Heard recently in Brussels:

A senior public affairs professional was hoping to convince a bright young graduate to join his agency. She had just completed a round of placements at several communications agencies that were part of the same larger holding company. Being very talented, she had the pick of the bunch. But she was torn between a marketing agency and our friend’s public affairs agency.

He gave her a call to seek to persuade her. “Name your dream client”, he asked. “P&G”, she replied. Makes sense: big budgets, iconic brands. At which point he asked her: “what would you rather do for P&G: sell detergent, or defend their right to exist?”

Now clearly, Mr Public Affairs was selling his discipline and agency, so the bravado (or breath-taking arrogance) should be seen within that context. He is bright enough to know that not all public affairs is quite so existential as defending a license to operate. And that marketing is about building markets, without which there is no business. Henc a tad bigger than “selling detergent” implies.

Nonetheless, his question does reflect where some public affairs practitioners believe they sit in the hierarchy of communications disciplines. Which is a shame, as they are less likely to think that they can learn from others, like marketers.

So what do marketers tend* to do better than public affairs practitioners?

* we’re generalising here: there are plenty of poor marketers and impeccable public affairs practitioners.

Focus narrowly

Ask a public affairs professional what their objective is and they’ll invariably give you ten. No one can meet ten objectives. Their output will reflect those ten objectives. Diluted and confusing, it is less likely to work. Marketers are taught to narrow down on a single-minded proposition: the one most important characteristic of their product or service, and to build their communications around it. Many marketers ignore this tenet, while others have a poor SMP, but generally, they’re better at it than public affairs folk.

Follow a rule-book (roughly)

The practice of marketing is more codified than public affairs. There is a rough rule-book of best practice which people follow, just about. Sure, some follow it badly, and others follow an outdated rule-book, but by and large there is some method to the madness, be it: following a process from market analysis through to execution; defined roles and responsibilities; measurement tied to ROI. Most public affairs professionals, however talented and successful, will have their own definition of public affairs and take on how it should be done. Which means there is no general acceptance of what best practice is. Cue: unnecessary disagreement on process, and poor practitioners getting away with delivering bad work because the bar has not been set high enough.

Outcomes over outputs

Marketers who fail to help sell their product will be out of a job. Most public affairs practitioners will keep their jobs even if they fail to meet the public policy objectives they have been set because their ‘outputs’ are in themselves quite challenging. Te following can quite easily be sold as results in themselves: developing relationships with important policy-makers; building coalitions with organisations who are not necessarily friendly; staying on top of complex policy developments and ‘translating’ these for the business; producing meaty positions. Might some public affairs professionals be more successful if they were more accountable for a genuine end-goal, like (most) most marketers are? Probably.

Seek to understand target audiences

Public affairs professionals spend too little time figuring out what their audiences really want or need from them. How many  inspect VoteWatch.eu? Or simply ask: “what would make you support us” OR “what can we do to make your life easier?” Or leverage public sentiment by conducting polling? As far as I can gather, not enough. Market/customer research is compulsory in marketing. It’s no doubt done badly in many instances, but no marketer would ever ignore it entirely.

Differentiate output depending on audiences

Following on from the previous point: some public affairs professionals fail to adapt their message to their audience. Whether speaking to a Finn or a Greek, or a left or right-wing politician, or officials with different portfolios (enterprise vs. environment, say), their message remains the same. Marketers will vary their pitch depending on where a person is in the customer journey i.e. someone who has never heard of you vs. a recent customer vs. a loyal customer will be treated differently, in terms of tone and ask. Again, plenty of marketers get it wrong no doubt, but the principle is at least pretty ubiquitous.

p.s. the clever graduate joined the marketing agency.

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Plenty of public affairs practitioners who use online channels to communicate are still perfectly happy to “get their message out” without much thought paid to whether they are actually driving any influence or change.

Thankfully, others appreciate that spending time and money on drafting drivel and being followed by a few bots from Vladivostok Is a complete waste of time.

People in the latter group are increasingly asking the question: how do we actually know whether our online communications efforts are having the desired effect?

It’s an important question, and difficult in public affairs, especially if we seek to measure the effect of online communications on the ultimate public affairs goal, namely policy impact.

Marketers are usually able to attribute a conversion (e.g. a sale) to preceding steps in the marketing funnel, especially if they all take place online. For instance: a prospective customer becomes aware by clicking on an online ad, then proceeds to ‘interest’ and ‘consideration’ by clicking beyond a landing page or subscribing to email updates, and ultimately makes a purchase online.

