3 ways in which digital really is changing public affairs

In EU public affairs, many view message distribution through social and paid media as the end-point for digital communications and campaigning.

A sound digital strategy should probably include elements of content, social and paid media. Done well, they are useful (although done badly, a waste of time).

But most organisations would benefit enormously from having a more ambitious view of what digital can offer, especially across the following 3 areas.

Digital advocacy

As Brussels and the issues handled here become more political, being able to build, demonstrate and harness support from key constituencies is key to success. We can now do advocacy in a highly targeted and methodical manner, and at scale, using data and digital.

Potential advocates in corporate-land are sometimes obvious. Think pharma and patients or agrochemicals and farmers. But advocates can be even closer to home. Employees and your supply chain for starters.

Across the pond, digital advocacy is now an integral part of most public affairs programmes. It has to be, as increasing numbers of policy-makers won’t even meet with corporate lobbyists. No doubt this will be the case on these shores too, yet uptake of digital advocacy remains abysmally slow.

Enhanced intelligence gathering and analysis

Beyond basic commoditised intelligence gathering like monitoring, public affairs professionals now have a series of AI-enabled methods at their disposal. For instance, we can now do the following:

  • Predict positions and coalitions of policy-makers more quickly and efficiently by distilling huge amounts of data, from past voting behaviour through to public statements.
  • Determine public sentiment and the likely public response to a policy position by distilling millions of viewpoints rather than through unreliable and expensive polling.

No need to rely on guesswork any longer.

Online platforms for managing public affairs

Last but not least, digital platforms like Quorum and Ulobby allow us to track and manage issues and stakeholders in one place. All public affairs functions can benefit from using these tools, especially those managing multiple dossiers. Consolidated information enhances efficiencies: it saves time and reduces pointless duplication, clearly. But having intimate knowledge of what everyone else is up to within an organisation will invariably help raise levels towards the highest common denominator. What’s more these tools also include advocacy and intelligence functionality. Using them should be a no-brainer.

So please: move beyond bloody tweets and adopt the elements of the digital toolkit that will truly enhance efficiencies, intelligence, reach and influence.

Thinking big in communications for public affairs: basic, good, great

I’ve put some of the communications methods and tactics I listed in my recent post on thinking bigger in public affairs into a grid showing different levels of maturity (basic – good – great).

Maturity matrices are handy. They can help you set benchmarks and determine areas in which you might wish to improve. Clearly, everyone need not be great at everything and what constitutes basic, good and great may vary depending on industry and organisation. But hopefully this is a useful thought-starter.

Communications for public affairs: thinking big

While this is not a post about COVID-19 per se, it is in part inspired by the manner in which public affairs professionals have responded to it. We have been quick to adapt, with most of us generally comfortable conducting our work and exchanges in a more public (albeit virtual) realm.

In a seminal article published back in 2002, ‘How political and social change will transform the EU public affairs industry’, Simon Titley wrote that ‘to survive and prosper, public affairs practitioners need to adopt a holistic view of politics and recognition that winning public trust, acceptance and support is the prerequisite of successful lobbying.’

Nearly 20 years on, Brussels is more political than ever. Political capital and alignment with popular sentiment are key to success in public affairs. Organisations need to be seen to have big solutions to big issues. They need to show genuine purpose and their private interests need to align with public interest.

To be fair, organisations do tend to behave better. And they do on average invest more in efforts to build political capital and public trust. If not in Brussels, at least in key member states where actual ‘publics’ are based.

But investing a tad more will usually not help organisations truly win public trust, acceptance and support. To build political capital in a crowded space, organisations need to ‘think bigger’ in terms of how they communicate.

What might thinking bigger look like in communications for public affairs?

Rather than making folk aware that we exist, we seek to surprise and delight them so that they might actually think we’re unique, and change their views and behaviour accordingly.

Rather than push a bunch of messages repeatedly and hoping one sticks, we commit fully to the single storyline that truly allows us to stand out.

Rather than seeing communications as a means to push messages out across multiple channels, we run creative campaigns with a clear objective and scope that people are likely to remember.

Rather than telling people we are meeting expectations, we tell them how we are exceeding them. ‘We’re contributing to 2050!’ You should be but what ELSE are you doing?

Rather than viewing integration as a comms person sitting with a PA person once in a while, we understand how public affairs can be more impactful when it aligns with corporate strategy and brand.

