The limitations of digital public affairs

In the introduction to my eBook on digital public affairs, I wrote the following:

“There was an awkward time, peaking between 2008 and 2010, when I would be invited to meetings, be introduced as a guru or ninja, and be expected to provide an Obamaesque digital strategy that would ensure victory on a lobbying battle by the following Tuesday. I would invariably fail to do so.”

The unrealistic expectations of public affairs professionals have subsided, thankfully. But the rationale that lead to the overexcitement persists. Namely, that success can be attained by delivering a message ad nauseum across as many channels as possible.

Sadly, that is not the case.

Digital and social media are a set of channels. They’re packaging. As are lobbying and media relations. Visibility and delivery frequency do not matter nearly as much as substance. Especially relevance, utility, and vision.

Relevance and utility: Scholars of interest groups cite three key success factors: high quality of technical information; proof of popular support; and proof of market power. Does what you are saying reflect at least one of these, tied to the interest area or constituency of the person targeted? Will it teach them something new? Are you making their lives easier? Will ‘legislating’ become easier for them? If the answer is no across the board, don’t communicate.

Vision: Offering utility and relevance may not be enough. There’s a lot of competition for attention in policy-land. You provide jobs and growth? So does everyone else. You’re helping Europe meet its targets in something or other? So are plenty of others. How are you truly different? Differentiation is best articulated through a long-term vision that’s good for Europe, a realistic plan for getting there, and proof that you’re already doing something to meet the vision. Clearly, most organisations do not have a remarkable vision, and that’s fair enough. Vision is often set far away from Brussels. But in an overcrowded market, organisations with a vision win.

The lesson remains: don’t fuss over channels, or even message. Figure out how best to be relevant and useful. And have a vision with a plan. If not, your communications efforts – be it digital or non – will most likely be an utter waste of time.

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eBook: Digital Public Affairs is Dead, Long Live Digital Public Affairs (Second Edition)

Download ‘Digital Public Affairs is Dead, Long Live Digital Public Affairs’ (2nd Edition) here (PDF).

In this eBook, I provide ten short reflections that I believe are essential to the practice of digital public affairs in Brussels (and beyond). While there are plenty of practical tips in it, it is not intended solely as a guide on best practice: I’ve also attempted to outline its potential impact and categorise its applications beyond the realm of just channels and tactics.

The structure of the second edition isn’t any different, but I have updated the content based on recent developments in influencer engagement, LinkedIn, and online platforms for managing PA programmes. Plus I updated the design to reflect my new company.

Components of successful communications

Communications 101 is always worth re-iterating. Such as this: what are the non-negotiable components of any communications programme?

(NB: in this post, I mainly consider communications in support of EU public affairs programmes).

Lots of upfront work

Successful communications should do more than inform: it should stimulate opinion and/or behavior change, and action. But bringing about change and action is bloody difficult. Communications that manages to do so is invariably inspiring and motivating in some sort of way.

We must therefore spend time figuring out what is likely to inspire and motivate those that we target, by determining:

  1. Their values, challenges and priorities.
  2. The opinions or preferences of their key constituencies (those who influence them).
  3. What others are up to in the same space, to understand what to imitate or avoid.

How do we acquire this knowledge? By speaking to people and asking questions, shockingly. Polling’s another option: we do too little polling in Brussels. Or benchmarking, to see what’s worked well and less well in the past.

But the method doesn’t matter, as long as we’re able to acquire some lessons that we can feed into our strategy and message.

Proper objectives

Many organisations set communications objectives that are either too vague or too ambitious. Objectives need to indicate a shift, and should start with clear terms that demonstrate change, like increase or reduce. And they need to be measurable, ideally within the next 3-6 months.

While objectives should be realistic, they should not be unambitious. “Increase awareness of our organisation’s message amongst our target audience” is frequently listed as a key communications objective. Snooze.

Increasing awareness amongst a target audience can be an initial objective, but there must be other objectives that can be tied more directly to genuine public affairs success, like “increase number of decision-makers who publicly endorse our position.”

Narrowly defined audiences

“Policy-makers, media, and general public.” These are often listed as target audiences in public affairs land. Unless an organisation has a seven-figure budget or is on the right side of the debate on the 1 in a 1,000 issue that everyone really cares about, it will be impossible to reach all of them.

Impossible, and not even desirable. Why do we want to reach a target audience? In order to help meet an objective, and not every audience member can help us do so. Policy-makers should be targeted if they actually influence the outcome of our issue. Usually, only a narrow set of policy-makers actually do so. Journalists should be targeted if they will be likely to say nice things, less likely to say unpleasant things AND if the aforementioned policy-makers actually care about the publications they write for.

General public should NEVER be a target audience. A segment of the general public can of course be if they are relevant to the policy-maker who ultimately decides our fate. But while influencing the general public in order to support our public affairs programme indirectly is highly desirable, it is also very difficult and time-consuming. If we choose to do it, ‘publics’ need to be defined narrowly. Maybe it’s: people who work in a certain company, sector or locality; people in a specific demographic and locality; or people with a history of interest in a specific issue. It might be parents, perhaps students, or the elderly, or trade unions. But it’s never everyone.

Actual strategy

It’s become a cliché to state that communications ‘strategy’ is a misused term. Yet true. A plan isn’t a strategy. A list of objectives with some activities isn’t a strategy. Strategy lists in just one or a couple of sentences HOW communications will help meet stated objectives. It starts with words like position, reposition or harness and NOT with words like change, increase, decrease, create or develop.

