Explaining digital to clients in public affairs

September 10, 2008

While their efforts to remain in the communications stone age and withstand the onslaught of digital have been valiant – MEPs don’t use the web, they’ve often claimed –  Public Affairs professionals in Brussels are slowly coming around to the fact that digital can work for their clients too. Next up is the clients themselves and convincing them to invest in online activities, which is no mean task. First, although their ability to radiate expertise on topics they’ve first heard about over lunch an hour before a meeting should never be underestimated, with limited experience of digital themselves, PA professionals might struggle to explain its full scope. Second, old-school clients who barely use the web and think no one other than their teenage grandchild does either will really take some convincing.

Here’s a few things that might, combined, win them over.

1. The Internet is a mainstream medium

Old fogies might initially appear hostile to the web because of reasons bordering on: “our target demographics/stakeholders are not male and prepubescent” usually followed by something like “we’d like a website because it seems we have to have one, but that’s all for now thanks very much.” This outlook was pretty prevalent a few years ago, but admittedly much less so today. In any case, to anyone who does need convincing, it’s fair to say that the web is now a mainstream medium. 60% of Europeans are daily users with an even male/female split, broadband adoption is growing by over 10% annually in Europe, and 70% of journalists claim to use online sources to research stories. In short, the vast majority of relevant stakeholders are active online, and if they really are not, the influencers who reach them are.

2. Campaigning is increasingly important

From what I can gather, advocacy at a European level is not what it used to be. Sure,  a combination of expertise on the subject matter and direct contact with relevant legislators is extremely important. However, what influences these legislators has arguably changed following enlargement and societal developments that have altered citizens’ demands of their elected officials. In short, public opinion matters more than it did a few years ago – and what’s more, public opinion has shifted.

On enlargement, it seems (although I might very well be wrong) that having 700+ MEPs from 27 member states has led to fewer concentrated group allegiances within the European Parliament i.e. MEPs are now less likely to follow the group line than do what their constituents demand than they were before. Certainly, on an issue I’ve been working on for a client, there were significant divergences within the major parliamentary groups, which experienced lobbyists claim would not have been the case a few years back.

With regards to public opinion or citizens’ demands, very briefly, I’d say that in general these have changed dramatically because Europeans behave like consumers even when choosing who to vote for and essentially “shop” for their favourite politician based on issues, rather than broadly accepting what the party/politician their family or community traditionally votes for tells them. What’s more, the nature of the “issues” that drive their demands has shifted as well, as people’s concepts of well-being are different. Sophisticated personal quality of life factors such as concerns for the environment, healthy living, a solid work-life balance etc. are these days far more prominent than simply being happy if basic necessities are met and the Soviets don’t invade. This is a gross simplification of pretty complex developments, but what I’m essentially getting at is that citizens are more selfish, demanding and fickle; their notion of well-being has evolved to matters which affect them personally; and legislators are having to take notice.

Does this matter to communicators? Yes, because campaigning directed at citizens is now as important as advocacy if not more! Not convinced? Think of the success NGOs have had on a range of issues and ask yourself once again.

3. Online communications is different

What’s even more important to stress is how eCommunications is different: a) the tools allow for far more intricate means of communicating; b) they allow you to listen and engage; and c) they allow you to measure activity more precisely.

a) The scope of the tools

The mere scope of eCampaigning in terms of what a campaigner can do, or mechanisms to engage a user and spread the message further, are immense. Take for instance as a benchmark an exceptional eCampaign such as The Girl Effect, my current favourite, which incorporates the best of TV advertising in terms of high quality video, audio and copy in its introduction video, but in addition, runs a lot longer than a TV ad can, then immediately allows users to send to a friend, donate, find out more, and engage, all at the click of a button. I myself watched the video on The Girl Effect from start to finish, sent it to a fair few people I know, and nearly donated (which is closer than I usually get). I’m trying to imagine seeing the message in another medium and wonder whether it would grip me in the same way and then make me help it go viral by sending it on to friends. Probably not. A TV or print ad would be too short, and even if it did grip me, I would not immediately be able to act on my interest by sending it on, and knowing me, would forget by the evening.

b) Listening and engaging

I’d say the ability to listen is actually one of the most important changes the web has brought about. It might seem pretty basic, but I do honestly believe that it’s transforming communications no end. Focus groups, polling, surveys etc. existed before but these methods either did not account for many people or were very expensive. Now, companies or organisations can actually sit back and listen to what scores of stakeholders of any sort are thinking and communicating about you or your field, and can react accordingly rather than by second-guessing and hoping for the best.

As well as the ability to listen is the ability to interact. Old-schoolers adopting the web have often made the mistake of treating it like another medium to harness in addition to radio, print, direct mail etc. i.e. where you simply post your message and hope someone picks it up. Yet this is wasting an opportunity because the web allows for two-way engagement. Whether it’s via a comments feature, email, discussing something on a forum, reference in the blogosphere, the fact of the matter is that you’re now able to engage in a conversation.

So what’s different, or why does it matter? Well it’s a great opportunity for one. Honest and transparent engagement, done well, will make a company/organisation/person appear more credible, and frankly, more genuine than if all their outgoing communications simply consists of highly vetted messaging.

More importantly, and we’re seeing this phenomenon really striking gold in the Obama campaign in the US, engagement can result in mobilisation. The web is a phenomenal mobilisation tool – in fact, it’s far better at mobilising existing supporters than reaching or persuading new ones, because it’s easier for people to pick and choose online than it is in other media. I’ve often called this the “town hall effect” based on the age old tradition of town hall meetings where candidates and voters would discuss issues face to face. This had died out but is being revitalised in a different, and possibly more effective format, on the web. In practice, online mobilisation largely involves putting supporters in touch with a candidate/organisation/association/company etc. and with each other, then facilitating their ability to spread the word, on or offline, via their own networks and in their own communities, through events, calls, letters, emails, fliers etc.

