Better communications

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.

Culture

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.

Public Affairs and corp comms: making them work in tandem in a policy town

Organisations, including agencies, often have separate public affairs and corporate communications functions in Brussels (not Fleishman-Hillard). It’s a tad peculiar, given that PA is a communications discipline, and that the comms piece is increasingly important: good PA must incorporate more elements of disciplines such as reputation management and branding than before, while the proliferation of channels means there are far more ways to reach policy-makers, and often in more markets. Combined, there’s no doubt that success isn’t easily attained with traditional PA tactics alone.

So why are the functions often still kept separate?

  • Culture. By and large, PA professionals tend to value knowledge (policy-based), while comms people think communications strategy and output (audiences, content, engagement, measurement etc.)
  • Comms people weren’t required back in the day: there were fewer target audiences and channels, even PA people could do it properly! These same PA people still rule the roost and are loath to change their ways.
  • Structurally, the fact that the disciplines were separate means separate silos developed. Hence the Brussels phenomenon where companies have their European HQs out by the airport and a PA office near the Parliament.

So what should organisations looking to assimilate their PA and corporate communications functions in a PA town do? As is often the case in this blog, there’s no definitive answer, but a series of thought starters:

  • The bleedin’ obvious: combine the corp comms and PA teams.
  • Bring in new blood to stir things up, especially senior corp comms talent.
  • Focus on avowed generalists who bridge the PA and corp comms gulf most comfortably.
  • Position the corp comms folk as thought leaders and have them lead a series of first-rate internal training sessions (PA folk are smug and will inherently think they’re more cerebral – this may help!)
  • When possible, make a corp comms specialist head of PA too…
  • Make it about more than corp comms and PA: build bridges with marcomms, even if they’re in a different country.
  • Do the boring stuff to support this: create processes e.g. monthly calls, annual meetings to exchange best practice (based on very clear templates and agendas to ensure relevance).

How does a PA pro become content-driven and creative?

I frequently speak to fellow Public Affairs professionals who tacitly agree that we’re all a little dull (not personally, but the PA function within our organisations). This is problematic because the evolving nature of the PA function demands that we become more interesting. Gone are they days when we speak to a miniscule audience of fellow experts. Increasingly, we need to be winning over hearts and minds that may not know that much about the subject matter, in a market where they are exposed to far more information than ever before. This in turn obliges us to be more thought-provoking, amusing and, god forbid, emotional.

No, PA is not too cerebral to be any of the above: enough of the endless data, position papers no one reads and press releases no paper picks up; instead, bring on smart summaries of issues, layman’s terms and information presented in forms other than small print.

Easier said than done though: how does the PA function, which traditionally has focussed on subject-matter expertise alone rather than how to communicate it effectively, suddenly become thought-provoking, amusing and emotional by embracing creative content production?

There’s no right or wrong answer, but here are a few thought starters.

How isolated is the PA function within the organisation in question? If it’s very isolated, it’s unlikely to have been in contact with more creative elements it could probably pick up a few tricks from (usually the ones involved more closely in targeting customers). And by the way, the old “we’re traditional, there’s no one creative in the whole company” claim doesn’t fly: creative doesn’t mean comic books and trapeze artists, it can just mean smart, strategic thinking done with a twist. Talk to the brand, marketing, corporate communications teams, even if they’re somewhere else, and even if you’re a bank or produce unpronounceable chemicals.

You can try to change things from within but the people onboard have “traditional” PA profiles? That’s fine, but next time you hire someone, maybe look beyond the person with a political science degree, experience in government or similar sectoral experience in a different setting. Hire someone who has a proven track record in communications outside a policy town. Clearly they should understand PA, but it shouldn’t be their bread and butter. This sort of profile will also usually be better at grasping PA within a business and reputation context, which is getting ever more essential as we veer towards a model where Public Affairs becomes less about government relations alone.

“Hire someone creative” may be a bit of a push, not least because the barriers to creativity often stem from internal hurdles placed by traditionalists within the PA function in an organisation. How can they be won over? Start with two simple things which we for some reason often overlook in Public Affairs although they are staples in other areas of communication: benchmarking and polling. Yes, benchmark other organisations, other industries, even other functions within your own organisation. I suspect many of them will have produced smart and effective material that isn’t in Times New Roman font size 8. By polling I don’t just mean professional polling (although clearly if you can, do so). Ever asked friendly members of your target audience (officials, assistants, press) what they really want from you? In many cases, it won’t be another position paper.

