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We’ve been told for years now that traditional public affairs (face to face, technical lobbying) is not as effective as it used to be in Brussels. The logic is that many issues, and even entire industries like financial services or oil and gas, are now “political”, meaning decision-making on legislative matters is no longer based on the rational analysis of available information, but rather, the tide of public opinion.

For this reason, the adage goes, public affairs professionals need the support of marketing-communications professionals more adept at applying techniques that can affect the opinion of constituencies, with a view to shaping the environment in which decision-making takes place, rather than just the decision-making itself.

In other words, PA professionals need to run “campaigns” that seek to build and/or showcase some level of public support in parallel to lobbying on policy. Good campaigns should be focussed and simple: channel agnostic, definable in a single sentence, with a single and specific goal, a visual identity and end-date. Fish Fight was a PA campaign, aimed at banning fish discards. As are Renovate Europe and Keep me Posted in the UK, looking to set deep renovation targets for buildings and banning email only billing, respectively.

So does campaigning represent the future of EU public affairs? Yes and no.

However detached Brussels may be from real European publics, its legislators gain legitimacy in part by demonstrating that they respect and represent public constituencies. Hence why some activist campaigns have been so successful. Fish Fight and ACTA campaigners took issues that were not on the public agenda, put them there, and flipped decisions that had previously not been in doubt. On the corporate side, scrutinised organisations need to build and harness the support of specific constituencies, often through campaigns, in order to legitimise their policy objectives. Think pharma and health care professionals or patients, agrochemicals and farmers, or tech and entrepreneurs. But campaigning is not the dominion of corporates on the defensive. There is real value in campaigning when one is on the “right” side of the public debate, or even when no “right” or “wrong” sides have been defined and early mover advantage may be gained.

Having said all that, organisations should be less hasty at hiring marketers and creative agencies while eschewing technical expertise. Traditional public affairs remains dominant in Brussels.

In her study of interest group activity in Brussels, Heike Kluwer concludes that the quality of technical information provision remains the foremost determinant of lobbying success, ahead of demonstrating market power and public support. Her work is admittedly not very recent, but there’s little reason to assume much has changed.

Apart from certain issues (the likes of GMOs and shale gas), national publics remain largely disengaged, and legislative activity remains highly technical. Put simply, on most issues, there is no public debate and no constituency to mobilise, so campaigning would not provide a competitive advantage to public affairs practitioners

And even when an issue has been politicised, better lobbying can still win the day. The most notable example is probably that of mandatory food labelling around the turn of the decade, when better lobbying arguably meant the food industry’s favoured system, guideline daily amounts (GDA), prevailed over the traffic light system endorsed by consumer groups and health advocates.

So which is it: to campaign or not to campaign? As ever, it depends. If an issue has been highly politicised and external forces are reducing prospects for lobbying success, there may be no choice. If an issue is slightly off the radar but campaigning can improve the likelihood of success, it should probably be added to the mix. But with three major caveats: 1) campaigning is usually expensive and difficult, so adequate resources need to be available, which is often tricky given intractable siloes (e.g. PA and legal vs. marketing and communications); 2) campaign success relies on building and showcasing support from a key constituency, whether small or large, so at least one such constituency needs to exist; and (controversially) 3) if the other side is ineffective and failing to win over a major constituency, campaigning may not be necessary even on a somewhat politicised matter (e.g. food labelling).

I’ve made a couple of further tweaks to my original digital public affairs wheel, in which I linked three components of day-to-day PA (delivering a message to policy-makers and related audiences; building relationships; intelligence gathering and analysis) with relevant online activities and tools. Since 2014, the wheel has included two further disciplines – campaigning (building and mobilising support) and the oft-overlooked internal communications (informing and engaging internal stakeholders) – and this is a slightly cleaned up version of that. Any glaring omissions etc. please give me a shout.

Digital Public Affairs

 

Social media poses a threat to to unpopular industries and companies, so the cliché reads. Supposedly, the social media nous of activists, the fast spread of criticism, in parallel with growing popular concerns over corporate conduct and calls for greater transparency, makes companies on the wrong side of the public debate highly vulnerable.

True. Companies have taken a hit after being targeted by campaigns that have spread far and wide in part thanks to social media. Think Shell and Arctic exploration: drilling was abandoned last year. Or Nestle and palm oil. Or Starbucks and tax. These campaigns are amplified by the nature of the modern news cycle. In that there isn’t one: you can’t kill a story that lingers on Google and keeps garnering social shares. No doubt lots of companies have felt compelled to improve business practices to avoid being attacked. Which is a good thing, clearly.

