Digital advocacy nearing the real deal

Digital advocacy has been effective on issues that capture the public imagination because the web is an effective grassroots mobilisation tool. From whale hunting to GMOs, pressure groups and concerned citizens have expressed anger, spread the word and mobilised likeminded people. Were Greenpeace to announce a big-time campaign tomorrow on, say, mink farming in Europe, it could be web-centred, with offline elements operating around it.

However, the vast majority of advocacy issues don’t capture the public imagination: nobody cares; media pays no attention. Until a short time ago, these were the sort of issues where advocacy was done off the radar i.e. primarily with stakeholders and policy-makers sitting down face to face. There’d be no large-scale media campaign or the like in support because it wouldn’t have been worth the effort seeing as all stakeholders were a phone-call away.

Digital advocacy is now nearing the real deal for niche issues as well. It is ubiquitous enough – even in public policy land (see Fleishman’s EP Digital Trends or Edelman’s Capital Staffers’ index) – to work as a direct advocacy tool.

In practice, if you plan and execute the online element of your campaign well, you can safely assume that you’ll reach relevant policy-makers directly, as well as engage and/or mobilise the aforementioned stakeholders that are just a phone-call away, using primarily online channels. By no means does that mean that traditional advocacy or media relations are a dying breed, but they can now be supported, enhanced and sped up no end. Exciting times ahead.

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Wonder why it's so easy for a politician to go from nutty fringe to moderate?

Quick thought. I was recently speaking to someone who works for a fairly outspoken politician (to say the least) who said that the politician in question is currently considering whether to communicate in a slightly more mellow manner so as to attract a different type of voter.

It’s startling how thin the line between “moderate” and “nutty fringe” can be: unless you actually are a nutty fringe politician, whether you’re seen as one or the other is largely down to how you communicate. But what’s really odd is how we as constituents are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and gloss over the past once the switch has been made. I’ll admit that I fit into that category: in 1994, Gianfranco Fini said Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the 20 century; now he’s changed his tone and is a reasonable centrist who speaks some sense amongst the throng of crude and worthless populists that make up the Italian ruling majority – and I believe him.

What a great benefit to politicians looking to make the grade though. Whether of the left or of the right, they can cause a stir amongst “party bases” by stating their position in the most outlandish terms possible, then repackage themselves as a more moderate force once they have a following and a media presence  (i.e. saying the same things just in a more conciliatory tone and with less gesticulation.) Hey presto, they attract a different breed of supporter virtually from one day to the next! Wish it were that easy for the rest of us.

Are NGOs still the eCampaign benchmark?

The story goes that NGOs were able to mobilise support and spread their message online over a decade ago, when the corporates they were up against barely had any web presence to speak of. This is cited as one of the reasons for their ascendancy in the political power game.

How are they faring these days? This is by no means a long analytical piece: I haven’t combed through hundreds of NGO sites from which I’ll cite dozens of examples; but in short, my general feeling is that NGOs aren’t as effective online as they used to be. To some extent, it’s probably their fault. Some have amazing stories – especially from the field – but are not using social media as well as they could to tell them. Sometimes they use the tools but not in an integrated manner e.g. offline campaigns aren’t backed up online and vice-versa. Big NGOs are often too split along country or regional lines: rather than sharing material across platforms they’re keeping it separate, which is pointless as well as detrimental. Also, some of these same big-time NGOs have sites that are far too pristine and corporate-looking. Meanwhile, others have crammed too much into their toolkit, meaning that they do a little of everything badly rather than a few things well; and others, especially small-time single issue pressure groups, are not using cheap and cheerful tools nearly as much as they should (although I hasten to add that some do!)

To some extent, their loss of the best practice mantle is not really their doing. With their mammoth budgets, their corporate adversaries have played catch-up very well by developing credible CSR programmes and hiring smart agencies that do great communications online, with plenty of effective social media in the mix and winning the search-ranking battle.

