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.

Digital public affairs: do not rush into information delivery – assess risk mitigation first

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

When utilising digital to support their programmes, corporate public affairs practitioners often fixate on how it can help deliver information at high speed and volumes. Understandably. Reaching policy folk is a challenge, so the notion of doing it at the click of a button is tantalising.

But it is important to first look beyond information delivery and consider the risks posed by digital, especially its celebrated progeny: social media.

Due to mistrust in elites and shifting societal values, corporations are expected to be paradigms of virtue. If they are not, social media is at hand to let citizens and activists express their discontentment. Moreover, a story can no longer be ‘killed’ given that social media means we have one perpetual news cycle. If a story is big enough, it will keep on running through likes and shares, and be amplified through petitions and campaigns. Social media does not even respect geographic boundaries, with salacious hearsay from a far-away continent likely breaking faster than a less juicy local story.

In public affairs, this all matters because it is now easier for opponents and activists to leverage corporate misdeeds from across the world (real or perceived) to gain political advantage.

Many argue that we should take protest in the digital age with an enormous pinch of salt given how easy it is to express indignation on Facebook or sign multiple petitions (the slacktivist phenomenon). But sometimes online protest does balloon, and with decision-makers eager to convey democratic legitimacy by following the tide of public opinion (and, one would hope, wishing to do the right thing), such protest can sway policy.

The most oft-quoted recent EU examples are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the much-vaunted trade deal between the EU and the US, and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a treaty aimed at cementing international standards for intellectual property rights.

I shall not enter into the merits of either package, but merely say that while both had seemed shoe-ins at the offset, they were derailed by large scale protests which would not have escalated so fast and attracted such numbers were it not for online mobilisation and petitions (Avaaz petitions against TTIP and ACTA were signed by 3.5 and 3 million people respectively).

What to do about it all? Beyond being virtuous corporate citizens, being better equipped to handle the risks posed by the spread of potentially perilous information online is the obvious starting point. This involves a melange of operational and cultural remedies which we shall scratch the surface of here:

  • Public affairs should work closely with counterparts globally – EU functions tend to be quite isolated – and with marketing-communications (not just legal, as is frequently the case). Working with marketing-communications – the main brand and reputation ‘owners’ – will ensure alignment and joint plans on reputation-building (proactive), and the ability to act quickly when trouble arises (reactive).
  • Organisations should make crisis mitigation global and cross-functional. Issue monitoring, scenario planning, and messaging should be shared. In practice, this should help public affairs professionals keep track of events outside their backyard which could affect policy. And vice-versa: knowledge of policy developments which could affect broader reputation will help corporate communicators.
  • Organisations should strive to institute greater transparency, including a willingness to be open and publicly engaged around policy priorities and advocacy activities (on and offline).

Three ways to improve the effectiveness of digital public affairs

Many public affairs practitioners who utilise digital and social media to enhance reach and impact, will at some point ask a variation of this question: “this isn’t working well enough – what should I do better?”

Three handy starting points:

  1. Audience first: I come across countless organisations that invest heavily in digital public affairs, but do not know how their audiences wish to consume information. Simple vs. complex? Offline vs. online? If online: social media vs. long-form? Text vs. audio-visual? Determining what is most useful to audiences, ideally by talking to them, and when considering online channels, examining how they currently use them, is the indisputable starting point.
  2. Don’t waste your time: “audience first” leads neatly onto “don’t waste your time”. I’m frequently asked what online channel someone should be on, what tactics work best, or how frequently they should be publishing. I don’t know. Maybe they shouldn’t be on any channels? Maybe they have an audience of 10 and have them all on speed-dial? Every single communications activity (every tweet, speech, press release, meeting) should fulfil a specific audience need, tied to a specific If it doesn’t tick both boxes – then don’t waste your time; focus purely on activities you know bring results.
  3. Understand best in class: within any given sector or issue, someone has probably sussed out what key audiences require, and is communicating effectively. You’ll usually know who. Analyse them in detail: what do they say, how they say it, who says it, where, how often, and in what tone. We don’t benchmark nearly enough. We should: online communications is largely public, meaning best practice is there for all to see.

A (wildly optimistic) take on modern-day communications

Plenty has been written about post truth, fake news, alternative facts et al. And it’s bleak. For good reason: while fake news alone cannot be blamed for the election of crazies and other alarming events, it does debase trust and delegitimise traditional figures of authority (think “experts”). Once citizens begin to believe that “they’re all as bad as each other”, the crazies get to present themselves as peers or respectable alternatives, with all the scary ramifications that carries.

