I think I should start blogging. Twitter looks interesting. Think a Facebook fanpage will work wonders. Videos on YouTube are just up our alley. And so on. These are the kinds of things going through the minds of plenty of communicators at any sort of organisation in Brussels (and elsewhere for that matter) who work on issues and policy areas in which they want to exert some influence. And for good reason. The tools are cheap and cheerful, they’ve been proven to work, they fit an age of public relations in which engagement and humility are the order of the day, and what’s more, they’re fun.
However, as enticing as the tools may seem and as easy as you may think it will be to just try, test and see, I’d stress that rather than dive in and use the tools from the off, it’s imperative to have a long-term online engagement plan and to take a step-by-step approach that will help maximise the potential of your efforts.
I’ve developed a basic 4-pillar model which can be applied to a lot of organisations seeking to engage online. By no means am I introducing any brand new concepts, but I think the model is handy in that it puts the various elements of engagement in the order in which they should go if an organisation starting anew wants to make the best of the opportunities on offer. Here goes.
1. Making sense of what’s out there: web as hub
This involves two bits: first, the listening piece (one of the prime social media clichés but oh so necessary), and second, making the listening set-up public via aggregation or hyperlinking.
The listening bit simply means that you perform a thorough analysis of what offline stakeholders are up to to online, as well as find online players who might not have an offline profile. You set up a dashboard so you can follow what they are communicating on a daily basis, and once you feel that you have a really good idea of how the issue is unfolding online, who the key content creators and influencers are, you make that knowledge public i.e. you “counter the fragmentation” and become the player that makes sense of the issue online and isn’t afraid of showcasing other stakeholders who might not tow the exact same line.
2. Start communicating: “show me, not trust me”
This is when you actually start communicating yourself in this new space; where you start showcasing action rather than staying quiet and hoping that people will trust you – hence “show me, not trust me”.
By performing step 1, you’ve got a good understanding of who the players are and what’s expected, you have some goodwill, and you’re unlikely to make any dumb mistakes. So you’re well placed to develop a strategy to communicate using social media within this space to showcase yourself, your take on your issue, and your people via, say, blogging or video (choice of tools is secondary, it largely depends on where the activity is, what your sector is etc.) In addition, you should use the space to show your third-party advocates, and remember, always remain respectful and honest.
3. Stakeholder dialogue
Steps 3 and 4 are the organic evolution of steps 1 and 2: they rely largely on the involvement of the online community which you can not control, so it’s about creating the right circumstances for that community to thrive rather than introducing a new set of tools.
By bringing information together and beginning to engage using the tools yourself, you should hopefully have begun a process by which an online conversation has taken off in which you are an important contributor. To get to this next level, where real dialogue is taking place, you need to carry on what you’re doing i.e. communicating a message that resonates and to make sure you are constantly feeding the conversation by replying to people’s questions and comments, and remember to always respond to community concerns and interests rather than spouting key messages.
Assuming you are doing all of this well, you have a fantastic opportunity to be leading and shaping “stakeholder dialogue” and thus take a thought leadership position on your issue.
4. Community and mobilisation
This is the holy grail of online communications. If steps 1-3 are successful, you may have created a community of people who mobilise on your behalf: these are people who support your position and spread your message for you without you actually being involved. In practice, this can involve anything from people simply sending your material to others, urging others to follow you on Twitter or sign a petition, to actively approaching legislators themselves.
As a benchmark on a huge scale for “community and mobilisation” I’d cite the Obama presidential campaign. It wasn’t the millions of Facebook followers who got Obama’s message directly in their Inboxes who were the root of the success, but the core supporters who mobilised on his behalf, whether by sending newsletters, arranging events or knocking on doors and so on.
Sure, Obama is Obama and we’re talking about a US presidential campaign, but on a smaller scale, the model is still relevant. By engaging with people, getting them excited about your issue, and giving them the right tools and content, you too can turn your supporters into ambassadors.
I’ll be following up on this post in the coming weeks to expand a little more on the 4 pillars. Would appreciate feedback.