Digital public affairs is dead, long live digital public affairs

August 8, 2016

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.

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