There was an embarrassing time a few years back when I’d be invited to meetings with PA folk in Brussels, introduced as a guru or ninja, and be expected to provide an Obama-esque digital strategy that would ensure victory on every lobbying battle around unpronounceable chemical X (or whatever) by the following Tuesday.

The logic was twofold. First, given that online methods could bolster political campaigns by mobilising constituencies who might otherwise have been powerless, this could be translated to public affairs. It ignored the fact that a number of public affairs dossiers in Brussels are technical and uninteresting to the layman, meaning there are limited constituencies to mobilise, or that organisations are often on the wrong side of the public debate. Second, it assumed that access to a whole new set of channels would facilitate message penetration and influence. It would not matter that decision makers were unable to fit yet another meeting in their diary or journalists were unwilling to report on an issue, as we would now be able to circumvent both and reach them via a social network. Magic!

The days of absurd expectations are thankfully long gone, and digital and social media are to some extent better understood and utilised in public affairs across three areas: impact, strategy and execution.

Impact

As implied above, digital and social media are too often seen within the prism of communications outputs i.e. their value in delivering a message (and hopefully imparting influence). Obviously, digital and social media can be useful in this regard, but the excitement clouds what is arguably more critical: their role in making organisations more vulnerable, and the ensuing operational, structural and cultural changes required to mitigate this.

The increased power and zeal of activists, eager and able to drum up public support to defeat legislation, often through digital means, is ever more prevalent. Illustrious examples include ACTA and Fish Fight. In parallel, we face growing mistrust in representatives of the so-called elite, including government and business, amplified through social media.

Result? Eager to convey democratic legitimacy, decision makers follow the tide of public opinion, which can shift fast and unexpectedly. Consequently, public affairs professionals need to operate beyond their previously narrow cocoon and become adept at tracking and ideally shaping the environment in which that opinion is formed, which may involve disciplines that had previously only been the domain of corporate communications, like reputation and crisis management, beyond the geographic domains they are accustomed to.

Broadly speaking, this propels the need for change in three areas in the practice of public affairs:

  1. Improved integration with brand and reputation owners to ensure alignment and joint plans of action, and the ability to act quickly, often by digital means.
  2. Better risk management, including global issue monitoring (mainly online) and more varied scenario planning, looking to circumvent problems arising elsewhere.
  3. Greater transparency, including a willingness to be open and publicly engaged around policy priorities and lobbying activities.

Luckily, many organisations recognise this and are acting accordingly.

Strategy

Strategy in communications need not be complex, but crucially, it needs to explain how to deliver against an objective. Common communications strategies applied to support public affairs ends include: differentiation vs. competition, leveraging an influential supporting constituency, or repositioning vs. a previously held stance.

Amidst the early enthusiasm for digital and social media, outputs too often trumped strategy. “Engaging with stakeholders on social media” or “raising awareness through content marketing” were cited as strategies. They are not: they are methods for delivering information. But information provision is unlikely to drive influence or action if not contained within a strategy that addresses how it is going to do so.

It is not as if digital eradicated strategy in public affairs. We’re traditionally poor at strategy, blinded by the complexity of our issues. This is reflected by the PA professional’s affection for messaging. Countless hours are spent distilling complex issues down to a set of preferred messages, with no inkling of whether they can drive influence or action.

Based on my own experience and what I hear on the grapevine, strategy development based on audience analysis and sensible evaluations of desired vs. likely change is back in vogue. Presumably it has been driven by professionalisation and reduced budgets, meaning PA professionals need to prove the value they bring in € terms more than before. A happy by-product has been the near-extinction of tweeting as strategy.

Execution

PA professionals’ shiny new object affliction resulted in the set-up of multiple social media channels and the production of monumental amounts of content with no strategy or appropriate resourcing. Net result: zero impact, channels with little to no following, and overworked staff wondering why they’re wasting hours every day on a Twitter feed followed by 10 salesmen, 5 bots and a couple of strippers.

Channels are increasingly seen for what they are: just channels, and there is greater realism about what they can achieve. The same goes for content that feeds the channels. There is no value in producing content for multiple channels if we are not driving impact that ultimately helps generate a desired political outcome.