Rather than assuming the same communications output works for everyone, we apply techniques that campaigners and marketers use every day to break down our audiences by needs and values.

Rather than thinking we do 3rd parties well if we have a couple of testimonials and a decent guest speaker at our event, we do advocacy at scale using data and digital and turn people into active advocates.

Rather than having copy written and edited by the one native speaker in our office, we hire moonlighting reporters, novelists or screen writers.

Once we get back to hosting live events, rather than one-off events featuring a guest with a couple of tried and tested speaking points, we host professionally installed and moderated extravaganzas and permanent exhibitions.

Rather than determining opinion through guess work, we use machine learning that can distill millions of viewpoints and provide us with a pinpoint analysis of public sentiment.

Rather than investing a couple hundred here and there in paid media to direct some online traffic, we professionalise media buying to increase our scale and scope to truly drive reach and influence.

Rather than thinking the peak of audiovisual is talking heads videos, we use AR and VR to give people experiences rather than plain old information.

The list goes on.

We don’t all need to think really big, right away. But if we don’t start thinking bigger, we may as well not communicate. There is too much competition for the spotlight, and attention spans are too short to let bad communications filter through.

The speed with which public affairs professionals have embraced heartfelt LinkedIn exchanges and virtual events over the past few weeks implies that we can adapt fast when pushed.

As more of us feel the need to think big in communications for public affairs, we’ll hopefully be just as versatile.

Communications in EU Public Affairs: 3 levels of maturity

Brussels is not a particularly mature market for communications. While changing, the media landscape is underdeveloped, and with publics based in member states and traditionally detached from the Brussels machinery, generating and harnessing popular support has tended to play second fiddle to technical policy tinkering.

Perhaps, this makes sense. If one looks at the drivers of influence in public affairs, the quality of technical input remains the key determinant of success. Given that more issues are now being handled at expert group level than before in Brussels, one might argue that it is more important than ever.

But if we look at the other levers of influence, it becomes clear that different methods are needed to shift the proverbial pin on policy. While public affairs folk bicker over what drives influence, most agree that the following drivers are significant:

  • Being perceived to provide credible solutions to pressing challenges defined as political priorities.
  • Having a high-quality coalition or network with well-regarded actors fighting the same battle. Coalitions and networks need not be large in terms of market size: having many legitimate actors can beat having a few big actors on-side.
  • Proof of economic impact. In PA circles we often hear that ‘jobs and growth’ is so overused and defined so arbitrarily that no one cares. Not so. Good, credible data on jobs and growth is very handy indeed.
  • Proof of popular support. A tad paradoxically, given that EU decision-making has become more technical, it is also more political, with EU policy-makers and regulators eager to cement their democratic legitimacy by siding with popular sentiment.

Clearly, which of these is most relevant depends on the type of issue at hand. Lobbying in support of road safety measures or a highly scrutinised chemical will demand different methods. And timing is crucial. If a vote is imminent or a policy is not yet even on the political agenda, different tactics will be applied. But generally, any organisation looking to influence politics and policy will need to position itself towards policy-makers and their circle of influence by demonstrating solutions, market power, credible allies, or popular support; and often to generate popular support amongst key constituents through external environment shaping. In an age of vicious competition for attention coupled with significant mistrust and apathy, positioning and external environment shaping are very challenging indeed. Both call for first-rate communications.

The 3 levels of maturity

In terms of overriding communications strategy for public affairs, organisations have many options. An organisation (or whole industry) that is considered old-fashioned but is actually highly innovative might try to reposition itself to avoid punitive legislation. A company that is marred by the actions of others in the same category but actually operates differently, could look to differentiate itself. But whatever one’s overriding strategy may be, the tactics at one’s disposal remain the same.

And it is in communications tactics in particular that Brussels players have tended to limit themselves to basic awareness raising measures rather than thinking more broadly across three categories that we outline below: amplification, advocacy, and integration with marketing-communications functions.

Amplification is the most comfortable starting point for public affairs professionals applying the broader communications toolkit. It principally involves targeting policy and political messages at policy-makers and their circle of influence through means other than direct advocacy. Tactically speaking, we are talking media relations targeting publications preferred by policy makers or their circle of influence. Or social media to converse with them. Or paid media to push content directly at them. Or search engine ads or out of home ads shown where they are likely to come across them.

This is 101 stuff, yet essential: there is a finite number of meetings one can have; and moreover, message repetition across multiple channels is a prerequisite for recollection and trust-building in any sphere of communication.

