Digital public affairs: a love-hate relationship

I fell into digital public affairs entirely by accident around a decade ago (I’m by no means an early adopter of technologies). But I stuck with it and remain excited by its impact and potential.

Why I love it

While we often obsess over how digital can deliver information, its effects on the environment in which public affairs operates is the better starting point.

Anyone can communicate to whoever, whenever, making ‘access’ less important, and granting a louder voice to activists. This in turn drives greater scrutiny and increased risk (at great speed, and from farther afield). As citizens, this should delight us. As people in business, it is obviously cause for concern.

Navigating all of this with success requires change within organisations: collaboration between business functions; broader and more aligned risk management; new skills; and often more transparent or just plain better behaviour. Which invariably calls for structural, operational, and cultural change.

An increasing number of public affairs practitioners appreciate that ‘doing digital’ properly involves all of the above, and not just setting up a couple of social feeds. I have helped some of them evaluate the risks and opportunities that digital brings to their organisations from a public affairs perspective, and have subsequently worked with them on appropriate strategies and operational plans. This sort of work is the most stimulating I’ve done over the last couple of years, and helps explain why digital public affairs and I remain an item.

From the perspective of communications execution, digital is of course also really exciting. Given reduced trust and greater scrutiny of business, message and reputation increasingly dictate policy outcomes. The scope for reputation building and environment-shaping on digital are endless, from creative and storytelling techniques, through to social interaction with friends (and foes), and using online tools to manage complex programmes, all underpinned by sophisticated uses of data. As with the digital transformation stuff I outline above, working with clients who make the most of these tools and methods is really motivating.

Why I hate it

‘Hate’ might be overplaying it. But I am disappointed by how low digital maturity levels remain in most public affairs functions. Its impact and scope are appreciated narrowly, as it is seen merely as an ‘awareness’ channel for ‘getting a message out’. More sophisticated uses of digital – the fun stuff I describe above – are usually not considered, which can be rather dispiriting.

Why not? Brussels remains a policy town, where technical knowledge trumps the science of influence and reputation-building, whether on or offline. Few public affairs professionals appreciate the principles of campaigning and marketing that would make them effective beyond the technical components of their work.

And in all honesty, I understand why. The staples of government relations – technical information provision and navigating the policy process – remain the key determinants of success in Brussels. And personal access remains quite easy, so why bother reaching policy-makers online? Moreover, a lot of the exciting components of digital relate to what Americans call grassroots: mobilising supporters to drive bottom-up influence. But European publics are based in member-states, while most PA practitioners have Brussels-only remits (and budgets).

Having said that, there is still plenty of scope for digital even on the most technical and Brussels-only dossier. At its basest, it can be used to analyse competition, monitor, and provide basic information via content and search.

But more importantly, due to digital (and other forces), public affairs is increasingly moving beyond the prism of the technical and Brussels-only. Reputation-building and opinion-shaping activities are prerequisites for success, and a modicum of digital aptitude is required to do either well.

 

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Communications for public affairs: fewer messages and delivery gimmicks, more strategy please

What should you do when developing a communications strategy in support of a public affairs programme in Brussels?

In short:

  1. List what you are seeking to achieve through communications (usually one of three things: support an immediate regulatory priority; build positive reputation amongst key decision-makers; shape public perception around your organisation or industry).
  2. List who specifically you are seeking to influence (keep it as short as possible).
  3. Determine what is most likely to influence them: technical vs. non-technical arguments; reaching them directly or through intermediaries; channel preference; most relevant data points; most viable examples; helping address political needs/challenges.
  4. Develop a strategy likely to deliver on the above. Perhaps a differentiation strategy, building communities of support, leveraging influential individuals. Or whatever.

What NOT to do when developing a communications strategy in support of a public affairs programme?

Write a few vapid messages, have a whacky brainstorm with post-its to devise gimmicks that can help deliver said message as many times as possible, execute the gimmicks, and hope that through a vicious battle of attrition, some will stick.

