Better communications

June 25, 2014

The full-service communications agency – and the generalist communicator – face a number of challenges.

The communications landscape

Media complexity:  it goes without saying that channel proliferation, low barriers to entry and information overload conspire to make reach, engagement and persuasion more difficult.

Evolving service offering: media complexity, coupled with the continuing commoditisation or insourcing of previously lucrative activities (from monitoring a few years back to the likes of community management now) means that the service offering needs to constantly adapt and expand.

The nature of opinion formation: communications alone cannot dictate opinion formation (which then shapes reputation, purchasing decisions etc.) Peer recommendations matter, so product quality needs to be optimal, obviously. In addition, an organisation’s behaviour can dictate opinion, and communicators are often powerless to affect areas that shape it, like culture, leadership, structure and business model, either because they don’t have the skill-set or a seat at the right table (usually both).

Specialisms: scores of agencies specialise in individual elements of the communications landscape; their ability to focus means they’ll invariably be best at what they do. Do-all agencies and generalists struggle, given the sheer number of specialisms. In the “beyond communications” space, dedicated digital transformation and change management players, as well as professional services companies moving into the intersection of their traditional offering and communications, present a real threat.


Enduring paradigms: in my previous stomping ground, Brussels, the government relations paradigm was seemingly shatterproof; in London, media relations still rules the roost (get a headline in a paper and self-satisfied back-patting ensues). Unless an organisation truly commits to specialising, focusing on a single component of the communications suite is too narrow given the intricacies of modern-day communications.

Measurement as an afterthought: the metrics for success in PR/PA used to be basic, not much beyond a story in a target publication (PR) or a meeting with a decision-maker (PA), for instance. Now, organisations demand measurement set against real business objectives. Despite some improvement and all manner of models, sophisticated measurement is not yet the norm.

Low bar-setting in execution: possibly due to the simplicity of traditional outputs of communications e.g. the press release, communicators too often fail to raise the bar for elements of our work where the output itself needs to be exceptional e.g. gorgeous creative or highly insightful research.

Rudimentary approach to assessing opinion formation: as a follow-up to the previous point, communicators too frequently fail to adopt a methodical approach to assessing what makes people tick (what makes them support a cause, make a purchasing decision etc.) Pollsters and market researchers have been doing it for decades, yet communicators in the PR/PA space have bizarrely neglected it.

So what do we – agencies, generalist communicators – do about it?

The obvious: hire specialists and pick up tricks from other disciplines (marketing, political campaigning, management consulting etc.)

Genuine commitment to partnering: this should already be rife, especially within the giant marketing and communications conglomerates where scores of agencies supposedly share their specialisms and guarantee economies of scale, but it’s not ubiquitous yet. No surprise, given that the prevalent business model still favours keeping work in-house.

Eradicate the junior generalist: not literally, but a young communicator who isn’t specialising in a particular discipline of communications is an anachronism, given the complexities described above. Assuming they’re talented, experienced counsellors can still be generalists, as their role should centre on translating business problems into strategy. So knowing what the smorgasbord of specialties without actually being an expert in any of them can suffice. But what good is an inexperienced junior whose role is to execute, when they’re expected to do so across multiple disciplines, none of which they’ll ever master.

Phase out the alpha fixer: too many experienced communicators belong to the school of the alpha fixer – confident, with a quick and irrefutable answer to every concern. Given the complexities of the communications landscape, the alpha fixer cannot know it all, and should change tact. Their role should be to ask the right questions, translate business problems into strategy, then point to the experts within specialisms.

I’ve dug up a few posts from before I even started at Fleishman-Hillard which may be interesting to anyone into digital, comms, issues and agency life in Brussels.

It’s personally been interesting to revisit stuff I’d even forgotten I’d written: plenty of naive remarks, lots of things which I’d now think were to bleedin’ obvious to even mention, lots of stuff that really hasn’t changed, and other stuff that has (e.g. I mention at one point that access to content remains search-centric but I’d now say that access to content is driven more by referrals.)

Anyway, here goes:

Shaping the debate: 1999 vs. 2009

Why the Brussels PA bubble isn’t embracing the web

Don’t listen to smug online consultants

Agencies and the commodity temptation

Reaching a legislator before and now

Being an online communications consultant in Brussels: annoying conversations

Can an eCampaign alone shift public opinion?

What to do about angry commenting trolls: ignore them

Replicating the marketing journey in issues communication

The bane of the online communications consultant

Countering fragmentation in Brussels by integrating and aggregating

Know what happens to a marketer whose big programme does not result in a rise in sales? They’re in trouble. They may very well lose their job. What happens if a PA professional’s big programme still results in overwhelming loss in that ultimate of KPIs i.e. the outcome of the regulatory issue it’s trying to affect? Nothing much, in many cases (but not all cases, by any means).