Having said that all that, the spirit of the NGO is alive and well, and their message is stronger than ever. However, it’s not necessarily them that’s delivering it. Firstly, “regular folk” are often more militant than most NGOs nowadays, and they’re very active online in forums, blogs etc. I did a little bit of research last week in response to a report from the Food Standards Agency in the UK which claims that organic is no healthier than regular produce, and was astonished to see how many people (with no affiliation to official groups) were taking a stand against the FSA. And they were pretty angry. Secondly, corporations themselves are making noise about the sort of issues only NGOs seemed interested in until recently.

Conclusion? Having mobilised people to such an extent over the last 10 or 20 years to the point where they have actually radically altered the common man’s sensibilities over a range of issues and leading ultimately to far more responsibility in corporate-land (as well as politico-land of course) is no doubt a great triumph and impressive legacy. It probably might not seem to matter so much that they’re not good with Twitter: that’d be taking a myopic view of the global challenges we still face and which they can contribute to. Still, I think they should brush up a little online.

Reaching a legislator before and now

then&now

A few months ago, I posted a simple diagram to highlight that organisations should not overlook the importance of being able to communicate directly to their audiences. I’ve taken that diagram a little further to show how tactics to reach legislators have developed  in the age of the Internet.

The two key elements that are different now are: 1) being able to reach legislators via content and search i.e. organisation X publishes on its website, blogs, posts a release on an eWire etc. and a legislator picks it up via Google; and 2) the main indirect influencer i.e. the press via media relations has now expanded to include all sorts of other influencers e.g. bloggers, while far more people can become engaged in political activism that might influence legislators (online advocacy via communities, ePetitions and so on.)

Any thoughts? Have I missed anything?

EP elections: parties get your acts together!

parliament~_mothershi_101bI’m not an expert on the minutiae of European politics – for more in-depth analysis of the elections I’d recommend proper Euroblogs like Julien Frisch, The European Citizen, Nosemonkey and Grahnlaw – but there’s one “layman’s” observation I would make.

Low turnouts and the success of a number of unsavoury fringe parties (as well as the failure of the centre-left to make up ground on the centre-right despite the financial crisis “gift”) is likely going to be blamed in some smug quarters on a cynical media and stupid and/or gullible voters. Or if not that, on the fact that voters have become too individualistic to care about serious politics and wider community matters.

But what about the failure of many mainstream parties – especially those on the centre-left – to offer voters a real sense that they offer a helping hand in trying times? I think that’s far more critical. Sure, the media may be a tad cynical, but have entire electorates suddenly gone dim-witted? Hardly. Have we all turned into materialistic egomaniacs? Maybe, but I doubt charity donations would be at an all time high if that were so. Perhaps it’s fair to say that it’s not an easy time to be a political party. People don’t vote along party lines like they used to (largely because social class does not matter much anymore in political terms) while there aren’t that many issues on which parties can really stand out seeing as they all pretty much straddle the middle ground.

Nonetheless, it’s certainly the case that plenty of Europeans feel utterly estranged from political parties . What should they do about it? For a start, try to be more representative and not appear so detached; be less dismissive and most of all to be more communicative. It means surveying constituents and acting on results. And as an advocate for all things online, I’d say more than anything it means members of parties communicating online directly with their constituents and making it an absolute priority to engage in daily dialogue even if it takes up a sizable chunk of working hours.

And if that fails? More proportional representation and direct democracy perhaps, but that opens up a whole new kettle of fish.

MEPs online: survey

Fleishman-Hillard published the results of their EP Digital Trends Survey earlier this week, exploring European Parliamentarians’ use of the web from two perspectives: first, their own actual outgoing communications; and second, their use of the web as a research and learning tool.

The figure which most stood out for me is that 93% of MEPs use search engines every day. That many of these then go on to claim they do not read blogs doesn’t really matter. I doubt many would discard a good blog that appears top of the search rankings (maybe they wouldn’t even identify it as a blog..?) Further proof (as if any were needed) that organisations should make good quality online content (and a search strategy) core elements of their communications.

