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).
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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.

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.

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.

Clearly everyone’s pining for yet another article on Brexit, so here goes.

The Remain (Stronger In) campaign put in a remarkable shift. Selling an entity as maligned as the EU via a cross-party platform targeting such different communities was bloody challenging to say the least. Assembling 40,000 volunteers and organising 10,000 events was wildly impressive. Their commitment was beyond reproach. Hats off.

But they lost. And annoyingly, a fair few chapters from the campaign 101 handbook appear to have been overlooked.

I write this with the obvious benefit of hindsight, and a caveat: I’m no insider and this is all wild conjecture. And with the knowledge that they probably know the handbook very well indeed, but the campaign was simply too intense and complex to be run by the book, while responsibility for their failure to counter Leave’s emphasis on immigration lay with Labour rather than them.

But still: they lost, and as a pure political campaign, Leave was better. Remain felt like a reactive, spray-and-pray fact delivery mechanism and rebuttal system, rather than a real, targeted political campaign. Perhaps strategists outnumbered genuine campaigners in the Remain camp. While strategists are knowledge and message merchants, campaigners concentrate on targeting and emotional triggers: a prerequisite in a campaign as primal as Brexit/Bremain. Again, wild conjecture, but this could explain why Leave bossed the sound bites (Take back control!) and key campaign frames (Project Fear!)

In a blog post published before the Referendum, the campaigner Chris Rose identified a set of key groups that did not fit within obvious remain or leave clusters but could likely be persuaded to support remain, and were potentially sizeable enough to swing the vote. Utilising values research from CDSM in tandem with Shalom Schwartz’ values model, he wrote the following:

Whoever manages to appeal to values… such as achievement hedonism, stimulation and self-direction, is likely to swing the decision. In political parlance this means establishing a ‘narrative’ of optimism, the prospects of future success, enjoyment and looking good, whether as a country, a business or individually… The benefits of Euro-railing, enjoyment of foreign holidays, making friends and having a good time doing business with Europe, and the endorsement of celebrities for the same, are likely to have more effect on this than any amount of ‘economic argument’.

With a campaign strategy centred almost purely on the economy, this optimistic narrative was sorely missing, although a fair few celebrities did make an appearance (Golden Balls Becks was terrific). I appreciate that telling an unemployed bricklayer in Huddersfield that Euro-railing is ace would result in a bloody nose rather than a cross in the Remain box, but I live in London where “achievement hedonism, stimulation and self-direction” are rife and the positive narrative could have resonated. I read local papers, listen to local radio and obviously see billboards and the like, but I’m not sure I ever came across a positive Remain message targeted specifically at the likes of me.

On the topic of targeting, beyond media, were people targeted personally? I’m Johnny Foreign and perhaps they knew that, but most of my British friends are archetypal remainers. Not one of them received campaign material from Remain, personally targeted at them via mail, email or social media. Perhaps the campaign assumed their votes were in the bag, but given that turnout was such a major concern, surely that was a tad risky. Maybe they were hard-up and spent their dinero elsewhere. But everyone I know received Vote Leave (and Leave.eu) guff addressed directly at them, meaning they’d gone to the effort of obtaining mailing lists. Again, what the hell do I know, but surely Remain should have done so too, especially given the demographics involved, at least as a last-minute get out the vote effort?

The campaign 101 handbook also tells us that framing is key to campaign success. If your side fails to set the frame, the opponent’s frame should be ignored, and a counter-frame introduced. Responding to an opponent’s frame merely reinforces it. But Remain constantly let Leave set the frame, and then proceeded to reinforce it.

Take Project Fear, a stroke of campaign-framing genius. In just two words, it decimated Remain’s strategy of cajoling sensible Brits into voting remain for fear of the economic unknown. Remain’s response? More figures, usually quoted by men in suits working for organisations known by an acronym, which reinforced Leave’s frame: they were fear mongers. With their strategy decimated by two words, there was no obvious attempt at setting a new strategy, countering with a positive frame, or introducing a different frame to define Leave. They doubled down on the economy and fear, to no effect.

At a more granular level, when faced with the £350 million nonsense, their response was to break it down in detail to prove the figure was actually lower. Again, this merely reinforced the “Europe costs loads” frame. Where was their take on the EU’s cost? The Brickwall video that did the rounds contained an example of a figure that could have offset the £350 million: 10 to1 i.e. the UK gets back £10 for every £1 spent. Does the figure hold up to close scrutiny? Probably not, but sadly that’s not the point, neither does the £350 million. I appreciate that it would have been difficult to ignore it, given its physical prominence on the side of that bloody bus, but some semblance of response beyond dissection would have been nice.