If you work with agencies, as yourself a couple of questions. First, is your agency the right one? You need policy expertise but you may also need really good communications nous. Does your agency provide both? If not, maybe look beyond it. Second, do you use an agency that is part of a larger network? If so, make sure your agency thinks of other parts of its network when servicing you. They may have a design magician in Paris and a former journalist come story-teller par excellence in Berlin who could be really useful to you, but neither is being called on because “they don’t do PA”.

Anything I’ve forgotten?

Measuring success in Public Affairs

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.

Potential client in pitch: you need to understand our issues REALLY well

A colleague and I were recently discussing what organisations operating in Brussels look for in agencies in pitches, and we both agreed that the one thing we hear the most from their side is this: “we want the agency to understand our issues REALLY well.”

I wonder though: clearly, it’s absolutely key when an organisation is looking for policy counsel and support on other core government relations activities. However, they’re saying the same thing when they’re asking for help in areas like positioning and pan-European awareness raising.

Does a detailed understanding of the pertinent issues and industry matter as much as expertise in the relevant fields of communication (campaigning, branding, positioning etc.) I’d say no: if they’re looking for help in getting stakeholder group X in Greece and Finland to wake up and smell the coffee, who ultimately cares about Regulation Y. Surely an understanding of how to identify, target and engage audiences in far-flung places matters more?

Then again, it’s only natural that government relations professionals in Brussels see things through their prism: when their consultants speak their language, they feel more comfortable when judging them; more so than they do when they are recommending a programme that encompasses areas of communication which Brussels folk have managed to steer clear of for so long.

The challenge is for consultants to not simply frown and grumble in unison – “they don’t get it” – and instead improve the sell. Clearly demonstrate value: develop insights based on real facts and figures e.g. break-down audiences in Greece and Finland and determine what message, and who and what channel, is likely to reach them. Use case studies. And most of all, show them how you’ll make it happen, clearly, and step by step. This latter point is crucial: if people are out of their comfort zone, the best thing you can do is reassure them by demonstrating that you have what it takes to guide them, and not make it appear too complicated.

“We can’t do that”

Was just inspired by Nicholas over lunch. He said he’s fed up of hearing people say “we can’t do that”. So am I, so I thought I’d list some “we can’t do thats” I particularly detest. Feel free to add more:

  • We can’t do communication, our remit is just government relations (since when is government relations not communications and no it’s not your remit, your remit is success, and that might require stuff beyond GR.)
  • We can’t do digital, we’re not ready for it (well get ready.)
  • We can’t do digital, our boss/board/member is conservative (digital doesn’t have to be whacky geo-location stuff, it can just be content creation and you’ve done that for years. In any case, your audience isn’t conservative, so who cares if your boss/board/member is? Check FH’s MEP survey if you’re not convinced.)
  • We can’t do digital, our industry is conservative (so what?! Same reasoning as boss/board/member fits in nicely here too.)
  • We can’t do digital, our audience is older (we’re not saying develop an app aimed at 4 year olds on Facebook. Every demographic uses the web in some way.)
  • We can’t do digital, we don’t have internal support (prove value to them and use facts and figures e.g. the aforementioned MEP survey.)
  • We can’t do digital, we don’t have the resources (no one is saying do a global blogger engagement programme; digital is huge – start small and then scale.)
  • We can’t do digital, we only have an audience of 50 (no it’s never just 50; in any case, if it were just 50, they’ll still look you up online.)

Heard in Brussels: “we need to do something different”

The conversation then usually proceeds like this:

  • Yes indeed, you’re stuck in a rut, you’re not shifting the pin on your issue at all and your organisation is losing out.
  • What can we do?
  • Technical argumentation in the bubble with the same stakeholders isn’t working: you probably need to look beyond the bubble.
  • Where’s that?
  • Outside Brussels.
  • ?!?
  • Presumably there are people affected by the issue beyond Brussels? Involve them in this and make your arguments value-based, not technical; emotional, not technocratic.
  • How do I do that?
  • Identify who might be affected, see what resonates with them, reach out, engage, befriend; talk to your PR people elsewhere, your marketers… and then feed into the communications loop in Brussels. Decision makers will usually side with the most “popular” position so if you can somehow show it’s yours, you’re more likely to succeed.
  • No thanks, I’ll stick what I know best (usually followed by something like: “our organisation is not ready for such a shift”.)