For communications professionals, fake news carries particular challenges. The organisations we represent may become victims of fake news. The thought of a carefully crafted, fact-based storyline, being discredited by a spate of bogus news stories, keeps many talented PR pros awake at night. Moreover, in a world of discredited experts and media, how does one build credibility if no one is credible in the eyes of a disillusioned public?

None of this is helped by the behaviours of members of the so-called elite. Modern day corporate scandals from Enron to VW, journalists behaving unethically, or the murky dealings of sinister media empires, arguably do far more damage than fake news (and allow fake news to be plausible in the first place).

Even the communications profession itself appears to have given up on truth. The UK Vote Leave Campaign was celebrated by PR Week, despite the many absurd inaccuracies it presented as fact last year. Just a month later, a Swedish campaign about the merits of eating organic food, won the top PR gong at Cannes Lions despite using highly questionable data.

BUT while not at all questioning the perils of fake news, might the doom and gloom be overblown? Is the scale of fake new exaggerated a tad, for instance? It involves subject matter on which people have strong opinions. Granted, that covers a lot of ground, and debates around politics, migration, trade, climate change and so forth are likely to be tarnished by fake news. But surely most topics, and channels, remain uncontroversial? Most (not all) of the communications work I advise my clients on is hardly going to make Russia Today or Breitbart’s hit-list in the morning.

And are we exaggerating the gullibility of those exposed to it? While the scale and prominence of fake news has never been so great, it is not a novelty. Think of the doctors sponsored by tobacco companies arguing that Brand X cigarettes were great for digestion through to anti-everything activists peddling pseudo-science today. Each wave has helped to make people’s bullshit gauges more effective. How many people’s views are nowadays truly shifted due to fake news? Is it not arguably consumed more by people who like that it cements their own world view? Is fake news, and people’s ignorance and credulity in relation to it, not just a handy scapegoat?

Which brings us to a potential silver lining. Corporate and media misdeeds are the main root of mistrust; fake news merely reinforces it (read Robert Philips for a longer and better take on this here). 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 organisation that fake news peddlers largely leave alone because they are holier than though? Muck is less likely to stick when thrown at saintly organisations. Activists have for years attacked certain banks, agrichemical and oil companies more than others because they are poor corporate citizens, making their attacks more credible. Genuinely behaving well (not just having slick spokespeople and pretty communications material) is a precious long-term investment, against fake news and much else.

There is also a potential communications upside (again, very spurious and with plenty of caveats). Might the diffusion of fake news represent an opportunity for some organisations to enhance reputations (and even build new revenue streams) by becoming purveyors of high quality information? Many people are appalled by the fake news phenomenon. With BS sensors on high alert, they are less likely to trust little-known news sources, bloggers or citizen journalists. Recognisable and trusted organisations could help fill the information gap through high-quality content provision if they play their hand right (read/listen to more on this phenomenon by the clever chaps at CMI here and here).

Again, there are enormous caveats: in our age of elite mistrust, organisations with less than stellar reputations, a poor record of corporate citizenship, or who patently engage in spin rather than honest and authentic communications, will not succeed. And information needs to be high quality, credible, informative, useful and/or entertaining. But those who tick the many boxes and can become trusted, high-quality sources, may well (perversely?) benefit from the fake new phenomenon.

Most viable digital approaches and tactics in technical vs. political public affairs

I’ve recently written about different communications requirements (digital and other) on technical vs. politicised public affairs dossiers here and here.

On the same subject, here is a table that outlines, in basic terms, different viable strategies and digital methods that are most likely to be utilised on technical vs. political issues in EU public affairs. In summary: digital remains relevant on technical dossiers, but on a more discreet level and with fewer tactical options. NB: clearly, items in either column could quite easily also fit in the other, depending on issue, stakeholders and environment. Food for thought, I hope.

digital-pa-tech-vs-political

Internal evaluation of digital public affairs activities

Evaluation of communications activity tends to centre on external reach and impact, measuring basics like awareness, and ideally outcome related metrics like shifts in opinion of target audiences as well as genuine impact on communications, policy and business objectives.

A further useful form of evaluation which we often neglect is internal, revolving around questions like:

  • What should we actually be evaluating from an internal perspective?
  • What constitutes best practice (and poor practice?)
  • How are we performing?

The (hopefully visible) table below lists five core components of digital public affairs along with a short description of what constitutes basic, good and great for each, which I’ve used as a benchmark to assess activity.

I’ve arguably been conservative: some public affairs and communications professionals will likely think that some items in good or great should be considered basic in 2016. Perhaps, but I’d argue that given the cultures inherent in most public affairs functions – technical/legalistic and government-relations centric, and operated by policy wonks rather than marketing-communications professionals – I think it’s realistic. Happy to hear thoughts, as ever.