Why the disparity? Because a marketing programme needs to fit into a neat sales funnel that lists all activities ultimately leading to the sale, and each activity is eminently measurable. If something is clogging the funnel, which then results in fewer sales than expected, it’s easy to detect exactly where the fault lies. There’s no PA equivalent of the sales funnel, however.

Result? In some cases, PA professionals can get away with not succeeding because:

  1. Often, the activities they conduct aren’t linked to ultimate success due to the lack of a funnel, so their achievement is often measured in fairly subjective terms, usually based on output. Lobbyist X is great, in just 3 months he/she got us meetings with 12 MEPs and high-level officials, produced 4 position papers which our board thought were great, and hosted an event which 3 journalists came to!”
  2. If a marketer doesn’t sell, there’s nowhere to hide, yet the PA pro has more pretexts: the public fell for the NGO narrative and politicians felt compelled to support their position; the media misrepresented us; we only had 3 months and so only met with 12 MEPs and high-level officials and wrote 4 position papers (as if to say if the bastards had given us 6 months, we’d have had 24 meetings and published 8 position papers: that would have done the trick!)

What’s the solution? Not a PA funnel that’s quite as neat as a sales funnel, because frankly, we PA pros have a valid point regarding the number of variables that affect regulatory outcomes. You can be brilliant and on the right side of an issue and still lose due to any number of factors. A brilliant marketer will usually get it right (assuming the product isn’t a dud).

However, output should never be a measure of success. The fact that it is, helps explain why some PA activity is poor. I see it all the time in digital, for instance. God-awful websites, excruciating videos, social media outreach that reaches no-one other than 12 spammers. And yet the programme is deemed a success because it ticked the website, video and social media boxes.

So step one to bridging the gap to more accountable communications disciplines like marketing is to produce indicative KPIs which connect output to success more cogently:

  • As a result of our meeting, MEP X tabled an amendment that supported our position (which, in truth, most tend to measure already, albeit not as part of a clearly defined measurement dashboard incorporating a number of KPIs).
  • As a result of our social media outreach, we built a coalition in country X and shifted a constituency into our camp, resulting in MEPs supporting our position.
  • As a result of our position paper, we were able to get meetings with 8 perm reps, which subsequently shifted Council’s position in our favour as measured by ABC.

It’s by no means an easy (or entirely scientific) exercise to extend this across far more PA activities (the sample KPIs above, for instance, require plenty of work). Yet I’m sure more specific metrics can be developed, which would ultimately make PA pros and their output more accountable, resulting in less bad PA and presumably more success in terms of affecting regulatory outcomes.

I use this image frequently when presenting on how Public Affairs is developing in Brussels (usually in the context of Public Affairs and digital specifically). It’s not a particularly novel or intricate notion: campaigners/pressure groups, have influenced policy making beyond what their resources should have permitted because they have told a better, and simpler, story. They’ve aligned with public opinion – and later driven public opinion – sometimes by pulling at the heart-strings, always using compelling, simple messages, oft-repeated – and plenty of visualisation. In the PA context, industry has famously been poor at doing just that: telling a simple story that resonates with people – including policy makers.

There’s usually a fair bit of nodding in the room at this point followed by one or more of the following inevitable rebuttals:

  • Yes, but you see, they can get away telling tales, we can’t.
  • Yes, but you see, our customers, directors, etc. expect us to be credible, scientific, cerebral, fact-based etc.
  • Yes, but you see, we can’t talk openly about our issues, they’re tip-top secret.

Tosh. The suggestion that pressure groups merely make up tales which gullible folk fall for is overemphasised. It happens, sure, but you need to give them more credit. Pressure groups do their groundwork: analysing audiences, developing storylines based on insights gained from their analyses, testing messages, delivering them through multiple channels and multiple forms of media with a fairly good inkling that they’ll succeed. They don’t do every issue, or attack every opponent: they focus on where they’re most likely to win.

Also, being story driven rather than fact driven need not imply fluff: it can simply mean talking about issues in an everyday context, openly and honestly, using real people, and language which people understand. It implies dropping the condescension and perhaps showcasing information in summary form or visually. It can mean talking to local community leaders and retirees rather than just policy-makers and the FT about things which resonate with them. In short, communicate about things people care about, in a language they understand, and be nice doing so.

As PA professionals, we know our issues. Intelligence is our lifeblood: we understand the multitude of factors which determine how an issue might progress over time, we know who’s who, and so forth. However, we’ve developed a habit over the years of going straight from knowing our stuff to delivering it. We’ve kidded ourselves into thinking we’re not like marketing, corporate communications or consumer PR folk who need to tell a good yarn.

Meaning what? That our output often isn’t adapted to our audiences. We provide a 100 page document when someone wants 10 bullet-points. We talk about clean air when people would rather hear about the economy. We try to get a meeting when our target audience is looking us up on-line.

