scrutiny, testing, or measurement.

Or perhaps it is because successful outcomes in public affairs are less clear-cut than in other communications disciplines. While marketers and political campaigners are purely assessed on their ability to sell a product or a candidate respectively, a successful PA result is less clear-cut. There are unambiguous political outcomes, like policy change or the avoidance of harmful legislation, but there are also looser ones, like building a relationship with a policy-maker or establishing a coalition with useful political players. If we are just expected to deliver the latter, there is little reason to do much strategising.

Whatever the case, it’s a shame, as public affairs sells itself short when fixating on technical detail and relationships over truly delivering influence. And frankly, the strategic planning process does not have to be overly difficult. It can simply comprise the following:

  1. Narrowing down objectives to those that are most important and realistic/achievable.
  2. Narrowing down audiences to just those who makes decisions (being very specific).
  3. Figuring out what will influence them (e.g. data, case studies, technical vs. non-technical, centre-left vs. centre-right values, proof of market power, proof of popular support, local, national) + who will influence them (e.g. you, a constituent, an influential person, media) + how they consume information (p.s. if you do not know or cannot hazard a sensible guess on any of the above, ask them).
  4. Re-assessing how realistic and achievable success is.
  5. If indeed it is realistic and achievable, develop a strategy and a corresponding implementation plan.

Easier said than done?

This post is an extract from an eBook I shall be publishing soon: watch this space.

I am frequently asked about social media in the context of some of the more unsavoury phenomena of our age. Such as the rise of assorted populist movements. Or the pseudo-science peddled by some activists, from climate change deniers to the anti-GMO brigade.

Countless items of disinformation disseminated by such people, and their zealous supporters, are seen (and believed) by millions. Some are rebutted, others not; but frankly, once a story is in the open, rebuttals are often drowned out, however fervently the aggrieved parties seek to stand their ground. Some people still insist that Hillary Clinton runs a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlour in Washington DC. Need I say more.

Many quite reasonably ask what on earth we can do about it all. With the (mostly) reputable gatekeepers of old (i.e. traditional media) side-lined, how can we stem the flow of nonsense? Mechanical fixes are touted. Like insisting that Google and Facebook better filter their platforms. Or that they block the financial incentives that encourage people to set up and feed fake news sites (e.g. impeding the likes of the famed Macedonian teenagers that set up fake news sites to generate ad revenue during the US presidential campaign). Facebook in particular has faced scrutiny over the unsavoury ads its platform shows people likely to appreciate that type of thing, and are being called on to make it harder for crazies to advertise.

But whatever fixes are put in place, nonsense will still likely proliferate, as long as audiences are eager to consume it in the first place.

There are two takes on this that are essential:

  1. By scapegoating the internet and looking for quick technical fixes, we ignore the root causes of populism and the triggers that encourage people to disseminate nonsense.
  2. A more sober understanding of what the internet can and cannot achieve might actually be quite helpful.

I am by no stretch of the imagination diminishing the perils of fake information disseminated over the internet. It is a very bad thing indeed. When believed, fake news can convince people on the fence to move to the dark side. And even when not, it contributes to the general sense of rift and disillusionment we face in our public/political arena.

But scapegoating the internet, along with populist politicians (however reprehensible) and the supposedly dumb people who vote for them is far too easy.

Many of the so-called elites – politicians of the non-populist sort, media, and corporates – are the root of their own plight. They have behaved in a manner that has drained public trust and fuelled the populist machine. Expressed differently: they have done more damage to themselves than populists, fake news, demented activists et al – and indeed, have allowed fake information to be plausible in the first place.

The response by the political establishment since the 2007-08 crash has for the most part been grossly insensitive, making it too easy to make the case that elites in ivory towers are the enemy of the common man or woman whose wages have stagnated, or have lost jobs and homes (and presumably plenty of self-respect). In parallel, modern day corporate scandals like Dieselgate, journalists behaving unethically, or the murky dealings of sinister media empires have hardly helped.

Meanwhile, corporations that are targeted by activists peddling pseudo-science, fail to see that in many cases they are targeted because they are easy prey. Organisations that are honest, transparent, and generally good corporate citizens are targeted far less forcefully. The starting point of the victims of pseudo-science, and other illegitimate activist claims, should be ‘how can we first behave, and then secondly, communicate better’; and not ‘pseudo-science and the internet are the sole triggers of all that is wrong in the world.’

Which brings us to the second point, that of a potential silver lining, brought about by a more sober understanding of what the internet can and cannot do. For years, far too many of us believed the internet was the second coming, and would bring about prosperity and world peace for all. Quite literally. Think back to 2011, when many claimed that social media alone was responsible for the Arab Spring and the ensuing loveliness and chorus of group hugs it would produce. Seems so long ago now.