But while most of these tactics may appear ordinary, we would never claim that amplification is easy. There is a lot of competition in communications-land and the vast majority of content is ignored or fast forgotten. Amplification efforts need to be professional, creative and on strategy: they should respond to an audience’s interests, needs or values; and must delight, interest, or be of use. And again, speaking tactically, Brussels needs to evolve. Dull press releases expressing delight should perish, replaced with media relations that might actually result in coverage. Instead of dull talking heads videos or blog posts peddling tired case studies, we might wish to try producing excellent content, and maybe even have a go at experiential content creation using VR and 360° video.

Rather than being a starting point, amplification is often the end-point for many EU public affairs professionals doing communications. Which means hardly any of us conduct ambitious ‘advocacy’.

NB: we apply the US definition of advocacy: identifying and mobilising supportive individuals and organisations, so that they might ‘advocate’ on one’s behalf.

While we have been doing some forms of advocacy in EU public affairs for years but calling it things like key opinion leader mobilisation or grassroots campaigning, we have tended not to do it in a highly targeted manner, nor at scale.

The logic behind advocacy is clear: get a credible 3rd party to make the case for you and the legitimacy of your efforts are enhanced. Standard examples include pharmaceutical companies working with patients, or agri-chemicals companies with farmers, or any organisation mobilising employees and citizens in their communities.

The principle behind advocacy – the need to build and demonstrate public support from key groups – is appreciated in EU circles. Some Brussels-based organisations that represent scrutinised industries are even running ambitious campaigns aimed at shifting hearts and minds. But frequently these are traditional one-way campaigns with no mechanism to get involved and build community. But to have any hope of ‘shifting the narrative’ in 2019, scrutinised organisations should look to build a motivated base of advocates who can be called upon to inform and mobilise their networks, lobby in their own constituencies, lead local campaigns – and even be brought to Brussels to lobby.

Advocacy can be more targeted and impactful than ever before through data and digital, and yet we are choosing not to up our efforts, usually because we do not know how, or think it would not work in the EU because of GDPR. Across the pond, most organisations engaged in policy-shaping are using modern strategies and tools to identify potential advocates in target constituencies, and subsequently engaging and mobilising AT SCALE. And they are winning because of it. This is not a fad. We estimate that in ten years, advocacy budgets will match or surpass those spent on ‘traditional’ public affairs. But adoption amongst corporates in the EU so far remains paltry.

Last but not least, better integration with marketing and communications functions is increasingly key to success. Public affairs should be a fundamental part of the marketing-communications mix. It often is, with some public affairs functions even now reporting to CMOs, and many at least sitting in the same building (if not team) as marketing-communications folk.

But why should this matter? The key area is corporate reputation tied to sustainable development goals. Companies are expected to contribute, and many want to or at least acknowledge the need to. 181 CEOs of members of the US Business Roundtable lobby group recently signed a declaration that ends with the following: “Each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies and our communities.”

While the risk remains that some activity may descend into CSR fluff or at worst greenwashing, many companies choose to go down the path of genuine shared value initiatives, where commercial goals overlap with societal benefits. It is not naïve to note that when the Green Deal was announced recently in Brussels, most companies were genuinely excited about the tight knitting of sustainable development to economic opportunity, which is the hallmark of the programme.

Where does marketing-communications (with PA) fit in? Certainly not to sell a company’s great deeds to an adoring public. Ideally, its role should be far more strategic: to track and gauge public sentiment to help set and realign strategy; and to identify actors with shared goals, build networks, and engage in ongoing, mutually beneficial activities.

This is where the public affairs function can and should really play an essential role. It is the best placed function to understand and engage with non-commercial stakeholders – like policy makers, civil society organisations, and international organisations – that are key actors in the political and social sphere. In other words, public affairs will help to ensure that a company’s efforts respond to real-world needs, and as the key interface vis-à-vis most non-commercial stakeholders, help it become a credible player in the coalitions and networks that will dictate and drive sustainable development.

Many public affairs professionals tend to underestimate the potential that communications has to help organisations meet their policy and political goals, with most stopping at amplification. But given the importance of public sentiment in policymaking, coupled with the complexity of wider problem-solving, in which organisations are expected to participate, most public affairs professionals could step up their efforts in advocacy and integration. They might even have some fun along the way.