If you actually speak to the intended recipients of communications material by corporate public affairs folk in Brussels, and ask them what they crave, it’s usually a mix of the following:

  • Useful technical information (especially data)
  • Useful case-studies/examples that align with their world-view and needs
  • Proof of market power
  • Proof of popular support
  • Differentiation i.e. how are you truly ‘better’ than the competition
  • Current impact AND long-term vision
  • Often, proof of commitment to Europe
  • No whinging
  • No bland nonsense about innovation or sustainability (unless you are truly innovative or sustainable)

And it all needs to be tailored, pitched at the right level, easy to grasp, and delivered at the right time.

Yet we too often develop messages and obsess about distributing them without thinking much about our audiences or tailoring delivery to them. Our assumption remains that repeated reach will win the day. “They just haven’t heard our message enough times!” is a common refrain in Brussels.

News alert: message delivery without audience analysis and an appropriate strategy is most likely a complete waste of time.

The myth of influencer marketing in Brussels

The notion of ‘influencers’ has been all the rage in Brussels recently. Understandably. In the real world, influencer marketing – the practice of teaming up with influential people to help promote an organisation or product – can be highly effective.

The principle of influencer marketing is not new. We’ve all sniggered at grainy ads from the 50s featuring doctors flogging cigarettes that do wonders for a niggly sore throat. And in public affairs, we’ve also been at it for years – think pharma and patient groups, or agrochemicals companies and farmers – but calling it stuff like key opinion leader mobilisation (or whatever).

But in the social media age, the concept of influencer marketing has moved on a notch:

  • It is far easier to build a public platform, so there are simply more people who are influential (as well as plenty more who think they may be, but patently are not)
  • Similarly, it is easier to get an influencer in front of those one is seeking to influence online than it is offline
  • Higher levels of mistrust in entities like industry and media makes credibility harder to attain, and influencers can help

Cue: lots of people, including public affairs practitioners, with high hopes for online influencer marketing.

While not doubting the effectiveness of online influencer marketing when done well, I would urge caution to anyone expecting it to make a massive dent in Brussels. In the marketing world, influence comes from being able to help sell a product. In Brussels, the product for sale is policy impact, usually driven by: the provision of high quality technical information; proof of market power (i.e. the ability to generate jobs and growth); or proof of public support (at least amongst key constituencies). If online influencers can help deliver technical or market power information that supports one’s case but might otherwise not cut through the clutter, or whose reach can be taken as a sign of popular support – then great, they will likely deliver policy influence. But I doubt there are more than a handful of Brussels-based individuals who fit this bill. There may be plenty of people who are followed by the entire bubble and whose stuff gets shared because it is amusing, topical or controversial – but this does not equate to influence.

So should we discard influencer marketing entirely in Brussels? Not quite, but we may wish to alter the paradigm by which we approach it:

  • Online influencers that can influence policy (experts, high-profile green bloggers etc.) do exist, but usually at member state level. So if a key target stems from a country in which an all-powerful online influencer may realistically support your cause, by all means, explore the option.
  • Given how small the Brussels bubble is, the key triumvirate – entity seeking to influence / influential people / target audiences – have fewer degrees of separation between them than in the real world. And sometimes they are the same person. Spokespeople are sometimes cited as influencers, for instance. But are they not also targets? You might be seeking to influence, but are you not just one useful piece of online content away from actually being the influencer yourself?

In summary, for anyone seeking to use the online sphere as a means to influence in Brussels, I’d advise two things:

  1. Do not develop an ‘influencer’ list for Brussels, as there are not enough influencers, and there will be too much overlap between it and your target list. Simply create a target list that doubles up as an influencer list. It should include details on each individual’s online presence, especially a recommendation on how best to reach and leverage each e.g. target directly, target indirectly through paid, engage openly – or indeed, seek to leverage as an influencer.
  2. Try to become influential online yourself rather than seeking intermediaries to carry your message, through a really relevant and high-quality content strategy. Given the dearth of brilliant online content in Brussels – and the reluctance of many otherwise excellent public affairs practitioners to build their ‘personal brand’ online – there are rich pickings to be had.