Instead, the right questions are increasingly being asked, and if the answers to these questions indicate that there is value in communicating, but only then, should a PA professional bother. Smart questions include (in some guise):

  • What is our overall strategy and how (if at all) can each channel (on and offline) potentially support it?
  • Where are our audiences active and how do they like to be reached?
  • What are our audience’s needs or pain points? Can communications somehow address these? If so how?

As a result, we are witnessing more sensible use of online channels in support of PA programmes. Twitter feeds that do not try to be everything to everyone but deliver useful information to a specific group that has demonstrated an interest in receiving said information; longer-form online content that fits a specific strategy (e.g. humanising an unpopular organisation or simplifying the complex for non-expert but key audiences); or engagement when those being engaged might actually respond (some journalists and a few youngish MEPs have shown a propensity for exchanging thoughts on Twitter even with the most fervent lobbyists).

Plenty of time and money is still wasted on pointless activity that is passed off as digital public affairs, but does not deliver value i.e. some level of influence on policy. Meanwhile, it is ignored in areas where it could probably deliver greater benefits, like tracking potential issues online or meeting greater demands for transparency; and discounted by some who were starry-eyed a few years ago but disillusioned once a couple of tweets did not magically win a major lobbying battle. But we are certainly a lot closer to realistic, sensible and impactful digital public affairs than just a few years ago.

Clearly everyone’s pining for yet another article on Brexit, so here goes.

The Remain (Stronger In) campaign put in a remarkable shift. Selling an entity as maligned as the EU via a cross-party platform targeting such different communities was bloody challenging to say the least. Assembling 40,000 volunteers and organising 10,000 events was wildly impressive. Their commitment was beyond reproach. Hats off.

But they lost. And annoyingly, a fair few chapters from the campaign 101 handbook appear to have been overlooked.

I write this with the obvious benefit of hindsight, and a caveat: I’m no insider and this is all wild conjecture. And with the knowledge that they probably know the handbook very well indeed, but the campaign was simply too intense and complex to be run by the book, while responsibility for their failure to counter Leave’s emphasis on immigration lay with Labour rather than them.

But still: they lost, and as a pure political campaign, Leave was better. Remain felt like a reactive, spray-and-pray fact delivery mechanism and rebuttal system, rather than a real, targeted political campaign. Perhaps strategists outnumbered genuine campaigners in the Remain camp. While strategists are knowledge and message merchants, campaigners concentrate on targeting and emotional triggers: a prerequisite in a campaign as primal as Brexit/Bremain. Again, wild conjecture, but this could explain why Leave bossed the sound bites (Take back control!) and key campaign frames (Project Fear!)

In a blog post published before the Referendum, the campaigner Chris Rose identified a set of key groups that did not fit within obvious remain or leave clusters but could likely be persuaded to support remain, and were potentially sizeable enough to swing the vote. Utilising values research from CDSM in tandem with Shalom Schwartz’ values model, he wrote the following:

Whoever manages to appeal to values… such as achievement hedonism, stimulation and self-direction, is likely to swing the decision. In political parlance this means establishing a ‘narrative’ of optimism, the prospects of future success, enjoyment and looking good, whether as a country, a business or individually… The benefits of Euro-railing, enjoyment of foreign holidays, making friends and having a good time doing business with Europe, and the endorsement of celebrities for the same, are likely to have more effect on this than any amount of ‘economic argument’.

With a campaign strategy centred almost purely on the economy, this optimistic narrative was sorely missing, although a fair few celebrities did make an appearance (Golden Balls Becks was terrific). I appreciate that telling an unemployed bricklayer in Huddersfield that Euro-railing is ace would result in a bloody nose rather than a cross in the Remain box, but I live in London where “achievement hedonism, stimulation and self-direction” are rife and the positive narrative could have resonated. I read local papers, listen to local radio and obviously see billboards and the like, but I’m not sure I ever came across a positive Remain message targeted specifically at the likes of me.