But the cliché is a tad overstated.

It ignores the fact that unpopular industries and companies can themselves use social media, and other online tactics, like data analysis and content marketing, to their benefit. They can use them to identify risks, manage issues and crises, help deliver their side of their story, rebut inaccuracies and showcase transparency and general good-will.

Also, it exaggerates the extent to which people care about good corporate citizenship. Being good matters. Beyond being the right thing to do, it helps attract investment and talent, and will make scrutiny and reproach less likely. But it doesn’t matter that much, right now, all the time. I recently wrote that the notion that corporate behaviour drives consumer-purchasing decisions is overstated and that plenty of unpopular companies do just fine. People will purchase goods and services based on price, habit and ease more than behaviour and reputation. Hence why most campaigns targeting unpopular corporates fail to take off. Certainly, social media poses risks in that a dud product or service will be exposed fast on social media, to great cost. But this is hardly the prerogative of the unpopular, but rather, of the incompetent.

The cliché further overstates the impact of campaigns that actually do take off in terms of numbers reached. The cost of engaging in a campaign is now so low (the proverbial click by a slacktivist) that dozens of campaigns with millions of supporters can run simultaneously on online petition sites while saturating our social media feeds. As a result, campaigns compete with each other and we become immune to them. A campaign has to be truly outrageous to hit a collective nerve. If we loosely define “impact” as a mix of the following – substantial and sustained cross-over to mainstream discourse, and subsequently, negative effects on sales, and/or greater risk of long-term reputational damage, and/or harmful regulation and licence to operate limitations – the number of campaigns with true “impact” is very limited indeed.

Similarly, the cliché implies that amplified criticism invariably damages an industry or company’s standing. It’s not quite that simple. In its Authenticity Gap research, my former employer, FleishmanHillard, stresses that reputation is driven by the difference between expectation and experience across a series of variables. Simplified: if someone expects a company to be highly innovative and it is not, say a tech company, it will take a reputational hit. Likewise, if a company is not expected to be environmentally friendly at all, say an oil and gas giant, but it then exceeds expectations ever so slightly, they’ll actually accrue reputational benefit (perversely, some may think). By no stretch am I implying that companies that are not expected to behave well should not bother, but it does highlight the nuances.

In conclusion, should companies and industries on the wrong side of the public debate stop worrying so much? Of course not: the scrutiny that social media enables is real. This is true for both the popular and the unpopular. And if they are on the wrong side of the public debate because they are truly unpleasant, the good times won’t last. But for those somewhere in the middle, they should probably expend more effort on harnessing the benefits of social media and other online channels and tactics, rather than worrying about the naysayers.

Public affairs practitioners like politics. Obviously. Hence why clever political campaign tools excite us. Data is one such tool. Current (and potential) uses of data in political campaigning are very impressive indeed. In particular, the ability to use data to identify, then target and mobilise very specific audience segments.

Applied to public affairs, the logic is clear. Improve the likelihood of success on an issue by identifying sympathetic groups, ideally in a target politician’s constituency. Then target them with very specific messaging and perhaps even mobilise them into joining forces and doing the lobbying for you.

The reality is (usually) different. Our work usually involves far fewer stakeholders so we know our “segments” already and don’t need data to identify them. Frankly, in many cases these segments are very small, especially on technical issues, issues on which we’re on the wrong side of the public debate, or on which there is no public debate.

And perhaps most pertinently, on most issues, mobilising potential supporters in constituencies is costly and difficult, and unlikely to yield as much value as effective lobbying.

Which brings us to where data can be valuable. It should be utilised to generate proof points that can improve the likelihood of lobbying success. In other words, rather than harbouring unrealistic expectations about mobilising hoards of supporters, we use data to showcase that X number of people within a certain constituency (e.g. citizens in a certain locale, employees of a certain industry, students, academics etc.) have expressed views in line with our own. In this way we are showcasing public support from a key constituency, which is a determinant of lobbying success, without having to generate that support ourselves.

Digital and social media can make public affairs more effective. But not always in the same way: depending on the environment in which an organisation operates, and its goals and challenges, strategies should differ.

Broadly, there are 3 levels of digital and social media applied to public affairs:

  1. Supporting day-to-day public affairs
  2. Digital as a campaign tool
  3. Digital and internal communications

Supporting day-to-day public affairs

In PR-speak, the 3 “core deliverables” of the PA professional are:

  1. Providing intelligence (and analysis)
  2. Helping deliver a message to policymakers (directly or indirectly)
  3. Building relationships with said policymakers and others (civil servants, media, activists etc.)

