Another overstated business truism: unpopular industries are highly vulnerable to social media

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.

Data in public affairs: proof points over targeting

Public affairs practitioners like politics. Obviously. Hence why clever political campaign tools excite us. Data is one such tool. Current (and potential) uses of data in political campaigning are very impressive indeed. In particular, the ability to use data to identify, then target and mobilise very specific audience segments.

Applied to public affairs, the logic is clear. Improve the likelihood of success on an issue by identifying sympathetic groups, ideally in a target politician’s constituency. Then target them with very specific messaging and perhaps even mobilise them into joining forces and doing the lobbying for you.

The reality is (usually) different. Our work usually involves far fewer stakeholders so we know our “segments” already and don’t need data to identify them. Frankly, in many cases these segments are very small, especially on technical issues, issues on which we’re on the wrong side of the public debate, or on which there is no public debate.

And perhaps most pertinently, on most issues, mobilising potential supporters in constituencies is costly and difficult, and unlikely to yield as much value as effective lobbying.

Which brings us to where data can be valuable. It should be utilised to generate proof points that can improve the likelihood of lobbying success. In other words, rather than harbouring unrealistic expectations about mobilising hoards of supporters, we use data to showcase that X number of people within a certain constituency (e.g. citizens in a certain locale, employees of a certain industry, students, academics etc.) have expressed views in line with our own. In this way we are showcasing public support from a key constituency, which is a determinant of lobbying success, without having to generate that support ourselves.

Three levels of digital public affairs

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.

2 levels of public affairs campaigning (2/2)

In my last post, I considered 2 levels of campaigning in public affairs:

  1. Campaigning as a necessity when an issue is politicised and on the public radar
  2. Campaigning on a non-politicised issue to gain an early advantage

As ever, I was guilty of over-simplifying. I implied that an organisation that campaigns as a necessity due to issue politicisation is on the wrong side of the public debate and needs to reframe it (e.g. sugar or GMO, say). And that an organisation that campaigns to gain an advantage on a non-politicised issue will invariably be on the right side of the public debate (e.g. fish discards).

There are further nuances to consider:

  • An organisation that campaigns on an issue that is heavily politicised can clearly also be on the “right” side of the public debate (e.g. anti-fracking campaigners; indeed, most activists).
  • An organisation that seeks to gain an advantage on a non-politicised issue will not necessarily be on the right side of the public debate (once debate ensues). Indeed, forward-thinking organisations that know they’ll face a backlash should seek to gain an advantage by framing their issue before it is on the radar.

In summary, a checklist for anyone considering PA campaigning:

PA campaign

 

 

 

 

 

Organisations scoring 2 or 3 in the left-hand column will likely have to run a resource-intensive, multi-market, multi-discipline campaign. Conversely, with 2 or 3 in the right hand column, a smaller, single constituency campaign might work. It’s never easy though.

2 levels of public affairs campaigning

A public affairs campaign revolves around a single, clear policy goal. The goal can be defined in one sentence. It’s channel agnostic and has a visual identity. It has an end-date. And it seeks to build and/or showcase some form of public support (sometimes broad, often narrow). Keep me Posted is a PA campaign. As is Save the Internet.

PA professionals don’t always need to campaign. In Brussels at least, the quality of technical information provided to facilitate policy-making remains the most important determinant of interest group success on most issues. Frankly, PA professionals should avoid campaigning if possible. It’s time intensive, expensive and bloody difficult.

Enter the two levels:

  1. If an issue is highly politicised (nuclear, sugar or GMOs, to cite obvious examples), campaigning is a pre-requisite because policy is broadly dictated by public sentiment. However useful the technical input provided.
  2. If an issue is not politicised but an organisation could benefit were it to be so (Keep me Posted, for instance). Competent campaigning will put an organisation on the radar and increase the likelihood of a win.

There is a vast difference between the two levels.

On highly politicised issues, organisations are potentially up against pre-existing beliefs held by millions of people. Shifting the pin will likely require a 7-figure, multi-year and multi-market investment. Culture and business practice change may be needed before campaigning even begins. And the campaign cannot be PA driven: a broad marketing-communications line-up is required.

On level 2 issues, an organisation can start much smaller because there is no well-known, existing frame to counter. Starting afresh means headway can already be made by building a modest community of support in a single constituency and channelling it via lobbying.

Unpopular industries continue to run campaigns either trying to affect public sentiment on the cheap or seeking to influence policy without channelling some form of public support, however narrow. They should probably not bother.