On the topic of targeting, beyond media, were people targeted personally? I’m Johnny Foreign and perhaps they knew that, but most of my British friends are archetypal remainers. Not one of them received campaign material from Remain, personally targeted at them via mail, email or social media. Perhaps the campaign assumed their votes were in the bag, but given that turnout was such a major concern, surely that was a tad risky. Maybe they were hard-up and spent their dinero elsewhere. But everyone I know received Vote Leave (and Leave.eu) guff addressed directly at them, meaning they’d gone to the effort of obtaining mailing lists. Again, what the hell do I know, but surely Remain should have done so too, especially given the demographics involved, at least as a last-minute get out the vote effort?

The campaign 101 handbook also tells us that framing is key to campaign success. If your side fails to set the frame, the opponent’s frame should be ignored, and a counter-frame introduced. Responding to an opponent’s frame merely reinforces it. But Remain constantly let Leave set the frame, and then proceeded to reinforce it.

Take Project Fear, a stroke of campaign-framing genius. In just two words, it decimated Remain’s strategy of cajoling sensible Brits into voting remain for fear of the economic unknown. Remain’s response? More figures, usually quoted by men in suits working for organisations known by an acronym, which reinforced Leave’s frame: they were fear mongers. With their strategy decimated by two words, there was no obvious attempt at setting a new strategy, countering with a positive frame, or introducing a different frame to define Leave. They doubled down on the economy and fear, to no effect.

At a more granular level, when faced with the £350 million nonsense, their response was to break it down in detail to prove the figure was actually lower. Again, this merely reinforced the “Europe costs loads” frame. Where was their take on the EU’s cost? The Brickwall video that did the rounds contained an example of a figure that could have offset the £350 million: 10 to1 i.e. the UK gets back £10 for every £1 spent. Does the figure hold up to close scrutiny? Probably not, but sadly that’s not the point, neither does the £350 million. I appreciate that it would have been difficult to ignore it, given its physical prominence on the side of that bloody bus, but some semblance of response beyond dissection would have been nice.

When studying modern political campaigns, one can’t help but be awestruck by their ability to identify and target tiny communities of support. Did Remain narrow target? Again, what the hell do I know, maybe they did, but it didn’t seem like it. One perhaps trite example: Glastonbury took place during referendum week. The Glastonbury demographic clearly sits heavily in the remain camp, and there were surely tens of thousands of votes at play. Apparently there was no effort to reach people with tickets to urge them to get their postal votes sorted. A petty gripe perhaps, but again, if turnout was a concern, surely relatively minor initiatives such as this represented a no brainer.

Remain / Stronger In put in some serious hours. But ultimately they failed. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the deep-rooted antipathy towards the EU built up over decades, the rage felt by huge swathes of the electorate, Leave’s willingness to play the immigration card so forcefully and cynically, and the fact that the sheer assortment in their camp partly neutralised each individual faction. How could Labour credibly campaign in down-and-out communities in the North-East while sharing a stage (metaphorically) with Tories talking about protecting the “markets” and doing the rounds with bankers ? Tricky.

I get all that, but the fact remains: why the clumsy responses to great campaign manoeuvres by Leave; why did they double down on the economy and fear when a quick study of potential voter groups demonstrated that a positive narrative could work; why were key demographics not targeted more directly; and why were get out the vote efforts not more aggressive given that turnout was a concern?

We’ve been told for years now that traditional public affairs (face to face, technical lobbying) is not as effective as it used to be in Brussels. The logic is that many issues, and even entire industries like financial services or oil and gas, are now “political”, meaning decision-making on legislative matters is no longer based on the rational analysis of available information, but rather, the tide of public opinion.

For this reason, the adage goes, public affairs professionals need the support of marketing-communications professionals more adept at applying techniques that can affect the opinion of constituencies, with a view to shaping the environment in which decision-making takes place, rather than just the decision-making itself.

In other words, PA professionals need to run “campaigns” that seek to build and/or showcase some level of public support in parallel to lobbying on policy. Good campaigns should be focussed and simple: channel agnostic, definable in a single sentence, with a single and specific goal, a visual identity and end-date. Fish Fight was a PA campaign, aimed at banning fish discards. As are Renovate Europe and Keep me Posted in the UK, looking to set deep renovation targets for buildings and banning email only billing, respectively.

So does campaigning represent the future of EU public affairs? Yes and no.