I’ve spoken about how PA is shifting before here. James has too over at Bubble to Beltway here. The question is: why are organisations who ultimately know the same-old isn’t working (as mentioned, the conversation always starts with “we need to do something different”) very often unwilling to then do anything different?

Probably a mixture of the following:

Comfort zone. Public Affairs in Brussels is not strictly a communications discipline in many respects: it’s more like political counsel. Developing a value-based narrative or building a coalition beyond traditional stakeholders might seem second nature to marketers, corporate communicators and PR people; to PA professionals it’s a little daunting.

Self-importance. Let’s be honest: we’re a bit smug. We somehow think PA is too cerebral for emotional argumentation or non-traditional outreach. How many agencies in town have a clear PA vs. PR hierarchy? Plenty. Frankly, it’s damaging: time to get off the high-horse.

A compelling case. Maybe this is where consultants (me included) fail. To get PA professionals out of their comfort zone, a really compelling case is required. It should be apocalyptic – do this or die – but more than that, it needs to be backed up by data: this will work because of a, b and c. That means more research before the proposal is made, mocking up campaigns and programmes, potential outcomes, step by step scenarios and very clear resource allocation.

Big agency vs. small agency: personal experience

Here are some thoughts on how I think personal experience compares at small and big communications agencies. Obviously, I’m sure all agencies are different, and who am I to say given that I’ve only worked at a grand total of two agencies etc. Nonetheless, here goes:

Entrepreneurialism and creativity

The story tends to be that small agencies are entrepreneurial and creative by nature, given that they’re set up by entrepreneurs who tend to still have a hands-on role; and that entrepreneurially minded and creative people have more space to roam, as opposed to bigger agencies where hierarchy and process rule the roost. There’s some truth in it, although it’s not always the case. However entrepreneurial, a small agency has to constantly prove itself and maintain credibility by acting like a big agency e.g. having sound processes that ensure efficiency and reliability, at the cost of toning down the whacky stuff. Clearly, a big agency is expected to show the entrepreneurial spirit – fun, creative, ahead of the curve type stuff – which small agencies are supposed to excel at, but I think it’s far easier that way around: the adage that big agencies are so subsumed by process and scale that they can’t think out of the box is largely a myth.

Winner: draw

Jack of all trades

At a small agency, you’re more likely to get involved in a wider array of activities, even though the breadth of client activity overall is more limited. How? You usually have fewer people working on accounts and so may cover more roles. In particular, you’re more exposed to the non-client related elements of the company, like finance and HR, which are very useful in grasping how a business operates and which you might never hear about at a bigger agency until you reach the upper echelons.

Winner: small agency

Personal growth

The Jack of all trades argument counts here: at a small agency you may have more exposure to a variety of areas of the business, whether on the client side or internal, and are thus (arguably) more likely to learn more, more quickly. However, the mere nature of a bigger agency means that there are more places to grow into, as simple as that may sound, given the scale. Plus a well-managed operation – however big – ensures that hierarchies are not entrenched and that everyone is able to have access to anyone else within the company quite easily – within reason. That’s certainly my experience, although I suspect it may differ drastically elsewhere.

Winner: draw

Network and scale

No-brainer here. Big agencies have a greater array of resources and can scale more effectively, meaning more opportunity. This may differ between big agencies depending on how they are structured (offices may compete as well as share) or whether they are independent or not, but by and large, network and scale are a massive advantage.

Winner: big agency

Existential threats

Big agencies are established: one bad year, one lost client or one person snapped up by the competition, however bad, are not a threat to the company. Small agencies, on the other hand, are constantly faced by existential threats, and the three realities highlighted above can mean the difference between carrying on and shutting down. This means small agencies are likely to constantly be on their toes at thinking ahead of the curve while big ones may get complacent (but the latter should be avoided with good management.) In any case, it’s quite nice to feel 100% safe in the knowledge that you’ll still be around next year.

Winner: big agency

Overall ability

Caveat: it’s impossible to say whether small or big agencies are more or less able – clearly, all agencies differ, as do client needs. Nonetheless, the adage goes that small agencies offer better service as they have more senior people on accounts, focus more on single accounts and have less need to take orders from elsewhere (e.g. head office or parent company) while bigger agencies are often just selected because they can work on bigger campaigns (or simply because they are the supposed safer choice.) I suspect that’s true in a lot of cases. On the other hand, big agencies are more likely to have a wider array of talent to choose from. Plus big agencies that don’t put appropriate people on accounts or fail to focus suitably on smaller accounts are not performing the inevitable, they’re just badly managed.