Digital across three types of public affairs activity

Below is a slide I developed for a recent presentation to a lovely collection of my countrymen.

It summaries viable digital tactics across three ‘types’ of public affairs activity:

  1. Technical i.e. classic government relations on a legislative dossier on which experts on every side are wrangling over the details of key texts
  2. Reputation building amongst policy-makers i.e. when an interest group is seeking to build a relationship with policy-makers beyond the technical wrangling through positioning/differentiation
  3. External environment shaping i.e. what Americans often call grassroots – the attempt to influence publics in order to indirectly influence policy

As ever, kind thoughts or even brutal take-downs would be appreciated.

Digital Public Affairs

eBook: Digital Public Affairs is Dead, Long Live Digital Public Affairs

A recent blog post got wildly out of control, resulting in this eBook. In it, I provide ten short reflections (commandments) that I believe are essential to the successful practice of digital public affairs in Brussels (and beyond).

While there are practical tips in it, it is not intended as a practical guide on channels and best practice. Plenty of practical guides exist already. Somewhat ambitiously, it is more an attempt at further professionalising the practice of digital public affairs in Brussels, by seeking to outline its impact and applications beyond the realm of just channels and tactics, which has sadly been the norm.

I had originally wanted to make this a collaborative effort but ended up writing it myself. In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement, and I would like to publish an update early next year in which I build on a few of the main concepts. So, if you spot anything you disagree with or you believe could be enhanced, please do let me know. It’d be much appreciated.

The sledge-hammer method in public affairs

In public affairs in Brussels, we frequently skip from message to delivery: we blast our preferred message out through various delivery channels, be it face to face, or media, or digital – with little thought to how it will resonate with a target audience, but hoping that some of it will stick. Call it the sledge-hammer method.

Sadly, the bit in between message and the delivery mechanism is often overlooked – i.e. analysing what will drive influence and developing a corresponding strategy.

Why is this the case?

Perhaps it is cultural: we venerate knowledge, from understanding the complexities of the political process to the intricacies of a highly technical dossier, but are less interested in the communications methods required to drive awareness and influence, like audience scrutiny, testing, or measurement.

Or perhaps it is because successful outcomes in public affairs are less clear-cut than in other communications disciplines. While marketers and political campaigners are purely assessed on their ability to sell a product or a candidate respectively, a successful PA result is less clear-cut. There are unambiguous political outcomes, like policy change or the avoidance of harmful legislation, but there are also looser ones, like building a relationship with a policy-maker or establishing a coalition with useful political players. If we are just expected to deliver the latter, there is little reason to do much strategising.

Whatever the case, it’s a shame, as public affairs sells itself short when fixating on technical detail and relationships over truly delivering influence. And frankly, the strategic planning process does not have to be overly difficult. It can simply comprise the following:

  1. Narrowing down objectives to those that are most important and realistic/achievable.
  2. Narrowing down audiences to just those who makes decisions (being very specific).
  3. Figuring out what will influence them (e.g. data, case studies, technical vs. non-technical, centre-left vs. centre-right values, proof of market power, proof of popular support, local, national) + who will influence them (e.g. you, a constituent, an influential person, media) + how they consume information (p.s. if you do not know or cannot hazard a sensible guess on any of the above, ask them).
  4. Re-assessing how realistic and achievable success is.
  5. If indeed it is realistic and achievable, develop a strategy and a corresponding implementation plan.

Easier said than done?

Digital and social media in an age of populism and pseudo-science: light at the end of the tunnel (one hopes)

This post is an extract from an eBook I shall be publishing soon: watch this space.

I am frequently asked about social media in the context of some of the more unsavoury phenomena of our age. Such as the rise of assorted populist movements. Or the pseudo-science peddled by some activists, from climate change deniers to the anti-GMO brigade.