I’m bored of social media

Social media is a bloody big deal if you’re in business. Not because cat videos get 100 million views or some pre-pubescent twit has 50 million Facebook followers. Too many communicators see social media through the prism of the cat video. They pump out endless amounts of stuff, hoping it will “go viral” or whatever. Hence why I’m bored of social media. It’s underused and abused. Social media is bigger than communications. Along with other forces it creates enormous risks and opportunities and what a business chooses to do about it will likely dictate whether it stays in business or not.social business

 

 

Social media: beyond outputs

Communications has traditionally centred on outputs: the press release, the ad, the report, the speech, the conference – and so forth. So naturally, when social media came along, communicators were delighted by the many new outputs it could help them pump out relentlessly deliver.

We now have organisations straddled across dozens if not hundreds of social media accounts, blowing large sums on content strategies and community building that garner “shares” but in many cases fail to improve reputation, change opinion or sell stuff (or whatever).

Meanwhile, many have been blind to two key effects of social media:

  1. Heightened scrutiny and expectations by recipients of communications
  2. The ability to understand audiences better

Heightened scrutiny and expectations

Social media has swelled scrutiny and expectations of organisations. It’s nigh on impossible to sell a dud product or service if it’s being slated on review sites and no one’s buddy is recommending it on social media. Likewise, they can no longer spin their way out of trouble: bad behaviour will be exposed fast.

Two other influences reinforce this. Globalisation means we’re setting the bar for quality and behaviour globally not just locally. Also, the ever-growing need for people to feel warm and fuzzy inside by buying products from companies (or voting for politicians) that display high levels of ethical behaviour means that the naughty are admonished and the good celebrated.

In this respect, social media matters not so much because it enables more communication but because it contributes to forcing organisations to be and do better.

Understanding audiences

People used to have limited options: a dozen local shops, a couple of political parties and a handful of newspapers perhaps? The explosion in choice makes segmenting bloody complex. We can no longer assume that people within a single demographic want the same thing. Neighbours of the same sex, age and socioeconomic status might have different political preferences, listen to different music, prefer different holiday destinations and have entirely different shopping habits.

Increasingly, mapping audience preferences requires drilling down to very small (and sometimes odd) segments based on a single or two predilections (people who vote centre-left and like folk music; people who love Italy and read House and Garden!) Often, preferences are so specific that they are unique to an individual meaning micro-targeting just one person will become the norm. To understand such nuanced preferences, we must learn to analyse data sets properly, many of which will derive from social media.

What next?

No doubt this requires more than a couple of paragraphs in a blog post, but here are three thoughts:

  1. What both the above factors share is that they are not usually mentioned in a communicator’s job description. Meeting heightened scrutiny and expectations through superior quality and/or behaviour is a leadership decision. Communications is often only responsible for putting a positive spin on whatever direction the leadership has decided i.e. they’re asked to produce lots of communication material (the dreaded outputs). Instead, communications should be higher up the hierarchy. Heads of communications should sit in the C-suite (or the equivalent of it in other organisations). And ideally, leaders should themselves have a significant communications remit.
  2. Communicators probably obsess over outputs because their next promotion, raise or bonus depends on how many outputs they can produce which garner a bit of coverage (media clippings, web traffic, the irritating Like! or whatever). Hence why they tend not to team up with clever analysts who can identify and decipher data that can help them target audiences better. Communicators’ appraisals should be based on stricter, outcome-related criteria, which force them to invest in smarter targeting techniques.
  3. Be sensible and realistic about what social media can achieve. Run fewer shiny newsrooms and have fewer pointless conversations to show brand personality or whatever (I thought only people could have personalities). Use social media mainly to garner insights and provide real value through stuff like good day-to-day customer care and provision of useful information when and where people want it. There’s a place for the shiny, fun and/or whacky in social media sometimes, but not all the bloody time.

Social sacrilege: stop fixating on conversation

Social purists claim that one-way corporate communications and message control are a relic of a bygone era; dinosaurs (in grey suits, no doubt) rigidly hold on to them because they know no better, or because they’re cynically defending their grip on power from the onslaught of democratised communication. In the purists’ mind, communicators should embrace open dialogue – “the conversation” – and complete transparency in all fora. By doing so, people (employees, customers, regulators – whoever!) will supposedly be happier and outcomes (product or service quality, product/service development, political momentum – whatever!) will be exponentially superior.

I do agree with the premise: embrace social or wither (at some point but probably not tomorrow). The global market place, universally accessible channels of communications, and a (gradual) shift towards warm and fuzzy values mean two things for businesses: amplified expectations of quality, service and ethics; and greater scrutiny, both internally and externally.

In practice:

  • They now compete globally with instant benchmarking just a click away, so products and services have to be excellent to in order to sell
  • Companies that demonstrate sustainable practices (themselves and their supply chain) do better than those that don’t
  • Talented employees need to be coddled or they’ll be snapped up by competitors on LinkedIn
  • Regulators will bite unless organisations are on the right side of the public debate and can prove it.