Campaigning in EU public affairs remains under-utilised

Public affairs practitioners in Brussels face a paradox. Policy-making is becoming more technical, with growing amounts of legislation being thrashed out in expert groups. Yet it is also more political, with EU policy-makers and regulators increasingly eager to cement their democratic legitimacy by siding with popular sentiment.

Most would applaud the EU’s championing of popular viewpoints (within reason). One group with mixed feelings may be the public affairs profession, for whom politicisation can make work a whole lot more challenging.

Politicisation is not new to the EU public affairs profession. On issues from nuclear to GMOs, corporate public affairs practitioners have long begrudged the ability of NGOs to drive public contempt and push issues up the political agenda. Back in 2001, one noted public affairs authority, the late Simon Titley, spoke of a ‘new model of influence’ driven by NGOs and an active citizenry, which required values-based rather than technical arguments in order to gain public support and ultimately influence public policy in Brussels.

But EU public affairs professionals valiantly fended off calls for a new approach, helped by a citizenry detached from Brussels. This apathy was driven by a natural penchant for national news and the fact that the EU largely did not deal with topics that interest most people, like health and education. Technical standards for trucks and obscure financial instruments do not quite have the same allure.

A few years down the line, it is hard to escape politicisation. Even the European Commission, previously a bastion of technocracy, has become more political, compounded by an ever more active European Parliament, and greater involvement of member states for whom Brussels had once often been an afterthought. There is no reason to think things will be different following the recent elections.

As a result, public affairs professionals are increasingly having to display popular support in order to ingratiate themselves with policy-makers. Here is where the challenge arises: demonstrating existing popular support can be difficult; and generating fresh popular support through campaigning is even harder.

  • Campaigning is time-consuming and expensive, especially if it needs to be done in multiple countries.
  • It often requires a shift in culture. Public affairs folk drawn to Brussels mostly enjoy the intricacies of complex legislation and the EU’s labyrinthine decision-making process. Campaigning is a different discipline best suited to those rare people who marry political passion with an instinct for marketing.
  • If one is looking to alter the policy status quo, one may need to create public interest from scratch. Doing so requires a great deal of creativity, especially if the issue is not intrinsically newsworthy.
  • And most challenging of all, one may be on the wrong side of an already public debate. Shifting public opinion enough to counter public antipathy is extremely difficult.

Yet public affairs practitioners looking to show policy-makers that they command popular support need not necessarily generate new support. They can demonstrate existing support. This is already a staple of EU public affairs. Agrichemicals companies exhibit their importance to farmers, and pharmaceutical companies their life-saving contributions to patients, for instance. The tech giants are also at it. No one in Brussels could have missed Google’s recent campaign praising the virtues of Android for various sets of distinct citizens, from entrepreneurs through to senior citizens.

While these tactics are laudable, and possibly effective over time, they may often not in themselves be powerful enough if:

  1. An issue is not on the public radar and a policy change away from the status-quo is required; or
  2. An organisation is on the wrong side of the public debate and needs to generate a major shift in the public narrative.

For either to happen, campaigning to mobilise backers – and thereby creating a new, active supporter base – is required.

While difficult, it can be done. Two noted and oft-quoted (sorry!) case studies from the past decade are the campaign against ACTA and Fish Fight. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a treaty aimed at cementing international standards for intellectual property rights, triggered protests across Europe and a series of petitions which were signed by millions of people. Public displeasure reversed ACTA’s political support and it was never ratified by the EU. Similarly, when EU fisheries legislation was up for renewal in 2012-13, the practice of throwing perfectly edible dead fish back into the sea for quota reasons was not questioned. An online driven, celebrity endorsed campaign ensued – Fish Fight – calling for a halt to the practice. It resulted in fish discards being banned in a landslide vote.

Neither issue was especially prominent at first. ACTA was a shoo-in and fish discards were not even on the agenda. Yet well-run campaigns that mobilised the public over a short period of time did enough to shift the public narrative and completely reverse the expected policy outcomes.

But of course, both campaigns shared a highly favourable trait: protesters were on the ‘right’ side of the public debate. They were respectively fighting on behalf of freedom of expression and privacy, and pretty fishies. It is much harder for organisations or causes that are not intrinsically popular or likeable to mobilise support. But not impossible. The route to success is to either:

  1. Mobilise a narrow yet highly motivated set of supporters; or
  2. Identify one or more groups unrelated to oneself who share the same objective.