Countless items of disinformation disseminated by such people, and their zealous supporters, are seen (and believed) by millions. Some are rebutted, others not; but frankly, once a story is in the open, rebuttals are often drowned out, however fervently the aggrieved parties seek to stand their ground. Some people still insist that Hillary Clinton runs a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlour in Washington DC. Need I say more.

Many quite reasonably ask what on earth we can do about it all. With the (mostly) reputable gatekeepers of old (i.e. traditional media) side-lined, how can we stem the flow of nonsense? Mechanical fixes are touted. Like insisting that Google and Facebook better filter their platforms. Or that they block the financial incentives that encourage people to set up and feed fake news sites (e.g. impeding the likes of the famed Macedonian teenagers that set up fake news sites to generate ad revenue during the US presidential campaign). Facebook in particular has faced scrutiny over the unsavoury ads its platform shows people likely to appreciate that type of thing, and are being called on to make it harder for crazies to advertise.

But whatever fixes are put in place, nonsense will still likely proliferate, as long as audiences are eager to consume it in the first place.

There are two takes on this that are essential:

  1. By scapegoating the internet and looking for quick technical fixes, we ignore the root causes of populism and the triggers that encourage people to disseminate nonsense.
  2. A more sober understanding of what the internet can and cannot achieve might actually be quite helpful.

I am by no stretch of the imagination diminishing the perils of fake information disseminated over the internet. It is a very bad thing indeed. When believed, fake news can convince people on the fence to move to the dark side. And even when not, it contributes to the general sense of rift and disillusionment we face in our public/political arena.

But scapegoating the internet, along with populist politicians (however reprehensible) and the supposedly dumb people who vote for them is far too easy.

Many of the so-called elites – politicians of the non-populist sort, media, and corporates – are the root of their own plight. They have behaved in a manner that has drained public trust and fuelled the populist machine. Expressed differently: they have done more damage to themselves than populists, fake news, demented activists et al – and indeed, have allowed fake information to be plausible in the first place.

The response by the political establishment since the 2007-08 crash has for the most part been grossly insensitive, making it too easy to make the case that elites in ivory towers are the enemy of the common man or woman whose wages have stagnated, or have lost jobs and homes (and presumably plenty of self-respect). In parallel, modern day corporate scandals like Dieselgate, journalists behaving unethically, or the murky dealings of sinister media empires have hardly helped.

Meanwhile, corporations that are targeted by activists peddling pseudo-science, fail to see that in many cases they are targeted because they are easy prey. Organisations that are honest, transparent, and generally good corporate citizens are targeted far less forcefully. The starting point of the victims of pseudo-science, and other illegitimate activist claims, should be ‘how can we first behave, and then secondly, communicate better’; and not ‘pseudo-science and the internet are the sole triggers of all that is wrong in the world.’

Which brings us to the second point, that of a potential silver lining, brought about by a more sober understanding of what the internet can and cannot do. For years, far too many of us believed the internet was the second coming, and would bring about prosperity and world peace for all. Quite literally. Think back to 2011, when many claimed that social media alone was responsible for the Arab Spring and the ensuing loveliness and chorus of group hugs it would produce. Seems so long ago now.

Given events of the last few years, belief in what Evgeny Morozov calls cyber-utopianism – the failure to see the internet’s undesirable side, and believing it to be purely a force for good – has faded. And this is a good thing. It means most of us (hopefully) have a more sober and realistic view of what the internet can achieve. In public affairs and communications terms, this might involve assessing and mitigating risk before we engage in online communications. Or adopting a level-headed integrated strategy that sees digital and social media as a set of useful channels amongst many, rather than insisting on digital first.

Moreover, might the threat of fake news – in part – encourage the derided elite to clean up its act? Is the best defence against fake news not to be the sort of person or organisation that fake news peddlers largely leave alone because they are holier than though? Muck is less likely to stick when thrown at saints, so genuinely behaving well is a far more precious asset than slick spokespeople and pretty communications material.

I live in hope.