To handle this complexity and the change it entails, enhanced understanding across a variety of internal and external functions is required. Leadership, product development, talent retention, customer care, sales and marketing, public affairs, supply chain management and the actual supply chain itself are suddenly intertwined. It’s clearly a big deal and communications needs to play a central role.

This is the point at which I take issue issue with the social purists and the utter sanctity of “the conversation” as an end in itself, largely for two reasons.

It reduces social to engagement on social networks, which is not doing it justice. Yes, collaboration and/or dialogue on social networks can improve functions ranging from product development through to customer care and marketing, sometimes drastically. But the buck does not stop there: social represents more than actual dialogue. Social data can provide a mammoth, global and local, real-time market research and intelligence tool (not 1 but 3 PR buzzwords in one sentence). It can drive strategy and/or innovation more than conversation: think Apple, who don’t openly converse, but still no doubt harness social to measure reach and impact, gauge market conditions, manage risk, benchmark the competition and what-not. Moreover, digitising processes through social can improve efficiencies, reducing cost and frustration in equal measure, while potentially improving real business stuff like production, distribution and speed to market. Again, this does not entail people actually chatting, but executing run-of-the-mill activities using social channels e.g. delivering basic information and sharing knowledge through to managing the supply chain more efficiently day-to-day. It may not be as sexy as crowdsourcing, but might be more likely to improve the bottom-line.

It belies human nature. As odd as hyper-connected digiratis might find it, most people do not feel comfortable with engagement. Indeed, most people use social channels to be informed, not to share and engage (over 90% some claim -hence why content marketing is now arguably more prevalent than community management). People with certain character-traits can dominate online conversation, resulting in in people being left out, most probably the inexperienced, people on either extreme of the age gap (youngest and oldest), introverts or those from more intrinsically hierarchical cultures. If the spirit of social embraces democratisation, obsessing about open dialogue is not the only way to go about it: social should be more of a mind-set than a set of channels; it should embrace openness, transparency and freedom to opine in whatever medium a person is comfortable with, perhaps even (shudder) face-to-face conversation.

Simple lessons from political campaigning: social data & email

In corporate communications and public affairs, we often look at clever political campaigns and admire their ability to utilise the web to build support from the ground up and – sometimes – drive public opinion.

One mistake we often make at this point however is to gush at the ability of these campaigns to build communities of support on social networks, assuming this represents the silver bullet.

Providing material and engaging on social networks, if done well, can no doubt help position a person or entity, galvanise existing supporters and reach new ones.

But in top-tier political campaigning, social media is more powerful not for its role in community building, but as a source of data. Using social data to scrutinise audiences can allow political campaigns to micro-target based on very specific touch-points shared by small segments of people. The online outreach tool of choice at this stage is then often email, as it is a 1-on-1 channel and can be entirely tailored, unlike social networks, which still ultimately rely on “spray and pray” of single broader messages, with the added bonus of dialogue.

Communicators looking to segment and micro-target to this extent face challenges: micro-targeting is complex and expensive and thus beyond the means of most, years of neglect and data protection laws mean we often have poor email lists, and moreover, it’s difficult to match email addresses and social data – it is frequently a manual and inaccurate exercise.

But the lessons remain evident: email is still very useful, an email database can be a very valuable asset, and social should be harnessed as a source of data as well for building community.

Corporate communications & PA: focus more on the target, less on the message

Some corporate communicators and public affairs practitioners still focus too much on the message, and not enough on the target: audiences are defined as broadly as ”media” or “policy-makers” and even the meaningless “general public”.

As top-tier marketers and political campaigners have known forever, target audiences need to be narrowed down enormously: a communicator should ideally break down their target list all the way to single individuals within each audience segment, be it real individuals when audience numbers are small or budgets are huge, or more likely, fictional but highly representative personas.

This will in turn enable the communicator to: a) more easily determine what that person wants or needs thorough research and testing (possibly involving some scrutiny of social data); b) based on that, understand whether there is any overlap between their wants and needs and what the communicator can offer; and c) if so, communicate accordingly.

Again, too often, corporate communicators bypass these steps, and develop 2 or 3 broad-based messages that in theory should reach and influence all “media” or “policy-makers” or whatnot. What is far more likely to work is closer inspection of audiences, then targeting multiple segments applying tweaked storylines based on what’s most likely to affect each one. In essence, what political campaigners call micro-targeting.

Why is this not the norm? Why do we invest in “messaging sessions” without first knowing much about whom we are trying to influence? A mix of reasons no doubt, but first and foremost, it’s a legacy of old-school PR largely based on hunches and relationships, and communicators not being accountable enough for their output.