But the ultimate public affairs ‘conversion’ – i.e. policy impact – is harder to put at the end of a funnel. The steps preceding it are less linear, and decision-makers can shift from awareness to interest to total disinterest back to total conviction due to innumerable outside influences, like pressure from parties, constituents, or activists.

It is therefore unrealistic to create a direct line between a decision-maker’s online activity and a political decision.

Having said all that, while we may not be able to create a neat digital public affairs funnel, we can still be smart about how we track impact.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Do not over-elaborate. Set KPIs tied to fairly basic objectives that are achievable through online means e.g. building a community of relevant supporters or attracting positive interest from previously disinterested targets.
  • Similarly, set conversions that are perhaps less ambitious than ‘policy impact’ but make sure they are genuine ‘actions’ e.g. a key target subscribes for information by email, signs up to an event, or downloads a key position/publication.
  • Integrate on and offline metrics. I’ve never quite understood why most organisations insist on tracking and reporting separately given the obvious overlaps. Most simply: don’t ignore anecdotal stuff e.g. a key person (decision maker, influencer) cited your content in a meeting. A step beyond: interview people or run polls and insert questions about the reach and effects of your online efforts.
  • Stop attributing value to vanity metrics such as likes, shares or traffic. I’m not as militant as some in my profession in that I still think they’re worth tracking, for three reasons: it’s quite fun, people will invariably ask, and if numbers drop or rise dramatically it is good to try to figure out why. But in terms of effects on influence or change, they are negligible. Why? There are two main problems with vanity metrics: even if you have a simple short-term objective such as ‘building an audience of supporters’ a share or like is too weak an action to genuinely denote interest; while many vanity metrics do not allow you to identify exactly who you are reaching/engaging, meaning you have no idea whether you are actually reaching/engaging your target audiences or our aforementioned friend in Vladivostok.

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.

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).

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.

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.

One of the numerous slightly artificial splits in communications is between brand (seeking to reach a consumer with a view to selling) and corporate (seeking to reach audiences that don’t necessarily purchase, but are otherwise essential, like investors, regulators, employees or analysts).

Brand and corporate people tend not to like each other much. Brand think corporate are dull, smug and behind the times. Corporate think brand are vacuous and gimmicky.

But in the digital age, it’s harder to keep the two separate: brand and corporate audiences consume the same media. Moreover, brand and corporate positioning increasingly overlap. An organisation’s purpose beyond profit, the way it treats its employees, or how it manages it books – for instance – are of interest to audiences across the brand/corporate spectrum.

This also means that people like me, whose comfort zone is corporate, can’t avoid brand gigs. Indeed, I’ve done more brand than corporate over the last few months, and it’s been an eye-opener.

What key lesson can each learn from the other? (NB: I’m generalising, clearly.)

Corporate communicators tend (stress: tend) to value knowledge more. They know more about the sectors they operate in. They need to, given that their audiences – investors, regulators and the like – know their stuff. Brand folk can indeed be a bit vacuous in this regard, choosing not to value and accrue deep product and sector knowledge. Instead they focus on short-term attention grabbing, rather than imparting expertise and building relationships over time. Given the nature of present-day content and influencer marketing, this is a mistake. With mountains of content a mouse-click away, consumers often know more than they are given credit for. They may wish to examine a product in detail, learn what others say about it, or determine whether the company in question aligns with their values. Meanwhile, consumers who adore a brand have the means to be its most potent advocates. In both instances, provision of top-tier material and ongoing interaction are what’s needed, not another bloody discount coupon.

Meanwhile, brand people tend (again, I stress: tend) to be more results focused. Corporate communicators can talk for hours about the intricacies of pharma pricing or preferred climate change mitigation mechanisms. However, while wooing analysts – and their bosses – with their know-how, they often fail to think about, let alone measure, whether they are having a genuine impact on awareness, influence or sales. They often act as if metrics were somehow beneath them, arguing that their environments are too complex to measure. Tosh. Given that brand folk don’t have much knowledge to woo their bosses with, they need to impress through results. So they have clear, measurable objectives that all activities stem from. Although I many not agree with some brand folks’ preferred metrics (often short-term awareness and sales rather than long-term preference and advocacy) at least we know whether they’re meeting objectives and they are held accountable.

There you have it: brand folk, do more reading and don’t treat customers like fools; corporate, get off your high horse and determine whether you’re having an impact or just making noise.