The limitations of digital public affairs

In the introduction to my eBook on digital public affairs, I wrote the following:

“There was an awkward time, peaking between 2008 and 2010, when I would be invited to meetings, be introduced as a guru or ninja, and be expected to provide an Obamaesque digital strategy that would ensure victory on a lobbying battle by the following Tuesday. I would invariably fail to do so.”

The unrealistic expectations of public affairs professionals have subsided, thankfully. But the rationale that lead to the overexcitement persists. Namely, that success can be attained by delivering a message ad nauseum across as many channels as possible.

Sadly, that is not the case.

Digital and social media are a set of channels. They’re packaging. As are lobbying and media relations. Visibility and delivery frequency do not matter nearly as much as substance. Especially relevance, utility, and vision.

Relevance and utility: Scholars of interest groups cite three key success factors: high quality of technical information; proof of popular support; and proof of market power. Does what you are saying reflect at least one of these, tied to the interest area or constituency of the person targeted? Will it teach them something new? Are you making their lives easier? Will ‘legislating’ become easier for them? If the answer is no across the board, don’t communicate.

Vision: Offering utility and relevance may not be enough. There’s a lot of competition for attention in policy-land. You provide jobs and growth? So does everyone else. You’re helping Europe meet its targets in something or other? So are plenty of others. How are you truly different? Differentiation is best articulated through a long-term vision that’s good for Europe, a realistic plan for getting there, and proof that you’re already doing something to meet the vision. Clearly, most organisations do not have a remarkable vision, and that’s fair enough. Vision is often set far away from Brussels. But in an overcrowded market, organisations with a vision win.

The lesson remains: don’t fuss over channels, or even message. Figure out how best to be relevant and useful. And have a vision with a plan. If not, your communications efforts – be it digital or non – will most likely be an utter waste of time.

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eBook: Digital Public Affairs is Dead, Long Live Digital Public Affairs (Second Edition)

Download ‘Digital Public Affairs is Dead, Long Live Digital Public Affairs’ (2nd Edition) here (PDF).

In this eBook, I provide ten short reflections that I believe are essential to the practice of digital public affairs in Brussels (and beyond). While there are plenty of practical tips in it, it is not intended solely as a guide on best practice: I’ve also attempted to outline its potential impact and categorise its applications beyond the realm of just channels and tactics.

The structure of the second edition isn’t any different, but I have updated the content based on recent developments in influencer engagement, LinkedIn, and online platforms for managing PA programmes. Plus I updated the design to reflect my new company.

Starting a new venture

We’ve heard for a while now that Brussels has – paradoxically – become both more technical and political. Scores of regulatory matters are concluded by groups of experts, yet the institutions, including the Commission, are more than ever driven by public sentiment.

While many folk hope that Brussels will once again be a technocrat’s wet dream, chances are it will get more political after the next elections, especially as member states – intrinsically more political – get further stuck in at Brussels level.

In parallel, Brussels is getting crowded. Representatives of companies, non-profits and governments of all types continue to pour in. Which is probably good for balanced policy-making, assuming everyone gets a fair hearing. But it makes it much harder to stand out and get heard.

Given both tendencies – politicisation and tougher competition for attention – I’ve launched Thejll/Moller Communications. We will focus on providing strategic and creative communications counsel to public affairs professionals, to help them build political capital and stand out in a crowded field.

We won’t do regulatory work. It’s not my field, and plenty of people do it very well already. Instead, we will advise on positioning, messaging, campaign and programme strategy, and support implementation across media and all forms of digital. This marks a shift from Limehive, as my company used to be called, which centred on digital.

Assuming we don’t crash and burn spectacularly, I’ll post regular updates on the company LinkedIn page, and will continue to post here about public affairs, digital and so forth here.

Components of successful communications

Communications 101 is always worth re-iterating. Such as this: what are the non-negotiable components of any communications programme?

(NB: in this post, I mainly consider communications in support of EU public affairs programmes).

Lots of upfront work

Successful communications should do more than inform: it should stimulate opinion and/or behavior change, and action. But bringing about change and action is bloody difficult. Communications that manages to do so is invariably inspiring and motivating in some sort of way.

We must therefore spend time figuring out what is likely to inspire and motivate those that we target, by determining:

  1. Their values, challenges and priorities.
  2. The opinions or preferences of their key constituencies (those who influence them).
  3. What others are up to in the same space, to understand what to imitate or avoid.

