Public affairs still lagging in digital transformation 

I worked on what we then called “digital public affairs” fairly early, when blogs and Google AdWords were the rage, given they provided new shiny avenues for reaching policy-makers and important others. 

Fifteen years on, the digital paradigm in public affairs sadly remains focused on communications, especially social media (and paid, to some extent). 

While digital means of communications are always important in some shape or form, they are only represent a fraction of what digital can offer.  

Digital transformation is about enhancing efficiency and quality across every aspect of a function or business through sensible deployment of relevant technology.

Below, I summarise in brief (very!) some of the areas where digital transformation has already made headway in public affairs, although mainly amongst early adopters still.

Managing stakeholders (and other information) more efficiently

The market for technology that helps public affairs professionals manage stakeholders and other information in a single place is already relatively mature, with FiscalNote, Quorum and Ulobby amongst the companies most active in Brussels. Being able to oversee all activities related to issues and stakeholders in one place enhances efficiencies. And given that everyone has the same information, the bar for knowledge is raised, and pointless duplication is reduced.

Faster, better opinion/sentiment analysis

We are now able to now determine opinion by distilling viewpoints through AI-enabled tools. The very clever folks at one of our partner agencies, Tactix, have worked with us on dozens of client assignments, setting up analyses of both wider publics and narrower groups, namely policymakers in Brussels and national capitals, to determine their positions on a certain issue, how strongly they feel about it, and how they are likely to respond to a certain argument. By using their tool – Deep Learning – we no longer need to invest in expensive and often unreliable polling and focus groups. 

Political outcome prediction  

While no predictive technology can ever be perfect, we are now able to predict the likely positions policymakers will take quickly and efficiently by distilling large amounts of data, from past voting behaviour through to public statements. We work with a Budapest based start-up, Eulytix, who specialise in analysing European Parliament data, in particular amendments, enabling them to predict positions, and perhaps more interestingly, co-sponsorship patterns most likely to yield results. As ever, old-fashioned experience, intelligence and gut will likely enable some people to come to some of the same conclusions. But we can now potentially do it faster, more efficiently, and without the need to always call on people who’ve navigated the corridors of Parliaments for decades (although they certainly remain important).

Smarter intelligence gathering

Most monitoring and intelligence tools now come with some form of AI functionality whereby the tools teach themselves to perform more effectively over time, based on user preferences. Essentially this means that a human’s ability to quickly discern what is important vs. irrelevant, or pick out patterns, can now be replicated by technology, meaning we no longer have to plough through reams of intel ourselves, freeing our brains up to do things machines can’t do (yet).

Digital advocacy at scale

In Europe, political campaigners and civil society organisations have for several years used technology like NationBuilder to identify, engage and mobilise advocates. In other words, they build communities that support their advocacy efforts, whether by providing data and case studies, or writing letters, speaking at events, or attending meetings, and so forth. In EU public affairs, we tend to eschew advocacy at scale, preferring smaller activities we still rather archaically call “third parties” or “key opinion leader mobilisation”. But by using technology, we are able to conduct advocacy with far more precision and at greater scale. In other words: we can build far larger, more targeted, more effective communities of supporters. And yes, this works even for industries that may not believe they have many supporters. In the US, some predict that digitally-driven corporate advocacy will outstrip lobbying spend within 5 years. This may never happen in Brussels, given the more technical and consensus-driven nature of policy making here, but digital advocacy will surely witness double-digit growth at some point in the next few years.

Digital transformation is about using technology to create or improve existing business processes and activities. Given that public affairs professionals spend most of their time gathering, managing and analysing information about stakeholders, issues and policy, they should embrace digital in order to conduct these activities more effectively. This is far more sensible than simply viewing digital as a set of communications channels that provide yet another way to disseminate a message. 

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