Given events of the last few years, belief in what Evgeny Morozov calls cyber-utopianism – the failure to see the internet’s undesirable side, and believing it to be purely a force for good – has faded. And this is a good thing. It means most of us (hopefully) have a more sober and realistic view of what the internet can achieve. In public affairs and communications terms, this might involve assessing and mitigating risk before we engage in online communications. Or adopting a level-headed integrated strategy that sees digital and social media as a set of useful channels amongst many, rather than insisting on digital first.

Moreover, might the threat of fake news – in part – encourage the derided elite to clean up its act? Is the best defence against fake news not to be the sort of person or organisation that fake news peddlers largely leave alone because they are holier than though? Muck is less likely to stick when thrown at saints, so genuinely behaving well is a far more precious asset than slick spokespeople and pretty communications material.

I live in hope.

This post is an extract from an eBook I shall be publishing soon: watch this space.

When utilising digital to support their programmes, corporate public affairs practitioners often fixate on how it can help deliver information at high speed and volumes. Understandably. Reaching policy folk is a challenge, so the notion of doing it at the click of a button is tantalising.

But it is important to first look beyond information delivery and consider the risks posed by digital, especially its celebrated progeny: social media.

Due to mistrust in elites and shifting societal values, corporations are expected to be paradigms of virtue. If they are not, social media is at hand to let citizens and activists express their discontentment. Moreover, a story can no longer be ‘killed’ given that social media means we have one perpetual news cycle. If a story is big enough, it will keep on running through likes and shares, and be amplified through petitions and campaigns. Social media does not even respect geographic boundaries, with salacious hearsay from a far-away continent likely breaking faster than a less juicy local story.

In public affairs, this all matters because it is now easier for opponents and activists to leverage corporate misdeeds from across the world (real or perceived) to gain political advantage.

Many argue that we should take protest in the digital age with an enormous pinch of salt given how easy it is to express indignation on Facebook or sign multiple petitions (the slacktivist phenomenon). But sometimes online protest does balloon, and with decision-makers eager to convey democratic legitimacy by following the tide of public opinion (and, one would hope, wishing to do the right thing), such protest can sway policy.

The most oft-quoted recent EU examples are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the much-vaunted trade deal between the EU and the US, and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a treaty aimed at cementing international standards for intellectual property rights.

I shall not enter into the merits of either package, but merely say that while both had seemed shoe-ins at the offset, they were derailed by large scale protests which would not have escalated so fast and attracted such numbers were it not for online mobilisation and petitions (Avaaz petitions against TTIP and ACTA were signed by 3.5 and 3 million people respectively).

What to do about it all? Beyond being virtuous corporate citizens, being better equipped to handle the risks posed by the spread of potentially perilous information online is the obvious starting point. This involves a melange of operational and cultural remedies which we shall scratch the surface of here:

  • Public affairs should work closely with counterparts globally – EU functions tend to be quite isolated – and with marketing-communications (not just legal, as is frequently the case). Working with marketing-communications – the main brand and reputation ‘owners’ – will ensure alignment and joint plans on reputation-building (proactive), and the ability to act quickly when trouble arises (reactive).
  • Organisations should make crisis mitigation global and cross-functional. Issue monitoring, scenario planning, and messaging should be shared. In practice, this should help public affairs professionals keep track of events outside their backyard which could affect policy. And vice-versa: knowledge of policy developments which could affect broader reputation will help corporate communicators.
  • Organisations should strive to institute greater transparency, including a willingness to be open and publicly engaged around policy priorities and advocacy activities (on and offline).

Many public affairs practitioners who utilise digital and social media to enhance reach and impact, will at some point ask a variation of this question: “this isn’t working well enough – what should I do better?”

Three handy starting points:

  1. Audience first: I come across countless organisations that invest heavily in digital public affairs, but do not know how their audiences wish to consume information. Simple vs. complex? Offline vs. online? If online: social media vs. long-form? Text vs. audio-visual? Determining what is most useful to audiences, ideally by talking to them, and when considering online channels, examining how they currently use them, is the indisputable starting point.
  2. Don’t waste your time: “audience first” leads neatly onto “don’t waste your time”. I’m frequently asked what online channel someone should be on, what tactics work best, or how frequently they should be publishing. I don’t know. Maybe they shouldn’t be on any channels? Maybe they have an audience of 10 and have them all on speed-dial? Every single communications activity (every tweet, speech, press release, meeting) should fulfil a specific audience need, tied to a specific If it doesn’t tick both boxes – then don’t waste your time; focus purely on activities you know bring results.
  3. Understand best in class: within any given sector or issue, someone has probably sussed out what key audiences require, and is communicating effectively. You’ll usually know who. Analyse them in detail: what do they say, how they say it, who says it, where, how often, and in what tone. We don’t benchmark nearly enough. We should: online communications is largely public, meaning best practice is there for all to see.