How do we acquire this knowledge? By speaking to people and asking questions, shockingly. Polling’s another option: we do too little polling in Brussels. Or benchmarking, to see what’s worked well and less well in the past.

But the method doesn’t matter, as long as we’re able to acquire some lessons that we can feed into our strategy and message.

Proper objectives

Many organisations set communications objectives that are either too vague or too ambitious. Objectives need to indicate a shift, and should start with clear terms that demonstrate change, like increase or reduce. And they need to be measurable, ideally within the next 3-6 months.

While objectives should be realistic, they should not be unambitious. “Increase awareness of our organisation’s message amongst our target audience” is frequently listed as a key communications objective. Snooze.

Increasing awareness amongst a target audience can be an initial objective, but there must be other objectives that can be tied more directly to genuine public affairs success, like “increase number of decision-makers who publicly endorse our position.”

Narrowly defined audiences

“Policy-makers, media, and general public.” These are often listed as target audiences in public affairs land. Unless an organisation has a seven-figure budget or is on the right side of the debate on the 1 in a 1,000 issue that everyone really cares about, it will be impossible to reach all of them.

Impossible, and not even desirable. Why do we want to reach a target audience? In order to help meet an objective, and not every audience member can help us do so. Policy-makers should be targeted if they actually influence the outcome of our issue. Usually, only a narrow set of policy-makers actually do so. Journalists should be targeted if they will be likely to say nice things, less likely to say unpleasant things AND if the aforementioned policy-makers actually care about the publications they write for.

General public should NEVER be a target audience. A segment of the general public can of course be if they are relevant to the policy-maker who ultimately decides our fate. But while influencing the general public in order to support our public affairs programme indirectly is highly desirable, it is also very difficult and time-consuming. If we choose to do it, ‘publics’ need to be defined narrowly. Maybe it’s: people who work in a certain company, sector or locality; people in a specific demographic and locality; or people with a history of interest in a specific issue. It might be parents, perhaps students, or the elderly, or trade unions. But it’s never everyone.

Actual strategy

It’s become a cliché to state that communications ‘strategy’ is a misused term. Yet true. A plan isn’t a strategy. A list of objectives with some activities isn’t a strategy. Strategy lists in just one or a couple of sentences HOW communications will help meet stated objectives. It starts with words like position, reposition or harness and NOT with words like change, increase, decrease, create or develop.

An easy way to frame communications strategy for public affairs is to do so around issue, positioning and people, as we’ll likely need a strategy for each:

  • Issue: The key determinant of interest group success in Brussels is the provision of high-quality technical information. So to some extent, expertise can deliver success on an issue: plenty of organisations have flourished in Brussels without a whiff of strategy, especially if their issue is primarily handled in expert groups behind closed doors. But strategy will make success more likely if the issue is political and public. Strategic positioning on an issue should involve answering questions such as: Do we own the issue or work with others? Do we make it our key issue or one of many? What are we willing to forgo? How forceful do we wish to be?
  • Positioning: Beyond issue specifics, how should we position our actual organisation towards audiences in order to help build political capital? In an ever-more political EU, this is essential. How are we different? Are we nicer, more innovative, more sustainable, the smartest kids in the class, or helpful conveners? Or how are we positioning ourselves around market power and public support, other key determinants of interest group success, in a manner that is relevant to our target audiences?
  • People: Simply, who will speak on our behalf? Will it be our own people? If so, who? Lobbyists or experts? Lofty folk or mid-level staff? Should a single, respected leader be the main face of the organisation? Or should it be someone external? These are not overly difficult decisions to make, and it may be a mix of all of the above, but in any case, each should be thought through.
Good messages and a compelling storyline

At this point, we get to actual communications output. What will we say and how? Ideally, having nailed all of the above, this becomes relatively easy, but we’re often guilty of over-reach here.

Messaging needs to be simple and limited only to what will help meet objectives. It must align with our audience analysis and our strategic approach. Nothing else can slip in.

Using messaging models that impose brevity is highly recommended, such as the 27/9/3 approach: 3 messages max, 9 seconds to read one of them out, 27 words max each.

Likewise, we must keep messages jargon-free and simple. We do not dumb down by making something understandable. And we must focus on results over process, and stress relevance, utility and vision.