So what should we do about it? Learn from the marketers, corporate communicators et al: use insights to better analyse our audiences, differentiate the message, develop a gripping and relevant storyline, test the message, vary the output, vary the channel. In short, develop a content strategy which turns your intelligence into a compelling narrative, and then deliver.

I am often asked something along the following lines: “I need to convince 50 key decision-makers in Brussels about our position. My colleagues deal with others (stakeholders at national level, media, customers etc.) I’m sure digital/online/the web/social media (take your pick) is important to them because their audiences are big, but is it relevant to me given that my remit is just the 50?”

Quick answer: yes, it’s always relevant, but how and why varies according to the nature of your issue and how the 50 operate online.

My two key points are as follows:

99% of MEPs use online search to conduct research on policy and 80% read interest group sites (FH’s EP Digital Trends Survey, 2011). Your audience of 50 will fit in there so you need good online content when they look you or your issue up i.e. you need a content strategy first and foremost. And here’s the first key consideration in your strategy: content type, should your arguments be more technical or value based? Is your dossier highly technical and not of interest to anyone beyond the bubble? In that case, keep your arguments technical (but do simplify, not all readers are experts.) Is your dossier linked to a mainstream issue that at least some part of the public knows or cares about? Then your audience of 50 won’t care about technical argumentation because they’ll likely align with public opinion no matter how good your meticulously researched data is. You have to – as far as possible – show that you reflect public interest and make your argument more value-based (health, safety, environment, personal freedom, personal gain, human-interest etc.) And it’s imperative to hook up with the aforementioned communicators targeting other audiences and look at how, together and over time, you can work at enhancing brand and reputation. Yes, that means looking outside the Brussels comfort zone.

The other part is: how do you then deliver the content to the 50? Online at least, the only words on people’s lips seem to be social media, but that’s only part of the equation. The key is being found through search: all decision makers search via Google, few tweet or use Facebook to interact with constituents, let alone interest groups. So a search strategy is usually step number one. Step two is to assess if social media engagement with the 50 is viable. How? See if the 50 blog or tweet, and then assess how they do so. If they use them infrequently and as one-way channels, don’t bother. If you spot one or more of the 50 sharing information and thoughts with others, then make an effort to connect and tentatively provide value back.

Originally, this post was meant to include the image below and a couple of bullets. Went overboard, but here’s the visual anyway:

A few acquaintances looking to recruit people with digital expertise for positions in Public Affairs have recently asked me what sort of profile I’d recommend. Not the easiest of questions: digital PA people are few and far between, given that it’s a new field, so candidates usually have to be selected based on a good balance of skills gained from other disciplines, rather than spot on relevant experience. Plus there are many areas within digital which are relevant to PA – strategy, intelligence gathering and analysis, community engagement, operational, measurement etc. – and one person won’t usually cover the lot.

Nonetheless, here are my thoughts on what I’d look out for if I were looking for a first digital PA hire with a balanced skill-set, but primarily focused on strategy and a good understanding of how to integrate traditional PA practices and digital.

Digital PA is not as “whacky” as online consumer PR, digital marketing and the like. Most issues are niche which means you tend not to have a critical mass of people to play around with, which tends to be where the whacky stuff comes in (community building, user generated content etc.) Don’t get me wrong, campaigns within PA can potentially include the full suite of online tactics, but usually not. The key is usually to not get too carried away: have a good listening set-up, sound content strategy aligned to your offline narrative, and a search strategy. Sometimes more, but often not.

For this reason, I’d argue the following:

Don’t go for the super eager early adopter: the person who is on 12 social networks and has 15,000 followers on Twitter. They’ll sound like they know their stuff, and they probably will. However, as good as they’d be at other online pursuits, they may well struggle with digital PA as they’ll likely look too much at how to harness the power of networks. For tiny niche issues on which you’re trying to communicate subtly (and slightly below the radar), you don’t need that just yet. In fact, in digital PA, it might even hinder the more measured, cerebral approach which is often required. If you happen to find a geek, rather one who is into politics then technology rather than the other way around.

Beware of the PA professional who has developed a sudden interest in digital. If they’ve grown to realise that government relations plus the odd press release is the Public Affairs of a bygone age and comms is becoming increasingly important (including digital) then fine. If it’s just digital, beware: they’ll tempt you through their mastery of PA and enthusiasm for digital, but they’re unlikely to have a holistic view of communications in which government relations and digital are just two elements amongst many others.

Likewise, beware of the PA professional who has dealt with ICT issues and thus thinks they can do digital. Some agencies have (bizarrely) put digital communications under the remit of their ICT experts assuming that given that you’re dealing with technology, surely it’s all the same. These people know what Facebook and Google are up to but won’t know how to reach an audience through them.

Instead, do look out for generalists who like communications and politics and appreciate where the two intertwine. They should be comfortable with technology, but not obsessed with it. Where are you most likely to find them? Probably not in politics or digital marketing. Possibly in existing PA roles with a strong generalist comms remit rather than government relations. Most likely, in media and PR.


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