Digital PA grid

Using digital and social media in technical vs. communications driven EU public affairs

I recently wrote about the nuance between technical/legal and public interest driven dossiers in EU public affairs. In short, high-quality technical information provision is the key determinant for success on technical dossiers, while on politicised issues in which public sentiment plays a role, a successful PA programme will likely need to include more of the marketing-communications toolkit.

This same nuance affects the use of digital and social media in public affairs. On communications-driven dossiers, strategies will frequently have considerable digital components. Run-of-the-mill examples might include:

  • An online-centred rebuttal programme when a public affairs goal is being hampered by a specific item of misinformation.
  • Leveraging public support from a specific constituency – people who live in a certain place, work for an affected company or industry, or have a certain set of values – with the help of online tactics like petitions and social networks.
  • Utilising digital storytelling techniques to raise awareness amongst diverse stakeholders in a cluttered information space.

In legal-technical public affairs activity, like tracking and analysing ramifications of policy or drafting and advising on policy-related texts, such strategies may seem irrelevant. And in all honesty they often are, at least on a large scale.

But by no stretch does that make digital channels as a whole irrelevant, as they remain viable tools across three core components of all public affairs activity:

  1. Intelligence tracking and analysis

While the use of data in public affairs remains rudimentary, quick wins may be found in areas such as proof point identification (e.g. what do people in a key decision-maker’s constituency think of your issue and can this be leveraged) and analysing the opinions, habits and communications preferences of targeted decision-makers active on social media.

  1. Message delivery

Providing policy-related information online is obviously key. Even on the most procedural of topics involving limited stakeholders, information will be sought online. Meanwhile, highly targeted digital marketing methods can help get relevant content to the narrowest of audiences.

  1. Relationship-building

Last but not least, if target decision-makers are engaged in social media, it presents an alternative channel for reach and influence. There are only so many meetings one can attend.

The use of digital and social as one minor cog in technical/legal-centred public affairs programme may seem unexciting and perhaps even irrelevant. Undoubtedly, the options available when campaigning to influence a wider set of influencers will appear more enticing to most communications professionals. But don’t underestimate the value that digital and social can provide in shifting the pin even on under-the-radar PA, be it through a piece of intelligence uncovered online, first-rate content, or because of reputational capital and relationships built up over time in part via social media.

Technical vs. public interest dossiers in EU public affairs: options when public sentiment is king

There are two common takes on corporate advocacy in Brussels:

1. Technical information is king

In seeking to dispel claims that it is packed full of idle bureaucrats, the EU forces its institutions to be under-staffed. Given the complexity of most dossiers, lobbyists are likely to win when they help overworked regulators by providing excellent technical information, and understand the political process well enough to provide said information at the right time. And indeed, a study on EU interest group influence by German academic Heike Kluwer identifies high-quality technical information provision as the main determinant of EU lobbying success. Given that corporates tend to invest heavily in research and most of their lobbyists are lawyer or political-scientist types rather than campaigners, dossiers on which regulators crave technical information tend to favour corporates.

2. Public opinion is king

Kluwer also states that close alignment with public opinion is a key determinant of EU lobbying success. Grumbles about the supposed democratic deficit inherent in EU policy-making makes the institutions uncomfortable. In order to demonstrate democratic legitimacy, they will frequently seek to side with public opinion. As an exercise in democracy, this may be laudable, but public opinion is not always entirely rational! Activists understand this dynamic very well and will often seek to make an issue as controversial as possible in order to sway public opinion and force the regulator’s hand. On dossiers which have a public dimension – think TTIP, shale gas, GMOs, a number of chemicals, or privacy and data protection – activists have a natural advantage over corporates in Brussels as they are adept at building and exploiting public sentiment for public policy ends.

In some instances, corporate lobbyists in Brussels are on the ‘right’ side of the public debate. Most companies and sectors lobbying on the circular economy, for instance, are promoting some form of sustainable development, which few can have gripes with. Yet given many of the issues handled in Brussels, from energy to chemicals to financial services, it is fair to say that corporates are frequently victims of the ‘public opinion is king’ dynamic. Which is often a very good thing: public opinion tends to side with the good guys. But sometimes it is not so clear-cut and a more nuanced debate would be preferable, to put it mildly.

Assuming they’re genuinely not nasty, how should companies or even entire industries respond if unfairly lambasted because they’ve become the cause célèbre of a set of activists? The easy answer is: become the sort of organisation for which doing good and being nice is part of the corporate DNA – think Disney or Unilever – and avoid being targeted much in the first place. But that’s hardly a short term fix nor is it purely the domain of a public affairs or communications function. Easy answer #2 is a staple of public affairs 101: act early. Monitor obscure blogs or journals where the alarm around your product or service might first sound, and escalation signposts like initial activist take-up, and cultivate relationships with stakeholders early rather than when the proverbial shit has hit the fan.