However detached Brussels may be from real European publics, its legislators gain legitimacy in part by demonstrating that they respect and represent public constituencies. Hence why some activist campaigns have been so successful. Fish Fight and ACTA campaigners took issues that were not on the public agenda, put them there, and flipped decisions that had previously not been in doubt. On the corporate side, scrutinised organisations need to build and harness the support of specific constituencies, often through campaigns, in order to legitimise their policy objectives. Think pharma and health care professionals or patients, agrochemicals and farmers, or tech and entrepreneurs. But campaigning is not the dominion of corporates on the defensive. There is real value in campaigning when one is on the “right” side of the public debate, or even when no “right” or “wrong” sides have been defined and early mover advantage may be gained.

Having said all that, organisations should be less hasty at hiring marketers and creative agencies while eschewing technical expertise. Traditional public affairs remains dominant in Brussels.

In her study of interest group activity in Brussels, Heike Kluwer concludes that the quality of technical information provision remains the foremost determinant of lobbying success, ahead of demonstrating market power and public support. Her work is admittedly not very recent, but there’s little reason to assume much has changed.

Apart from certain issues (the likes of GMOs and shale gas), national publics remain largely disengaged, and legislative activity remains highly technical. Put simply, on most issues, there is no public debate and no constituency to mobilise, so campaigning would not provide a competitive advantage to public affairs practitioners

And even when an issue has been politicised, better lobbying can still win the day. The most notable example is probably that of mandatory food labelling around the turn of the decade, when better lobbying arguably meant the food industry’s favoured system, guideline daily amounts (GDA), prevailed over the traffic light system endorsed by consumer groups and health advocates.

So which is it: to campaign or not to campaign? As ever, it depends. If an issue has been highly politicised and external forces are reducing prospects for lobbying success, there may be no choice. If an issue is slightly off the radar but campaigning can improve the likelihood of success, it should probably be added to the mix. But with three major caveats: 1) campaigning is usually expensive and difficult, so adequate resources need to be available, which is often tricky given intractable siloes (e.g. PA and legal vs. marketing and communications); 2) campaign success relies on building and showcasing support from a key constituency, whether small or large, so at least one such constituency needs to exist; and (controversially) 3) if the other side is ineffective and failing to win over a major constituency, campaigning may not be necessary even on a somewhat politicised matter (e.g. food labelling).

Most mainstream British media outlets are calling for the UK to leave the EU, and its single most potent media entity, the BBC, has to remain on the fence somewhat given that it is publicly funded. As things stand, just about as many Brits would like to leave the EU as favour remaining.

In the US, other than a couple of New York tabloids, mainstream media describes Trump as an inept, vile and dangerous charlatan. Yet a majority of Republican primary voters across every demographic would be comfortable having him as their President.

Clearly, we’re not comparing like for like. Referendum polls comprise every UK demographic, while Republican primary voters represent a very small proportion of all Americans. If the entire US were polled, support for Trump would be lower than support for Brexit in the UK. And while Trump and Brexit are both populist-driven phenomena that portray a paranoid worldview in which elites and foreigners are ganging up on the common man, non-swivelling Brexit types do have some intellectually legitimate claims, although they’re largely crowded out by vitriolic, tabloid inspired foreigner-bashing, while Trump is pure populism.

But the paradox of simultaneous, populist spectacles occurring within such wildly contrasting media realities does raise interesting questions about media influence.

Does the volume of pro-Brexit press simply imply that British mainstream media is more influential than its American counterpart? Quite likely. The US media landscape is far more fragmented, comprising highly partisan radio stations and blogs that constitute the only source of news for many people. Despite dwindling readership figures, mainstream media remains quite dominant in the UK.

A more interesting nuance is the notion that media influence can work back to front. Media opposition in the US is inverse to Trump’s popularity, given that his entire campaign narrative is that out-of-touch elites, including mainstream media, are the enemy of the common man. So the theory reads that US media remains influential amongst Trump’s constituencies, but in persuading them to take the furthest contrasting view possible.