An easy way to frame communications strategy for public affairs is to do so around issue, positioning and people, as we’ll likely need a strategy for each:

  • Issue: The key determinant of interest group success in Brussels is the provision of high-quality technical information. So to some extent, expertise can deliver success on an issue: plenty of organisations have flourished in Brussels without a whiff of strategy, especially if their issue is primarily handled in expert groups behind closed doors. But strategy will make success more likely if the issue is political and public. Strategic positioning on an issue should involve answering questions such as: Do we own the issue or work with others? Do we make it our key issue or one of many? What are we willing to forgo? How forceful do we wish to be?
  • Positioning: Beyond issue specifics, how should we position our actual organisation towards audiences in order to help build political capital? In an ever-more political EU, this is essential. How are we different? Are we nicer, more innovative, more sustainable, the smartest kids in the class, or helpful conveners? Or how are we positioning ourselves around market power and public support, other key determinants of interest group success, in a manner that is relevant to our target audiences?
  • People: Simply, who will speak on our behalf? Will it be our own people? If so, who? Lobbyists or experts? Lofty folk or mid-level staff? Should a single, respected leader be the main face of the organisation? Or should it be someone external? These are not overly difficult decisions to make, and it may be a mix of all of the above, but in any case, each should be thought through.
Good messages and a compelling storyline

At this point, we get to actual communications output. What will we say and how? Ideally, having nailed all of the above, this becomes relatively easy, but we’re often guilty of over-reach here.

Messaging needs to be simple and limited only to what will help meet objectives. It must align with our audience analysis and our strategic approach. Nothing else can slip in.

Using messaging models that impose brevity is highly recommended, such as the 27/9/3 approach: 3 messages max, 9 seconds to read one of them out, 27 words max each.

Likewise, we must keep messages jargon-free and simple. We do not dumb down by making something understandable. And we must focus on results over process, and stress relevance, utility and vision.

In addition, we should as far as possible articulate messages through real-life examples involving actual people, rather than fact-sheets, as trite as this may sound to the seasoned PA professional. Stories work. They release dopamine in the brain, making us feel splendid. They make information more memorable through a process of neutral coupling, which means we subconsciously associate a story with our own perceptions and experience.

But what goes into a story? A story should be people-focused, framed around a ‘hero character’. Classic hero characters in EU public affairs include the teacher, the farmer, the doctor, or the steelworker. If a hero character is an employee, all the better. And ideal themes include: European history and heritage (the beer industry is great at utilising its legacy in its public affairs output, for instance); human impact through purpose; and exciting products and services developed through smart innovation.

Prioritising distribution

Some communication fails because the research and strategy aren’t right. Plenty more fails because the message and storylines are not compelling enough. What a shame then when all of the above hit the spot, but organisations have not thought about a clear and comprehensive distribution strategy.

Strategy, ideas and output are not end points. Distribution is, meaning: how are we going to make sure our target audience sees or reads our stuff? Do we speak to people directly, deliver through media, digitally, or through advertising? Probably a bit of all of the above. How can we use networks and influential folk to enhance reach and credibility? How do we encourage affected people to get involved?

Given that the previous elements are quite difficult to nail, distribution is too often treated as an afterthought. Just a bit of spray and pray: a few meetings, a speaking slot, a press release and some tweets. Job done.

This may again sound evident, but distribution has to be wide-ranging, multi-channel, and very well though through. And in particular, it needs to involve an ‘influencer’ strategy. Not naff, celebrity influencers, but rather: the direct involvement in our communications efforts of relevant, credible people with their own, decently sized networks. Run-of the-mill examples include: pharma companies teaming up with patient groups to create content; or agri-chems companies doing so with farmers.

Useful, actionable measurement

What is the point of measuring communications? To prove success and justify one’s existence of course, but mainly, to adapt and improve. Hence we should track metrics tied to objectives, not stuff that looks nice because the numbers are going up.

As public affairs activity is not as patently transactional as other forms of communications (like marketing) and involves an awful lot of variables beyond our control (the whim of politicians, mainly) it is often hard to tie communications objectives directly to genuine policy influence.

But metrics can be applied to relationship building and popularity amongst key constituencies, which are the forerunners of policy influence. Hence why we need to track things like: key people who have expressed a positive opinion about us; key people who have pledged support; key people who have pledged to do something (speak on our behalf or table and amendment). And so forth.

They key term being key people. We should not just track useless vanity metrics like media coverage or social media followers, although there can be some value in keeping an eye on them, namely to evaluate why they are going up or down.

Other important lessons for useful measurement:

  • Don’t measure everything, or we end up with reams of stuff that mean nothing. Measure around 5 things that truly matter.
  • Don’t rely on hard numbers. In public affairs, anecdotal evidence is just as important e.g. a Commissioner telling you that you have a license to lobby them because your communications on innovation is really compelling (a true story).
  • Report regularly (monthly is fine) and include insight and recommendations: what does it all mean and how can we improve?
Realistic budget

A final, brief point on budgeting: good communications does not come cheap. Communications leaders within organisations should have plenty of experience and will cost a few bob. High-quality and ongoing external counsel should be sought. In Brussels, communications budgets remain trifling. If communications is to deliver genuine influence, budgets must reflect this.

3 scenarios for digital public affairs

How can digital means of communications most effectively be used to support a public affairs programme? As with much else, it depends.

A handy starting point is the type of public affairs activity once is conducting: is it technical work on the nitty-gritty of specific legislation; is it building political capital through positioning and relationship-building; or is it public opinion shaping and mobilisation (what our American friends would call grassroots)?

The diagram below (which is a re-design of a previous model) aligns activity with need and key tactics. As ever, comments are very welcome, as I’m not sure I’ve got the model right yet (some people have questioned leaving out social media from the third category, for instance).

Digital public affairs

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.

 

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.