Some observations on other findings in the report:

  • “62% of MEPs have either never heard of Twitter or have no plans to use it” – Wonder if any respondents both said they’d never heard of it AND thus wouldn’t dream of using it. Hope not.
  • “80% of MEPs believe websites to be either very effective or effective in communicating to voters, making websites as effective as one-on-one meetings” – So 1 in 5 still don’t think websites work? Not surprising, but I had hoped this might have been more like 1 in 20. I’ll always remember the MEP who last year told me that he “didn’t believe in the Internet” but I thought the Obama effect would have changed that sort of attitude to a greater extent.
  • “51% of MEPs believe blogging or micro-blogging to be very effective or effective in communicating to voters” – Considering how alien blogging still is to many, this is a good figure. Hope it’ll be more like 90% come 2014. Communicating in you own voice directly to your constituents, for free, whenever you want and wherever you have an Internet connection? What’s not to love?

Social media and customer service: would it work with issues?

I’ve been reading about how social media is transforming customer service for a while now (came across this article on Econsultancy about this very topic today) and am wondering to what extent the same approach is viable when it comes to regulatory issues and the like in Brussels.

Here’s the gist of how social media has been impacting customer service:

  1. Disgruntled customer complains about a company’s product on Twitter (or whatever.)
  2. Company has a social media monitoring set-up and picks it up.
  3. Company responds to customer in blog comment, directly, on Twitter etc. in calm and measured way, apologising and offering a solution of some sort.
  4. Customer is happy, says so, others who have followed conversation are impressed.

Is this a lot of work on just one customer? It might not have been in the past because people’s word of mouth networks were limited, but now, individuals can potentially reach millions of other online users, so listening and responding to single customers can have a massive positive knock-on effect. A company that is seen to be engaging and looking out for its customers becomes highly valued and the story can spread online. Plus if bad reviews are simply left to fester they too can spread untouched and even reach the top of search rankings so that people who search for a company or its products online might come across a blog entry slating it amongst the first few items. Bottom line is it’s good for the company.

What if the same approach were adopted by companies and other organisations who communicate on issues in Brussels or elsewhere? Online conversations are increasingly shaping public opinion and it’s the job of good communicators to tap into them and try to help to shape and shift the debate. What if, say, company X produces “nasty chemical Y” which people are writing about on Twitter or their blogs, expressing concern, and company X were to respond saying something along the lines of: “We accept and understand your concern. We’re trying to do our bit. The University of Z has issued a report which relates to your concern. Might be of interest? Here’s the link.”

It’s tricky, but I think it could be work as part of a long-term strategy aimed at tapping into the right conversations, nipping concerns at the bud, and slowly shifting the debate online.

However, I’d make sure the following guidelines were adopted and scrupulouslty adhered to:

  • Humility at all times!
  • Don’t use corporate gobbledygook but communicate like you would with a normal person.
  • Always keep in mind that what you say might spread, so make sure it’s appropriate to multiple audiences.
  • If you’re providing material, try to use third-party content whenever possible: far more credible than your pretty brochure.
  • Don’t interact with nutjobs. For some individuals and in particular single-issue pressure groups, their issue goes beyond concern for people and the environment etc. It’s an obsession and they’ll never ever be convinced by your arguments. If you try to communicate with them directly they might use it against you in some way. Do interact with people who are concerned but don’t have all the facts.
  • Be proactive as well as reactive: make it part of broader social media approach i.e. don’t just, say, respond on Twitter to people who are concerned about your issue, but also communicate independently. Otherwise it’ll just look like damage limitation rather than serious engagement.

Learning from Obama: Labour and Tories online

Thomas Gensemer, a consultant who worked on Barack Obama’s online strategy during his campaign for the Presidency, talks about Labour’s and the Tories’ online offerings in this short clip.

The two key elements to take away are:

  1. The need to be authentic and have something to say: it’s not about the technology (it never is) but how it allows you to share a message or contribute to a conversation. This is a lesson for anyone engaging in political, advocacy and other communications online: don’t do Twitter (or whatever) because everyone else is on it; do it if you’ve got something interesting to share, can fit it within your wider communications and remain coherent, and appear eager and honest (let others be the judge of this).
  2. Limited focus on mobilisation of activists and other supporters. The Obama campaign worked because it made it really easy for people to create, share and spread material; to find and arrange events, and so on. This got people excited and provided the Obama campaign with scores of highly active volunteers. However, Labour and the Tories still aren’t making it really easy for their supporters to engage and get involved. As Gensemer puts it: it isn’t easy to find “5 things to do” on the sites, although all the elements are there somewhere. They should be the centrepieces of the sites however, not an afterthought.