Uber’s efforts against bans in several European markets are an example of campaigning by mobilising a narrow set of supporters. Criticised in Europe due to reports of its aggressive entry into markets and other alleged wrong-doings – and most decisively, opposition by incumbent cab firms – Uber has suffered at the hands of European policymakers. They have therefore often sought to mobilise an intrinsically loyal group – existing customers who use the service and appreciate its many conveniences – by enabling app users to immediately get engaged by signing a petition. While I’d stress that I am only an external observer – I have never worked for Uber – and cannot vouch for the outcome of this vs. other tactics, it appears very sensible in principle. They are mobilising people that are inherently loyal, as they have downloaded the app already, at a time when they are frustrated, as they are unable to use the service. What’s more, many of these people are likely to fit within in a demographic – urban, young, and relatively affluent – that policy-makers pay heed to.

Identifying disparate organisations or groups that support one’s position on an issue requires some imagination. But it can be done. The ‘Keep me Posted’ campaign cites the following goal: “To offer all citizens the choice of receiving information through paper correspondence as a standard offer… and refrain from penalising in any way, any citizen for preferring to receive information through paper correspondence.” Run by postal services and the paper industry, who of course have a commercial interest in maintaining paper correspondence, it is supported by other organisations, such as the European Disability Forum and The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) who support people who cannot access the internet and believe that digital-only correspondence is discriminatory. Again, I am an external observer and cannot fully vouch for the success of the campaign, but it seems very sensible in principle because the organisations in question have very different raison d’êtres, and yet they have found a single issue on which they share a goal, thereby lending greater greater credibility to their campaign.

Campaigning is difficult, especially if an organisation is on the wrong side of the public debate or if a change in the status quo is required. And it needs to be done well or it can quickly become an expensive yet ineffective exercise. But at EU level, given politicisation of an ever-growing number of issues, it must become an integral cog in the public affairs professional’s toolkit.

The limitations of digital public affairs

In the introduction to my eBook on digital public affairs, I wrote the following:

“There was an awkward time, peaking between 2008 and 2010, when I would be invited to meetings, be introduced as a guru or ninja, and be expected to provide an Obamaesque digital strategy that would ensure victory on a lobbying battle by the following Tuesday. I would invariably fail to do so.”

The unrealistic expectations of public affairs professionals have subsided, thankfully. But the rationale that lead to the overexcitement persists. Namely, that success can be attained by delivering a message ad nauseum across as many channels as possible.

Sadly, that is not the case.

Digital and social media are a set of channels. They’re packaging. As are lobbying and media relations. Visibility and delivery frequency do not matter nearly as much as substance. Especially relevance, utility, and vision.

Relevance and utility: Scholars of interest groups cite three key success factors: high quality of technical information; proof of popular support; and proof of market power. Does what you are saying reflect at least one of these, tied to the interest area or constituency of the person targeted? Will it teach them something new? Are you making their lives easier? Will ‘legislating’ become easier for them? If the answer is no across the board, don’t communicate.

Vision: Offering utility and relevance may not be enough. There’s a lot of competition for attention in policy-land. You provide jobs and growth? So does everyone else. You’re helping Europe meet its targets in something or other? So are plenty of others. How are you truly different? Differentiation is best articulated through a long-term vision that’s good for Europe, a realistic plan for getting there, and proof that you’re already doing something to meet the vision. Clearly, most organisations do not have a remarkable vision, and that’s fair enough. Vision is often set far away from Brussels. But in an overcrowded market, organisations with a vision win.

The lesson remains: don’t fuss over channels, or even message. Figure out how best to be relevant and useful. And have a vision with a plan. If not, your communications efforts – be it digital or non – will most likely be an utter waste of time.

eBook: Digital Public Affairs is Dead, Long Live Digital Public Affairs (Second Edition)

Download ‘Digital Public Affairs is Dead, Long Live Digital Public Affairs’ (2nd Edition) here (PDF).

In this eBook, I provide ten short reflections that I believe are essential to the practice of digital public affairs in Brussels (and beyond). While there are plenty of practical tips in it, it is not intended solely as a guide on best practice: I’ve also attempted to outline its potential impact and categorise its applications beyond the realm of just channels and tactics.

The structure of the second edition isn’t any different, but I have updated the content based on recent developments in influencer engagement, LinkedIn, and online platforms for managing PA programmes. Plus I updated the design to reflect my new company.