Winner: both!

Challenging clients and integration: two telling quotes

Heard on the grapevine last week: “my CEO friend tells me he only works with a handful of consultants. They’re argumentative and critical but they’ve been working with him for years.” And a day later: “I used to be fed up of hearing all the talk about how the web was going to change the way we operate. But once it had been put into context, I agreed.”

They may be amongst the first things mentioned in any Consulting for Dummies type handbook, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them.

First, you’re far more likely to succeed in the long-run if you challenge the brief. Again and again. Every consulting function that largely focuses on execution eventually becomes a commodity which someone else can do faster and cheaper. You’ll only stay in your client’s good books in the long run through added-value thinking, and that invariably means challenging the client. In short, don’t just agree then execute. Think creatively, challenge, and only then execute.

Second, there’s no point harping on about a channel like the web unless you’re putting it into context. That context should be what someone is doing already: so you’re not selling something new; but rather, you’re integrating a new set of tools and an existing client reality and making it better. In short, the web isn’t great because it’s yet another channel; and a new and shiny one at that. But it may be great for you if you can take what you’re doing already and further improve your reputation, reach, influence, sales (or whatever) through smart integration.

The bane of the online communications consultant

It’s fun, it’s effective, it’s multifaceted and it’s on a steep upward trajectory. All in all, in Brussels and elsewhere, helping clients navigate the online space is a pretty good thing to be doing right now. But it’s a double-edged sword in some ways:

  • The implementation part has so many variables that it’s easy to get bogged down in dull, irrelevant nitty-gritty and lose track of your true objectives. Sure, you need to get things right, but often, strategic communications veers too far into sheer project management. The key here is to keep the role of the strategist and the project manager separate, and for the strategist to have more visibility.
  • One of the keys to a successful communications programme is integration. What you do online and offline should be closely aligned, but it’s often hard to get right because of the way communications teams are structured. Web, regulatory and media people are all kept separate, and as hard as you may try to put everyone around the same table, it often doesn’t happen. On the consultant side, discipline is also important here. You may understand the web inside out and be tempted to overlook the other stuff. Don’t do it.
  • Closely aligned to this is appreciation of the web consultant as a communications professional (my pride takes quite a hit sometimes on this…!) With some clients, it’s an ongoing struggle to remind them that online communications is primarily a strategic exercise, not a technical one. You have more in common with the business, regulatory, marketing and communications people than IT. All credit to IT, but they do something entirely different.
  • Then there’s the web doubters on the client side; people who aren’t quite sure of the value of online communications. Advocacy and media work have worked for years and are still relevant today, so why fix it if it ain’t broke? The fact is that the model is, if not broken, in need of an upgrade: old-school tactics are still relevant, but they need to be backed up. People are a lot more cynical, opinionated and engaged than ever before, and a well-executed online programme will help you cater to this part of the equation and in turn make your media work and advocacy more effective. As a consultant, what do you do about the doubters? You treat the sell as ongoing: you constantly have to re-explain the concepts, what you’re doing and why it will work. And most importantly, you need to identify your eChampions on the client side who strongly support what you’re trying to do and will mobilise on your behalf and join the challenge to win over the naysayers.
  • There’s the web doubters, but there’s also two types of know-it-alls that often present a challenge. First, the old-school communicators who treat the web as just another channel and simply transfer their understanding of the offline world to it. They think a website should look like a brochure; that a blog entry should be structured like a press release; or they’ll struggle with two-way nature of the web and simply use it as they would a megaphone. Second, there’s the (usually, but not always) junior communicator who has been handed responsibility for online comms because they like technology and are comfortable with it. What often arises in these cases is that they act as if they’ve got a new toy and spend lots of time setting up Facebook fan pages and tweaking things in Photoshop, but they’ll do nothing to help you reach your communications objectives. In fact, they may even be detrimental in that respect. What to do? As in the point above, the ongoing sell – or ongoing education even – becomes essential.

And a final point. The web is big and complex; it’s all happening so FAST; you need to keep track of the other channels AND try to keep up to date with the issues; and you need to deal with the points cited above – in particular the ongoing sell. To get it all right requires a lot of patience; and you’ll need to read a lot every day to stay on track. But it’s worth it in the end.