Obama: not losing the online momentum

white-house-site4 Yet another Obama and the web post. Zzzzzzz. Many apologies, but the subject matter is too good to let go.

Much has been said about the positioning of the blog on the White House website. It’s right there, in first place in the first submenu (see image). It’s nothing more than a symbolic gesture however as the blog only informs and does not do what a “real” blog does (engagement via comments or trackbacks, references to other blogs etc.) And I understand that: their blog is for information purposes only; the White House can’t suddenly start blogging as if they were a political commentator, it’d be ridiculous, inappropriate, totally out of their remit, time-consuming and bound to get out of hand.

No, what really shows that the Obama administration gets the web is what’s still going on on barackobama.com. In addition to an exceptional candidate, the success of the campaign for the Presidency was based on two factors which were both web-enabled: 1) mammoth donations; and 2) mobilisation of supporters.

The latter is still taking place via the site, as people can meet likeminded supporters, organise events, find events near them, all via the site. That’s what makes it special: it’s not the fancy web gimmicks, it’s the grassroots mobilisation on the ground that’s being enabled simply by making the logistics easier. Seems basic, but it’s pretty revolutionary in a sense: everyone had assumed that people were too busy and politically apathetic to engage in participatory politics, but that was plain wrong – all they needed was a leader to rally around and the organisational aspect taken care of somewhat.

What’s more, the Democrats are now being far-sighted enough to build on the momentum from the campaign by keeping it going rather than resting on their laurels. Good for them.

Obamamania

I probably shouldn’t be writing about Obama: my expertise lies elsewhere and so much has been written already (460,000 posts mentioning Obama in the last day, according to Google Blog Search). But sod it, I’m as excited as the next person and it’s my blog.

Some thoughts:

  • I liked the slip-ups when he was being sworn in: saying “I Barack Hussein Obama…” a little too soon and then stalling a few moments later. Being so accustomed to the impeccable delivery and unwavering confidence, it was refreshing and endearing to see him be so nervous.
  • Great that he highlighted science in his speech following 8 years in which it’s been maligned.
  • His constant references to the founding fathers is interesting. I guess he does it for a number of reasons: it’s an effective rhetorical device that gets people proud and excited, the founding fathers are revered and he wants to portray himself as an heir, and it sets the bar for the changes he wants to bring about. And perhaps because it “americanises” him in the eyes of the oddballs who don’t think he’s American enough? Why do European politicians hardly ever mention their countries’ glorious past and ancestors? Some reasons might be a political culture that’s a little less sensationalist, a more cynical electorate, and too many instances in most countries’ histories that can’t really be omitted but that nobody wants to talk about, so it’s best to just ignore history all-together.
  • There’s been lots of talk of sky-high expectations and the impossibility of solving all the problems in Obama’s “IN tray”. The insinuation being that many will be disappointed when Obama doesn’t manage to bring peace to the Middle East, solve the financial crisis, and reverse global warming in his first month in office. I’m not so sure. First, people aren’t dumb: they understand the extent of the troubles we’re facing. Second, he’s got so much goodwill to spare. Third, the nature of the man and his style is such that I doubt much blame will be able to stick: he’s surrounded himself with the best and the brightest, he’s a pragmatist, and he’s non-partisan. Combined I think it’ll mean that once it becomes apparent that he isn’t solving all the world’s ills in his lunch-break, most people’s response will be that he’s doing OK, and probably better than anyone else could, given the circumstances.
  • No post on Obama is complete without a reference to the web (in particular when the blogger in question works in online communications). As reported on Public Affairs 2.0, the first post on the new White House blog appeared at 12.01 last night! The implicit message being: we still take this web stuff seriously.