In addition, we should as far as possible articulate messages through real-life examples involving actual people, rather than fact-sheets, as trite as this may sound to the seasoned PA professional. Stories work. They release dopamine in the brain, making us feel splendid. They make information more memorable through a process of neutral coupling, which means we subconsciously associate a story with our own perceptions and experience.

But what goes into a story? A story should be people-focused, framed around a ‘hero character’. Classic hero characters in EU public affairs include the teacher, the farmer, the doctor, or the steelworker. If a hero character is an employee, all the better. And ideal themes include: European history and heritage (the beer industry is great at utilising its legacy in its public affairs output, for instance); human impact through purpose; and exciting products and services developed through smart innovation.

Prioritising distribution

Some communication fails because the research and strategy aren’t right. Plenty more fails because the message and storylines are not compelling enough. What a shame then when all of the above hit the spot, but organisations have not thought about a clear and comprehensive distribution strategy.

Strategy, ideas and output are not end points. Distribution is, meaning: how are we going to make sure our target audience sees or reads our stuff? Do we speak to people directly, deliver through media, digitally, or through advertising? Probably a bit of all of the above. How can we use networks and influential folk to enhance reach and credibility? How do we encourage affected people to get involved?

Given that the previous elements are quite difficult to nail, distribution is too often treated as an afterthought. Just a bit of spray and pray: a few meetings, a speaking slot, a press release and some tweets. Job done.

This may again sound evident, but distribution has to be wide-ranging, multi-channel, and very well though through. And in particular, it needs to involve an ‘influencer’ strategy. Not naff, celebrity influencers, but rather: the direct involvement in our communications efforts of relevant, credible people with their own, decently sized networks. Run-of the-mill examples include: pharma companies teaming up with patient groups to create content; or agri-chems companies doing so with farmers.

Useful, actionable measurement

What is the point of measuring communications? To prove success and justify one’s existence of course, but mainly, to adapt and improve. Hence we should track metrics tied to objectives, not stuff that looks nice because the numbers are going up.

As public affairs activity is not as patently transactional as other forms of communications (like marketing) and involves an awful lot of variables beyond our control (the whim of politicians, mainly) it is often hard to tie communications objectives directly to genuine policy influence.

But metrics can be applied to relationship building and popularity amongst key constituencies, which are the forerunners of policy influence. Hence why we need to track things like: key people who have expressed a positive opinion about us; key people who have pledged support; key people who have pledged to do something (speak on our behalf or table and amendment). And so forth.

They key term being key people. We should not just track useless vanity metrics like media coverage or social media followers, although there can be some value in keeping an eye on them, namely to evaluate why they are going up or down.

Other important lessons for useful measurement:

  • Don’t measure everything, or we end up with reams of stuff that mean nothing. Measure around 5 things that truly matter.
  • Don’t rely on hard numbers. In public affairs, anecdotal evidence is just as important e.g. a Commissioner telling you that you have a license to lobby them because your communications on innovation is really compelling (a true story).
  • Report regularly (monthly is fine) and include insight and recommendations: what does it all mean and how can we improve?
Realistic budget

A final, brief point on budgeting: good communications does not come cheap. Communications leaders within organisations should have plenty of experience and will cost a few bob. High-quality and ongoing external counsel should be sought. In Brussels, communications budgets remain trifling. If communications is to deliver genuine influence, budgets must reflect this.

Disinformation (AKA fake news): getting worse – or some progress in sight?

My line of work involves doses of politics and social media, so the topic of disinformation frequently comes up. What’s my take? Is it a great scourge of our age or a nuisance that has been blown slightly out of proportion?

I don’t for a minute wish to diminish the perils of disinformation, but I do think the truth sits somewhere in the middle. Of course, it can be terribly damaging. It helps nasties cement their power, and wannabes to attain it. It spreads untruths that can literally be deadly, such as the belief that vaccines cause autism. However, it’s often an easy scapegoat. We blame events we don’t like, such as the election of populists, on disinformation, while ignoring the negligence of mainstream business and political leaders, which has driven disaffection and inequality. Bots exploit disaffection and inequality, they can’t create it from thin air.

But is disinformation likely to become more or less pervasive? There are valid considerations on both sides, but it’s looking pretty bleak. Here are a few things to ponder on the matter, in no particular order.

