Digital, comms, Brussels: some old posts revisited

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


A joke about a goat (and a reflection)

Nick told us a joke yesterday:

A scraggly old Greek man in a dusty village speaks to a group of strangers.

“See that school? I built that school – with my own hands. Ten years it took, and thousands of children have been schooled there, but nobody talks about Stavros the school-builder. Nobody!

See that hospital? I built it with these very hands. Fifteen years it took. Countless lives have been saved there, children born, the sick cured, but nobody ever talks about Stavros the man who built the hospital. Nobody!

But f*** just one goat…”

Now for the reflective bit. Great men and women are often remembered for one soundbite, one event, or like Stavros, one faux-pas. In the Internet age, how is the latter affected, if at all? Are people or organisations more or less likely to be tarnished by a one-off occurrence which reflects poorly on them?

Half-glass empty Steff would say the risk is even greater, considering the ease with which events, soundbites etc. can hit the public domain. There are countless examples of individuals or companies that have suffered at the hands of simple publication and viral, as only available in the Internet age. Domino’s Pizza anyone?

Half-glass full Steff would say the risk is diminished. Given that it is so easy to publish online and build a profile across multiple online channels, it’s also surely easier to create a positive impression or persona. Public profile-building does not need to rely on unpredictable, one-off 3rd party output anymore (primarily by media) but can be conducted by the person or organisation itself, and their networks, over time. Perhaps not just yet, but certainly down the line, will web-natives (which we’ll all be by then) not have developed into creatures who shun soundbites and spin and are more likely to believe an ongoing narrative by the person/organisation in question, assuming their online network backs them up? I’d like to think so.

Which is it really? Probably a bit of both; currently more half-glass empty, but in time, more of the half-glass full version perhaps?

Quality and quantity? No, quality AND quantity

How many times have you heard the old maxim: quality NOT quantity. Thing is, in communications at least, you can’t get away with just quality.

Two reasons:

  • People need to hear something 3-5 times to believe it.
  • The multitude of channels means you can’t reach critical mass (even if your target audience is relatively small) unless you’re communicating in multiple spaces.

By all means, quality of content needs to be exceptional to get through the clutter; but it will need to do so again and again and again. There’s no escaping it: perseverance is a key quality of the successful communicator (along with creativity, a strategic mindset and a knack for understanding audiences.)

Ignore the idiots with placards

Idiots with placards are given too much visibility. Every time some contentious issue makes the headlines there’ll be 20 of them holding up home-made signs bemoaning a loss of morals, demanding that someone be banished from somewhere, or proclaiming the apocalypse. And rather than be ignored, they’ll feature prominently in reporting of whatever event they crashed, and somehow be declared the face of public opinion.

Same thing online. Anything written in a prominent blog will undoubtedly attract scores of nut-jobs declaring that the author is an evil, brainless heathen whose opinions would spell the end of humanity as we know it; and yet normal people respond to these morons and even often refer to them in follow-up content as the face of public opinion. In my line of work it equates to clients saying: they all hate us, just look at the 20 critical tweets and blog comments.

It’s too easy to make a lot of noise and somehow become the face of an issue. A plea: ignore the nut-jobs, or we end up giving them credibility and lure more nut-jobs into the public space (think the fringes of the Tea-Party in the US.) Let them have their say, but let’s please not forget most people are moderate and sensible. What’s real public opinion? A million people on the streets of London to protest against an impending war. Even better, results of surveys where a proper cross-section of people are polled.

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Alive and well

My longest blogging hiatus yet. Any particular reason? Yes, even fairly sporadic blogging like mine takes some “framing” i.e. something happens or you read something that gives you an idea for a post; you then think to yourself, how do I condense the broad idea with multiple potential components into a single post i.e. how do I frame it so that it is concise and relevant.

And? I’ve started a new job (at Fleishman-Hillard as a “Digital Strategist”) so there are lots of things going on, and lots of new things to learn. I’m in an “absorption” phase which will hopefully precede some more framing (my admiration for people who blog every day – through job changes, holidays, weddings etc. – has increased no end.)

Anyway. Watch this space. Or the Fleishman blog which I’ll be contributing to as well.


Stupid and illogical left-right splits

Population growth and 10% economic growth in fast-developing countries will result in billions more people consuming at the rate of rich-world baby-boomers within a few decades. We’ll have to change our eating habits in the long-run, but until then, how on earth are we going to produce enough food to feed a billion middle class Indians and Chinese who have suddenly developed a taste for hamburger? Meanwhile, a complex concoction of trade regimes, population growth, urbanisation and increasing temperatures mean that food security is an ever growing threat in Africa; but in this case not because the new middle classes are demanding hamburger, but because hunger is still real (more on all of this at Citizen Renaissance here.) So what can we do about it? We can further develop smart methods of farming to increase yields perhaps. And yet if you’re a left-winger, you’ll think GMOs or other farming technologies are Satan’s spawn. That doesn’t make sense. Surely if you’re a left-winger, you want to feed people in developing countries.

If the worst predictions come true, we’ll experience a 5-6ºC temperature increase by the end of the century, putting vast swaths of the world under water and destroying ecosystems and possibly the nature pyramid to god knows what effect. But climate-change scepticism has become a standard bearing right-wing issue: if you’re right-wing, you’ll claim it’s all a load of tosh. That doesn’t make sense. Surely if you’re right-wing you should be just as worried as a left-winger if there’s even a slight possibility that even the most rosy scenario regarding climate change may come true.