Another theory suggests that the Republican establishment and conservative media – Fox News in particular – have been instrumental in creating an environment in which Trump is an acceptable candidate. David Remnick of the New Yorker has written that the Republican establishment has exploited the “darkest American undercurrents” from Nixon’s Southern Strategy of attracting voters opposed to civil rights through to the birther movement. Their perpetual hostility and intransigence, with the likes of Fox as their mouthpiece, have gradually changed the nature of what is tolerable in American political discourse, and Trump is its ultimate consequence. Although Trump is too extreme now even for Fox News, media has arguably been highly influential in paving the way for his ascendance.

A further interesting area worth exploring is media influence vs. personal salience. Supporting Trump often represents a response to personal grievances, while Brexit remains a fairly distant and abstract political matter. Trump supporters grew up in a world of simple certainties: America was the greatest nation on earth, the American dream was alive and well, and Americans could look forward to a life of prosperity and happiness. That’s not entirely the case anymore, and however misguided, they believe in the simple and brutal solutions Trump espouses, and think that he will turn the clock back. Brexit is about the EU. No one cares that much about the EU. For all the jingoistic talk of taking power back and controlling borders, most Brexit supporters do not think quitting the EU is a last resort to making their deteriorating lives better. They support Brexit because it is broadly in line with their worldview, as represented by the media they consume. I suspect there is near perfect alignment between papers people read and how they will vote in the referendum. In summary: most Brexit supporters don’t know or care all that much about Brexit, however excitable they get in the run-up to the referendum, and choose to adhere to the views of their favoured news source, while Trump supporters care very much about their livelihoods and fervently believe in Trump, but are more likely to have relied on gut instinct and their peers to decide he’s their man, rather than some newspaper.

So what do Brexit and Trump tell us about media influence? All wild conjecture on my part, but probably the following: that it still matters greatly, but in a more fluid and complex way than ever; and that its influence is greater on matters that people are less committed to, as they require the media outlet that represents their world view to define their position.

I’ve made a couple of further tweaks to my original digital public affairs wheel, in which I linked three components of day-to-day PA (delivering a message to policy-makers and related audiences; building relationships; intelligence gathering and analysis) with relevant online activities and tools. Since 2014, the wheel has included two further disciplines – campaigning (building and mobilising support) and the oft-overlooked internal communications (informing and engaging internal stakeholders) – and this is a slightly cleaned up version of that. Any glaring omissions etc. please give me a shout.

Digital Public Affairs

 

Marketing, communications and campaigning 101 tells us that awareness is only a first step preceding things like “influence” and “action”. This makes sense. If the end goal is to sell something or win an election, for instance, awareness is only relevant in that it helps to subsequently drive the relevant action (purchasing or voting, in this case.)

Marketers have forever needed to prove what comes beyond awareness. Their various sales funnels display how a prospect or customer should be made aware and then driven to purchase (and keep purchasing).

In corporate communications, our end goal is less tangible. It’s often “reputation” which is not as clear-cut as sales. Until recently, we weren’t expected to measure anything much except perhaps vanity metrics like clippings, social media followers or website hits. Hence why marketers scoff at how vacuous we are.

In public affairs, the corporate communications discipline I know best, where the end goal is affecting legislation, there was even less impetus to measure anything of value.

Change is afoot. Methods for measuring reputation are becoming ubiquitous. Single audience corporate communications disciplines like public affairs and investor relations are especially easy to tie to and end goal: regulation and investment respectively. Meanwhile, purse strings are being tightened and procurement folk are demanding proof of impact. Showing real business value through smart measurement beyond awareness is becoming the norm in corporate communications.

Overall, this is a good thing. It’ll make communications output more effective and communicators more accountable. And it should help keep communications charlatans / snake oil peddlers out of work.

And yet. Purists will scoff but there are times where there can be major, intangible value in un-measurable communication.

There are countless companies, whose products are contentious, that have damaging regulation imposed on them and lose their license to operate to varying degrees because they are quiet on their issues. Sometimes they deserve what they get because their products are disagreeable (polluting, unhealthy etc.) Sometimes the scrutiny helps them improve business practices and even discontinue the nasties. Clearly, this is a good thing.

Sometimes, issues are more nuanced. Think GMOs or certain chemicals. Yet because of a culture of reticence or fear of litigation, producers have communicated very little and allowed the media and public narrative to be shaped purely by opponents. There is no notion that there is any grey area; silence is equated with an admission of guilt.