In addition, not engaging can be a lot worse. I’ve done work for companies operating in highly unpopular industries, and for decades they’ve tried to limit communications or at least rigidly control it. They can not do that anymore, because the growth of the web means that, more than ever: 1) secrecy is frowned upon; and 2) you’ll be slated without actually being out there defending yourself. And this matters more when it’s happening in a place that’s accessible by anyone and can at worst go viral, than from atop a soapbox – “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” (Mark Twain).

c) Measuring

While you can listen to people, you can also track their activity. Everything online can be measured, from the number of people visiting a webpage; how they get to the webpage (directly, via an ad, via another site); to the number of times they return to the same page, time spent on it, what they click through to; to where they are located geographically; and in some cases, who they work for. This allows you to grasp whether your campaigns or other web activities are reaching your target audience and whether they are responding as you’d hope they would (by visiting numerous pages, staying online for a long time, downloading material, donating, forwarding to friends etc.), and to constantly improve according to what you can tell users want. Again, this could be done before via, say, a phone survey, but it’s far easier now and the level of detail you can acquire is quite astonishing.

4. Using the web to improve working practices

The web does not just have to be sold as a campaign tool or a way to interact with stakeholders. There are countless ways to use online tools to improve and streamline internal working practices e.g. an internal team blog by the engineers explaining what they do (which, say, the marketers had no idea about); collaborative authoring in a wiki rather than umpteen emails and version numbers; a podcast by the CEO rather than a conf call no one listens to; eLearning or conferences via webinars instead of flying people places; or social bookmarking to collect useful learnings available online in one place.

Sure, this does not fall into the realm of public affairs, but frankly, so what. One, it’s an easy way of winning people over. If they’re not convinced that they need an eCampaign or need to be engaging in social media, tell them to try some simple tools internally before moving onto the bigger projects, and you might win them over. Second, it really serves a purpose, namely of connecting various elements of a company or organisation, or “breaking down silos”, and making it more efficient.

5. It’s (potentially) a lot cheaper

I don’t like this rationale, but if all fails, expense is always a winner. Web projects can potentially be enormous and very costly. On the other hand, communicating online can also be done well at a very low cost, as it’s largely about communicating in the right channels and in the right way, rather than buying media that might reach the correct demographic.

6. The web as a direct (nearly) advocacy tool

If people still need convincing, the web can also be sold as a tool to be used in direct support of advocacy. If key target MPs or MEPs have been identified in an advocacy campaign, as any good lobbyist would do – say all M(E)Ps in the most relevant parliamentary committee – web tools can be used to directly target that M(E)P’s constituency and exert pressure on his/her constituents. How? It would involve targeting online advertising within the correct geographic location e.g. a Google AdWords advertising in the region of the target’s constituency only, with keywords carefully devised to suit its constituents’ prime concerns, or advertising being placed on media that is especially popular in that region, or as a last resort, purchasing an email list for that given region and linking through to dedicated areas on an M(E)P’s website which deals with issues pertinent to the constituents’ needs and fears.

And if your client still needs convincing, I’d say you have yourself a lost cause.

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2 Responses to “Explaining digital to clients in public affairs”


  1. Steffen, interesting stuff. I’m glad you agree with a lot of what we have been advising our client base (and anyone else who will listen – even over lunch!) and writing about on our own blog for the last year or so.

    And yes, it is true that there is still resistance to the gospel we’ve been preaching both within the PA community and with our client base. Unsurprising really given that the way Brussels works means that advocacy is a process driven activity, open to professional services firms like my own employer.

    Yet the key learning, a little like European integration itself, is that we need to rely on “petit pas” rather than “grand projet” if digital PA is to take off in Brussels. Explaining how ecampaigning or whatever it is we call it fits into reaching our client’s public affairs objectives is key. Talk of wikis, blogs, social networks frankly bores or goes over the heads of most people in Brussels – irrespective of the broadband penetration rate across Europe.

    As such, we need to expand our PA programmes to make sure that they are integrated and that we reach our clients goals through a mixture of the most effective tactics for that particular job. That mixture will include direct advocacy (lobbying), media and of course online in different measures depending on the campaign. It’s integration of digital with existing activities that will take take digital from a niche pursued by one or two frontrunning trade associations to mainstream in Brussels.

    In this we need to be careful about measurement. While as you explain you can track and measure in the online environment far more easily than in say traditional media, we shouldn’t get carried away with measuring “outputs”. Yes, these are useful milestones on the road to our client goals but it’s the “outcome” that is our objective. And it is the effect on the outcome, rather than the effect on visits to the website, that will make or break whether digital communications is effective or not and becomes mainstream. After all, in advocacy we can already measure “outputs” too – how many meetings did we get, how many people turned up for our event etc. – at the end of the day clients care more about how the vote went.

    Happily all this also means my employers, or companies like them, are the best placed to deliver such an integrated approach. After all clients don’t come to us and ask for a digital solution, they come and ask for a solution. We can then advise on how far internet based activities may be relevant, or not.


  2. […] rocket science, but it made me realise that a post I wrote a few months ago on how to sell digital to clients in Public Affairs in Brussels probably prioritises the wrong elements. In short, I wrote that in Brussels, the lobbying vs. comms […]


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