When studying modern political campaigns, one can’t help but be awestruck by their ability to identify and target tiny communities of support. Did Remain narrow target? Again, what the hell do I know, maybe they did, but it didn’t seem like it. One perhaps trite example: Glastonbury took place during referendum week. The Glastonbury demographic clearly sits heavily in the remain camp, and there were surely tens of thousands of votes at play. Apparently there was no effort to reach people with tickets to urge them to get their postal votes sorted. A petty gripe perhaps, but again, if turnout was a concern, surely relatively minor initiatives such as this represented a no brainer.

Remain / Stronger In put in some serious hours. But ultimately they failed. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the deep-rooted antipathy towards the EU built up over decades, the rage felt by huge swathes of the electorate, Leave’s willingness to play the immigration card so forcefully and cynically, and the fact that the sheer assortment in their camp partly neutralised each individual faction. How could Labour credibly campaign in down-and-out communities in the North-East while sharing a stage (metaphorically) with Tories talking about protecting the “markets” and doing the rounds with bankers ? Tricky.

I get all that, but the fact remains: why the clumsy responses to great campaign manoeuvres by Leave; why did they double down on the economy and fear when a quick study of potential voter groups demonstrated that a positive narrative could work; why were key demographics not targeted more directly; and why were get out the vote efforts not more aggressive given that turnout was a concern?

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 heard this statement in various guises over the years. Supposedly, non-profits win over public opinion by duping gullible citizens through emotive, exaggerated if not outright false tales, which compels decision-makers to approve regulation that unfairly and disproportionately damages business.

When corporates think so-called emotive campaigning makes up the entirety of the activist’s toolkit and leave it at that, they’re guilty of malpractice. And I doubt most citizens are quite as dim as they think.

We’ll overlook two pertinent factors:

  1. Corporates do quite often win. Indeed, market power scale (i.e. job creation and investment) has been proven to be a key determinant of decision-making at EU level.
  2. Non-profits don’t always peddle misinformation: they’re often on the right side of the public debate based on hard fact (think CFCs) although I appreciate this is not always the case (think GMOs, where pseudo-science and demonisation largely trump reality).

Instead, let’s look at a few areas where non-profits, especially those that are larger and more professionalised (including foundations) often do better than most (not all) of their corporate counterparts.

  1. Picking the right battles

Public affairs professionals are always oh so busy working on their 20 dossiers. No one can fight, let alone win 20 battles. Non-profits are vocal about some things but not others because they pick their battles well: they select those they think they can win. I appreciate it may be easier said than done, but corporates should be looking at their issues and determining which are most commercially beneficial AND winnable, and focus on those. Also, some companies get hit more than others that make the same products for a similar reason: again, non-profits pick battles they’re more likely to win. They analyse the competition and attack the companies that are worse equipped to retaliate. Methodologies for commercial competitor analysis are well advanced yet in public affairs they’re patently not. Why?

  1. Start early

Public affairs is often reactive, yet in policy-land, the longer one waits, the harder it becomes to win. Corporates need to start reputation building activities early, way before it even looks likely that regulators might strike. As highlighted above, picking the right battles involves identifying vulnerable industries or companies that have failed to build reputational equity; starting early helps to mitigate this (unless the product or service is overtly nasty).

  1. Fund battles properly

One of the great myths of policy-land, which is gladly espoused by NGOs, is that corporates engaging in public affairs are lavishly funded while all non-profits except possibly the foundations trundle along on meagre donations. This is not true. Public affairs is often seen as a mystifying cost centre and tends to actually be underfunded. At the same time, we’ve witnessed significant professionalisation of the NGO sector and new funding mechanisms, coupled with the advent of foundations and the growth of philanthropy. Overall, this has resulted in non-profits often being better funded than corporates.

  1. Study opinion formation

Corporates often do not know what makes their targets tick: how do they form opinions? And by extension, what can we do to get them onside? I hardly know the workings of all non-profits, but I’ve spoken to a fair few that have applied Values Modes to help develop outreach that targets a broader set constituents, not just “people like me” which tended to be the norm. Similarly, plenty of good academic research looks at the nature and determinants of interest group influence at EU level (some of the best is by Heike Klüver). Is any of this type of stuff ubiquitous in corporate circles? Not as far as I know.

  1. Be campaigners

Most NGO folk I know would gladly be defined as campaigners. A campaign denotes an outcome: I campaign in order to bring about said change. They are often subject matter experts, but also know the campaigner’s toolkit inside out, and are diligent students of both. Corporate public affairs practitioners are often subject matter experts but are uncomfortable with campaigning, or communications in general, which tends to make them knowledge rather than outcome focused, to their detriment.