Were they to be loud and proud, such companies would engender some level of legitimacy merely through communicating. In a way, what they say matters little. Behavioural science is at play more than message. Recipients are likely to think that the mere fact that a company is willing to communicate may mean they have less to hide. It may not win people over immediately. It may not lead to an immediate rational “action” in a customer journey map. But it might generate grey area where there previously was none. Which in turn might make regulators who are on the fence explore the issue more deeply. It may make a company less likely to be top of an activist’s target list as that they’d likely fight back. In short, it may help it avoid overly damaging regulation, possibly years down the line.

In an age of measurement mania, selling something this vague is tricky. But we should not entirely discount the value of communications that is not immediately measurable.

Social media poses a threat to to unpopular industries and companies, so the cliché reads. Supposedly, the social media nous of activists, the fast spread of criticism, in parallel with growing popular concerns over corporate conduct and calls for greater transparency, makes companies on the wrong side of the public debate highly vulnerable.

True. Companies have taken a hit after being targeted by campaigns that have spread far and wide in part thanks to social media. Think Shell and Arctic exploration: drilling was abandoned last year. Or Nestle and palm oil. Or Starbucks and tax. These campaigns are amplified by the nature of the modern news cycle. In that there isn’t one: you can’t kill a story that lingers on Google and keeps garnering social shares. No doubt lots of companies have felt compelled to improve business practices to avoid being attacked. Which is a good thing, clearly.

But the cliché is a tad overstated.

It ignores the fact that unpopular industries and companies can themselves use social media, and other online tactics, like data analysis and content marketing, to their benefit. They can use them to identify risks, manage issues and crises, help deliver their side of their story, rebut inaccuracies and showcase transparency and general good-will.

Also, it exaggerates the extent to which people care about good corporate citizenship. Being good matters. Beyond being the right thing to do, it helps attract investment and talent, and will make scrutiny and reproach less likely. But it doesn’t matter that much, right now, all the time. I recently wrote that the notion that corporate behaviour drives consumer-purchasing decisions is overstated and that plenty of unpopular companies do just fine. People will purchase goods and services based on price, habit and ease more than behaviour and reputation. Hence why most campaigns targeting unpopular corporates fail to take off. Certainly, social media poses risks in that a dud product or service will be exposed fast on social media, to great cost. But this is hardly the prerogative of the unpopular, but rather, of the incompetent.

The cliché further overstates the impact of campaigns that actually do take off in terms of numbers reached. The cost of engaging in a campaign is now so low (the proverbial click by a slacktivist) that dozens of campaigns with millions of supporters can run simultaneously on online petition sites while saturating our social media feeds. As a result, campaigns compete with each other and we become immune to them. A campaign has to be truly outrageous to hit a collective nerve. If we loosely define “impact” as a mix of the following – substantial and sustained cross-over to mainstream discourse, and subsequently, negative effects on sales, and/or greater risk of long-term reputational damage, and/or harmful regulation and licence to operate limitations – the number of campaigns with true “impact” is very limited indeed.

Similarly, the cliché implies that amplified criticism invariably damages an industry or company’s standing. It’s not quite that simple. In its Authenticity Gap research, my former employer, FleishmanHillard, stresses that reputation is driven by the difference between expectation and experience across a series of variables. Simplified: if someone expects a company to be highly innovative and it is not, say a tech company, it will take a reputational hit. Likewise, if a company is not expected to be environmentally friendly at all, say an oil and gas giant, but it then exceeds expectations ever so slightly, they’ll actually accrue reputational benefit (perversely, some may think). By no stretch am I implying that companies that are not expected to behave well should not bother, but it does highlight the nuances.

In conclusion, should companies and industries on the wrong side of the public debate stop worrying so much? Of course not: the scrutiny that social media enables is real. This is true for both the popular and the unpopular. And if they are on the wrong side of the public debate because they are truly unpleasant, the good times won’t last. But for those somewhere in the middle, they should probably expend more effort on harnessing the benefits of social media and other online channels and tactics, rather than worrying about the naysayers.

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