Digital and social media can support each element e.g. more efficient intelligence gathering using online tools; delivering a message via web content and search; stakeholder engagement via social networks, for instance.

This is the nuts and bolts of digital public affairs, applicable in varying degrees to all public affairs functions and probably covers 90% of all digital PA work. It is equally relevant to organisations trying to operate under the radar, given that they are on the “wrong side of the public debate” or generally have a behind-the-scenes culture (many B2B companies) although they are less likely to engage on social networks.

Digital as a campaign tool

This is a step up from day to day support. It involves utilising digital and social media tools to mobilise supportive constituencies and generate or leverage support for a policy position. It can be done via broader use of social media and content, and online petitions, for instance. NGO campaigns, like Greenpeace’s new Detox Outdoor initiative, or a number of campaigns on sites like 38 Degrees or Avaaz, showcase digital as a campaign tool for policy outcomes.

Admittedly, most corporates do not utilise digital as a campaign tool in this way. They may be on the “wrong side of the public debate” and have no major constituencies to mobilise (e.g. banks and energy companies, say). Or the PA function may be legal/government relations centric and removed from other marketing and communications functions more adept at running campaigns of this nature.

Digital and internal communications

An oft-heard lament in corporate PA is that the function is not well understood by the business, and is as a result seen as an irrelevant cost centre and poorly funded. Digital and social media can’t magically fix this, clearly. PA professionals need to be more adept at quantifying the value of their activities e.g. how much is mitigating policy X really worth in € terms? However, improved, jargon-free internal communications by PA professionals, including internal online content strategies and better use of enterprise social networks, certainly can’t hurt.

I’ve previously summarised the tactics in a pretty(ish) visual: the digital public affairs wheel.

In my last post, I considered 2 levels of campaigning in public affairs:

  1. Campaigning as a necessity when an issue is politicised and on the public radar
  2. Campaigning on a non-politicised issue to gain an early advantage

As ever, I was guilty of over-simplifying. I implied that an organisation that campaigns as a necessity due to issue politicisation is on the wrong side of the public debate and needs to reframe it (e.g. sugar or GMO, say). And that an organisation that campaigns to gain an advantage on a non-politicised issue will invariably be on the right side of the public debate (e.g. fish discards).

There are further nuances to consider:

  • An organisation that campaigns on an issue that is heavily politicised can clearly also be on the “right” side of the public debate (e.g. anti-fracking campaigners; indeed, most activists).
  • An organisation that seeks to gain an advantage on a non-politicised issue will not necessarily be on the right side of the public debate (once debate ensues). Indeed, forward-thinking organisations that know they’ll face a backlash should seek to gain an advantage by framing their issue before it is on the radar.

In summary, a checklist for anyone considering PA campaigning:

PA campaign

 

 

 

 

 

Organisations scoring 2 or 3 in the left-hand column will likely have to run a resource-intensive, multi-market, multi-discipline campaign. Conversely, with 2 or 3 in the right hand column, a smaller, single constituency campaign might work. It’s never easy though.

A public affairs campaign revolves around a single, clear policy goal. The goal can be defined in one sentence. It’s channel agnostic and has a visual identity. It has an end-date. And it seeks to build and/or showcase some form of public support (sometimes broad, often narrow). Keep me Posted is a PA campaign. As is Save the Internet.

PA professionals don’t always need to campaign. In Brussels at least, the quality of technical information provided to facilitate policy-making remains the most important determinant of interest group success on most issues. Frankly, PA professionals should avoid campaigning if possible. It’s time intensive, expensive and bloody difficult.

Enter the two levels:

  1. If an issue is highly politicised (nuclear, sugar or GMOs, to cite obvious examples), campaigning is a pre-requisite because policy is broadly dictated by public sentiment. However useful the technical input provided.
  2. If an issue is not politicised but an organisation could benefit were it to be so (Keep me Posted, for instance). Competent campaigning will put an organisation on the radar and increase the likelihood of a win.

There is a vast difference between the two levels.

On highly politicised issues, organisations are potentially up against pre-existing beliefs held by millions of people. Shifting the pin will likely require a 7-figure, multi-year and multi-market investment. Culture and business practice change may be needed before campaigning even begins. And the campaign cannot be PA driven: a broad marketing-communications line-up is required.

On level 2 issues, an organisation can start much smaller because there is no well-known, existing frame to counter. Starting afresh means headway can already be made by building a modest community of support in a single constituency and channelling it via lobbying.

Unpopular industries continue to run campaigns either trying to affect public sentiment on the cheap or seeking to influence policy without channelling some form of public support, however narrow. They should probably not bother.

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