  • Overall, media literacy is improving: it’s being taught in schools; governments and other public bodies are making it a priority
  • Kids’ bullshit radars are by and large getting better (based entirely on my interaction with teenagers in my family: I have no empirical evidence)
  • Social networks are playing ball (egged on by political and shareholder pressure). This is really important. Making it harder to use Facebook ads or to make money using Google AdSense will disincentivise
  • Trust in journalism is on the up (Edelman Trust Barometer)
  • Some governments are doing good, as is the EU: pushing it up the agenda, pressuring social networks, supporting good reporting, monitoring election processes, promoting media literacy programmes
  • It’s getting easier to fact-check: lots of fact checking sites exist, and they are being used quite widely

  • It’s hard to resist: highly emotive and subjective information (as disinformation tends to be) releases dopamine in the brain
  • Countering disinformation with facts might not work: confirmation bias means we actually strengthen our beliefs when given contrary evidence
  • Worst of all: disinformation has influenced plenty of major political events, and continues to do so
  • Nasties invest in disinformation and are getting more proficient at it (no sign of Russian bot farms shutting down)
  • Societies are increasingly polarised: anger and distrust means people are more likely to consume and share highly subjective, emotive disinformation
  • Audio and video manipulation will make disinformation harder to detect
  • 50% of people consume news less than weekly (Edelman Trust Barometer)
  • 70% of people have shared content having only read the title (Pew)
  • Journalism is under attack, from Trump’s America to Turkey and beyond
  • Many good media outlets are struggling: less time to fact check means disinformation gets through the cracks
  • Media reports on disinformation as news (think Trump), helping it spread
  • It’s hard to regulate. Where do you draw the line? Do Fox News and RT publish disinformation or are they just merely highly partisan? Who checks the fact checkers?

What have I missed? What have I downplayed or overplayed?  

Beyond influencer engagement in Brussels

I drafted a post last year on online influencer marketing/engagement, which I’ll build on here. The premise remains that influencer engagement to support public affairs activity in Brussels can be a fairly futile exercise.

Why? Organisations conduct online influencer engagement in order to gain greater visibility and credibility by being ‘endorsed’ by someone influential. But the Brussels bubble is tiny. By extension, the degree of separation between a target and oneself is also tiny. So it’s quite easy to reach a policy-maker. Anyone who has worked in politics nationally always stresses how much easier it is to get a meeting with policy-makers in Brussels than any national capital. The same is true online: visibility is not overly hard. What’s harder is gaining trust and support, so I’d argue that it makes more sense for an organisation to itself be influential by being relevant, useful and interesting online, rather than hoping to amplify its message through others.

Moreover, people who have a substantial following online in Brussels tend to be generalists, while influence on most issues can only be gained by someone with at least a modicum of technical expertise.

I am not dismissing the practice of influencer engagement. While puerile Instagrammers are making influencers less appetising in consumer marketing, it is gaining ground in the more cerebral communications disciplines like public affairs, corporate communications and B2B. Indeed, it is often the most impactful tactic for building online reach and credibility in these disciplines.

But as mentioned, in Brussels, credibility, gaining trust, and standing out from the crowd tend to be the real challenges, not visibility. Therefore, looking to create better content should probably be the focal point online, not seeking the endorsement of influencers.

Having said all that, there is an influencer angle in generating better content: involving experts in content creation. Think pharma companies teaming up with patient groups to co-create content, for instance. I’d argue this is the more impactful approach to ‘influencers’ in a market like Brussels: not treating influencer engagement as an extension of media relations – as a means to get a 3rd party with a big audience to endorse you – but rather, collaborating with people who are influential in a niche in order to enrich your communications output.

3 scenarios for digital public affairs

How can digital means of communications most effectively be used to support a public affairs programme? As with much else, it depends.

A handy starting point is the type of public affairs activity once is conducting: is it technical work on the nitty-gritty of specific legislation; is it building political capital through positioning and relationship-building; or is it public opinion shaping and mobilisation (what our American friends would call grassroots)?

The diagram below (which is a re-design of a previous model) aligns activity with need and key tactics. As ever, comments are very welcome, as I’m not sure I’ve got the model right yet (some people have questioned leaving out social media from the third category, for instance).

Digital public affairs