Immigration rates in Europe aren’t really out of control as the populist press tend to claim. Three other trends are however. Declining birth rates, people reaching retirement age and Europe’s pathetic economic competitiveness. Right-wingers claim to be pro-business, pro-growth and pro-wealth. And yet right-wingers tend to be, if not always hostile, at least very wary of immigration. Again, that doesn’t make sense. Who is going to buy and build things? Where is the next generation of innovators going to come from if half our population is retired?

I’m fully aware that all three issues – and many others like them – are spuriously ideological in some way i.e. a right-winger will make a political argument for why they are anti-immigrant or a climate-change sceptic; while a left-winger can just as easily frame their hostility towards GMOs in genuinely left-wing terms.

The point I’m trying to make is that most issues are far too important and complex to fit neat political demarcations. And yet politicians and the media who support them are all too ready to politicise them to score an easy win. They’re taking advantage of the age-old human instinct whereby people are comforted by thinking that everything can be defined by us or them / right or wrong; so if the opposition has taken a stand on an issue, the response is to take the opposite view, rather than debating or perhaps even – shock, horror – agreeing with it.

It’s not all bad though. At European level, the strongly consensus-based political model makes complete polarisation difficult. Meanwhile, year after year, voters throughout Europe are increasingly struggling to tell the difference between parties (which I happen to think is a good thing) while age-old political affiliations based purely on family or geography are dying out. But given that the left-right divide can still characterise epoch-defining issues like food security, immigration and climate change, we still have some way to go.

Thou shalt not speak funny

I don’t know about you, but when someone speaks to me in an over-the-top, pompous, formulaic manner, I find it off-putting. Why is it then that old-school communicators insist on their organisation’s output being framed in exactly this sort of way? We are delighted to announce… we are absolutely and whole-heartedly committed to… our Chairman, Mr X, has repeatedly stated that… and so on and so on.

This sort of gibberish is especially off-putting online, where hierarchies are being eradicated and the order of the day is to communicate at level pegging, de-formalise, and be as open and honest as you would when talking to a friend. And it’s actually detrimental in an age where people are increasingly cynical and want you to show, explain and prove yourself rather than expect them to simply trust you because you make heavy-hitting statements.

Copenhagen: campaigners bear some responsibility

A little late in the day perhaps, but a quick after-thought I’d have to last month’s Copenhagen debacle is that campaigners hold more responsibility than they’d likely admit. Despite the urgency and apocalyptic tones that have been in use for years over the issue of climate change, by the time we got to 2009, the momentum in favour of doing something about it had decelerated in part because they weren’t going about their jobs in the right way.

I’m not for one instant claiming that political realities – in particular, the constraints placed on politicians dealing with somewhat vague and far-away issues at a time of global crisis, and the developing vs. developed country schism – aren’t by far and away the prevailing reasons for the gridlock.

However, I’d still go as far as saying that political pressure had waned so much that politicians could go to Copenhagen without there really being anything substantial on the table – i.e. a legally binding document that demanded sacrifices of its signatories – and get away with it, in part because campaigns on climate change were often poorly executed and always disjointed. As their constituents lost interest or even became bothered by the prevalence of the issue, spurred on by an irresponsible populist press, politicians could dither: such is the nature of the game.

If we split the climate-change debate into two phases over the last decade, the first phase had a figurehead – Al Gore – who came to symbolise the issue. He carried real clout as a senior politician who had abandoned politics to focus on the one issue alone. What’s more, he approached it with a real wealth of knowledge and understanding of the science. As a result, campaigners who became involved in the issue usually did so in his shadow while adopting a serious and cerebral approach. In public consciousness terms, the issue was escalating fast and the doubters weren’t too comfortable about raising their voices.

Phase 2 began once Gore stepped out of centre-stage, transforming the issue into an exercise in jumping on the bandwagon. All of a sudden, reducing one’s carbon footprint was the de-rigueur do-gooder issue for all organisations. Scientific argumentation got lost in the muddle as second-rate celebs pleaded with us to ride our bikes. Similarly, the lack of a focal point for the campaign meant it became disjointed: every oil and gas giant had its own separate campaign; it seemed every pressure group was doing its own thing too. Single-issue campaigns propped up everywhere but seemed to have different messages and I personally was never quite sure who was behind them. Lots of these campaigns were very good in terms of output – Kofi Annan’s tck tck campaign looked especially crisp and garnered a lot of signatures, although it came too late in the day – but there were simply too many overlapping initiatives rather than a single, strong, global voice spurred on by a number of interconnected campaigns. Result? The real message got lost and the populist press turned the issue into yet another fashionable and elitist pursuit for politicians detached from the man on the street.

Is all lost? No, mainly because the issue is real. What’s more, with the crisis diminishing, more people may start thinking beyond their day-to-day to issues outside their backyards. And with regards to campaigns on climate change, I think we’ll see a shift. Organisations who have hopped on the climate change bandwagon (or any other issue for that matter) are being scrutinised evermore by cynical consumers wary of greenwashing and will have to prove that they are serious about playing a positive role, while pressure groups should increasingly seek to join forces. This should result in better, more low-key, integrated campaigns by a number of public and private players, involving stronger grassroots engagement and mobilisation. Hopefully, this will put renewed pressure on the political class and ultimately result in responsible action, not hesitation.

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