But what is slightly more realistic for public affairs and communications professionals in the short-term? Three thought-starters:

Accept the distinction between technical/legal vs. communications-driven PA

A majority of EU public affairs professionals are issue and policy-process experts. Which makes sense: most EU dossiers are technical/legal in nature. But when the issue in question has a highly public component, technical nitty-gritty is trumped by politicisation. Navigating a political minefield involves shifting from technical/legal to communications-centric public affairs, which is frankly an entirely different discipline. The PA professional’s conceit will often lead them to believe that they can manage the enlarged toolkit. How hard can campaign strategy, creative content conception and production, and broader stakeholder relations (esp. media) be? In truth, pretty hard – so bring in the required expertise.

Tone over content

A number of organisations would benefit from focusing on tone over content. Their instinct is to fight back; to forcefully rebut inaccuracies, citing fact and sound science. Which is commendable in theory but often less so in practice if the tone of delivery isn’t right. Right or wrong, we’re constantly reminded in today’s political climate that gut feeling often matters more than truth. And most people’s guts don’t digest aggressive corporates all that well. Activists pick battles they are most likely to win. They will therefore often target individual companies within an entire industry when they have the sort of corporate tendencies that make them easy bait: aggressive, defensive, male-dominated and immune to humility. As trite as it may sound, getting rid of the pin-striped suits, listening and being nice (and a tad boring) can be more effective than reams of rock-solid evidence.

Frequency

Assuming the tone is right, delivery frequency is another factor. Organisations often simply do not make enough noise, choosing to speak and publish intermittently in a couple of channels (on or offline). Repeating the same message on repeat (within reason) is essential to campaign success, for two reasons. Information overload makes it easy to be drowned out, so without frequency, there is no basic awareness. Heuristics also plays a role. Cynical perhaps, but simply being everywhere lends legitimacy. It implies that you have nothing to hide and showcases genuine belief in your position, which may well make a few people think the issue is not as black vs. white as they may first have thought.

Clearly, these quick wins may not magically turn the tide. Strategy, message, funding, partnerships and the external environment are key. But the memo here is this: in their quest to win on communications-driven public-interest dossiers, public affairs professionals frequently spend eternities on message, but ignore the basics, like resourcing, tone and frequency. They shouldn’t.

US vs. EU digital public affairs: different stages of maturity or just different markets?

Digital public affairs, incorporating methods like grassroots mobilisation, use of data to guide bespoke content creation, and advanced use of paid media to narrow-target audiences, is more advanced in the US than it is in Europe.

Some assume this is the case because we are at different stages of maturity. With a few notable exceptions, we probably are, but a few further factors explain why Europeans embrace digital public affairs to a lesser extent than our American cousins.

Technical vs. public interest dossiers

At the EU level especially, a majority of dossiers are technical, with limited public interest or involvement. Influence is more easily attained through the provision of high-quality technical information that facilitates policy making rather than campaigning aimed at affecting the environment in which policy is made. While there is still a place for digital, albeit on a narrow scale – e.g. high-quality online content and some social media if stakeholders are that way inclined – broader campaign methods like grassroots become somewhat obsolete. On most EU dossiers, there are few grassroots to mobilise, frankly.

Scale at national level

Publics may not exist at EU level, but they do at national level. But most European markets are small which makes organisations less inclined to explore new methods. This might seem counter-intuitive given that small markets means smaller budgets, and thus surely more scope for targeted and cost-effective digital tactics. However, small also means smaller teams covering more ground, fewer experts to drive new approaches, less saturated media markets meaning easier reach via traditional methods, and fewer degrees of separation between public affairs professionals and targets, making personal outreach more viable.

Lack of Pan-European issues

Scale would be easy if Pan-European campaigns were feasible. But Europe is too heterogeneous. Beyond obvious barriers like culture and language, campaign strategies would often need to differ even on the same issue. I remember exploring options for a campaign in German and Poland for an energy client a few years back. Seems obvious in retrospect, but local sensibilities to energy are polar opposites, with the environment and energy security the respective dominant concerns. Clearly a one-size-fits all would not work.

Availability of data

European campaigners envy the ability of their US counterparts to utilise all manner of third-party data sources in order to generate, and then target, a very narrow list of key targets. Given our history, it is perhaps unsurprising that Europeans are less comfortable with sharing data: our far stricter data protection and privacy rules preclude pesky campaigners from obtaining data that would facilitate deep segmentation and micro-targeting.

Digital public affairs is dead, long live digital public affairs

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.