Agencies and the commodity temptation

The role of the communications agency in political hubs such as Brussels, London and Washington is crammed with potential for exciting work. Issues experts and communications specialists join forces to formulate strategies that help organisatons navigate a complex political landscape…. a landscape that may involve all sorts of players from the pesky blogger to the virulent politician picking up steam in the press, cross-border nuances and awkward political realities, the sudden PR calamity…

It’s a shame then that agencies often fall into the commodity trap, where the goal goes from helping a client reach their business and communications objectives to doing just enough to rack up billable hours. The toolbox – reading up on the latest developments from whatever relevant government department, media monitoring, basic content production, website maintenance, event logistics and so on – become the commodity.

Sure, the dirty work has to be done, and I understand the temptation: the long hours, the lacklustre client, the short-term targets all conspire to lure you into simply doing enough to meet the requirements.

The problem is that as a communicator, you don’t have the luxury of the lawyer or the chemist, who perform tasks which are second-nature to them but which no one would ever dream of replicating without the apposite credentials. Everyone thinks they’re a communicator, and unless you’re challenging clients by offering them added-value thinking, they’ll think they can do it themselves (or get someone else to do it more cheaply.)

So what do you do about it? There’s no trick: it’s all about frame of mind and thinking to yourself that you sell brainpower, not items in a toolbox. So once you’ve developed a strategy and it’s in execution mode, don’t let it go: track your client’s issues on an ongoing basis and constantly revisit your business goals -> communications objectives -> strategy -> tactics chart to ensure that you’re proactively offering them smart ideas that will help them meet their goals. It’ll keep them happy and no doubt help get you more business (and what’s more, it’s a lot more fun and challenging for you, the communicator.)

Explaining an issue from a target's perspective, not yours

scratching_headA problem that often arises when an expert needs to explain an issue to their target – be it a policy-maker, influencer or a member of the general public – is that the expert develops their approach from their own perspective, rather than that of the target. Policy-makers are asked to make decisions based on a ten-minute minute meeting, or more likely, ten-minute briefings based on research conducted in twenty minutes by their assistants, and yet experts come at them with key messages and the like thought up by a room-full of know-it-alls.

It’s far more effective to work backwards and start from the target’s perspective. Ask yourself, first, what are the basics that my target doesn’t understand, and second, what questions are they most likely to have. If you don’t know, conduct a poll amongst friends and colleagues who don’t know your issue and ask them what their layman’s perspective is. Only once you’ve dealt with that, start imparting your expertise.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t often happen in Brussels: it’s where the policy-buff and communicator conflict I often write about comes into play. At company, association and especially agency level, most of the people tasked with communicating an issue are into the policy bit – which is fine (and necessary) – but they’re not really into the communications bit. Result? In the end, output that is probably very good, but doesn’t do a jot to win over the target of their communications because it hasn’t explained the basics before veering into high-brow.

Image source.

Picking an agency

Parallel universe. I work for an organisation and I’m eager to enlist the help of an agency to help me communicate around the issues that matter to me in Brussels. I know that picking the right agency might help to ensure that the public, regulatory and media playing fields treat me fairly, but I want to make absolutely sure that I pick the agency that’s right for me.

What would I look out for?

  • An agency whose starting points are my business and/or communications objectives, not the size of its address book. 20 former Commission officials or MEP assistants on your staff? I don’t care. I’d rather you understand what I’m trying to achieve and set that as your starting point.
  • Is the agency committed to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs?) It must be, even though I wouldn’t expect them to be defined by the first meeting. The commitment matters though, because in an unconventional and unpredictable place like public-policy land it’s too easy just say “oh well, it was out of our control, what could we have done?” With a commitment to KPIs you show that you’re really keen to win campaigns, not just make money from them.
  • I’d want the people who I meet to be intellectually curious, and passionate about communications and politics. They have to be if they need to learn a new sector and a new organisation from scratch and do their job well. Plus they’d be more interesting to work with and more likely to pursue my account as an intellectual challenge rather than simply looking to tick boxes and send invoices.
  • Must be firm believers in integration: an agency should consider all tactics – be it advocacy, media work, online campaigning – equally important parts of the same parcel i.e. my organisation achieving its goals. It might be an expert in one area, but it should never think that area is more important than all others.
  • Sounds obvious, but I’d really want an agency to make an effort when I meet them. If it’s using regurgitated material, only tells me about existing client work or thinks it’s a shoe-in because of its reputation, I’d not be impressed.

Some questions I’d ask:

  • What are my key issues?
  • How would you approach them?
  • What would you do to really understand my issues?
  • What’s the work you’re most proud of?
  • Who would work on the account?

Dilemma: communicators don't get it and online consultants who aren't communicators

The web offers a wealth of opportunities to communicators. Greater engagement, communicating directly with stakeholders, better integration, clearer measurement, speed, cost-efficiency.

So what’s the problem?

One the one hand, traditional communicators don’t get the options. They often adopt an offline PR approach to the web: all about content production and having the right hook, but with little understanding of how the web works beyond being a publication tool. They ignore the importance of search and how people find information online, of how web users navigate a website, the value of hyperlinking and aggregating information from third parties, fostering interaction and perhaps most of all, using the web as a learning tool.

Then you have the other side of the coin. Web consultants who ignore the importance of content and building a story. They always start from a “web” perspective. They’ll dismiss a site because it does not follow best practice in navigation. They’ll say that a video is terrible without having even seen it because it hasn’t been embedded in the right way. They’ll say a hyperlink is awful because it’s too long rather than check what it leads to.

Clearly you need a balance of the two to be a good at online communications. Who fits the bill best? Usually young PR or marketing professionals who have grown up using the web and are very comfortable with technology. They get the content and message side and also get the web, but they see it as an end rather than a means.

A Brussels agency model

Here’s a very short internal presentation I did at ZN recently showing  how I think the PA/Corp Comms agency model will develop in Brussels, as well as some thoughts on how ZN can become the “agency of the future” (sorry, I’ve blacked out three of the slides that outline the latter.)

Any thoughts?

Eurobloggers are not the Brussels press corp

This entry is prompted by a recent post by Julien on his mistrust of Brussels PA/PR agencies and their attempts to connect with him; and an even more recent conversation I had with a consultant who asked how to best “harness” Eurobloggers (p.s. I told him to not hold his breath.) Yes, Brussels communicators are trying to engage with Eurobloggers to push their stories. Will it work? No. Eurobloggers aren’t journalists. They blog because they’re into politics. If pitching journalists is hard, pitching bloggers is much harder because they usually only have a personal, not a professional stake.

Lost opportunity? No, blogging is important, but for Brussels communicators, it shouldn’t be about the Eurobloggers, at least when it comes to a blogger relations strategy. It should be about getting clients to dip their toes into blogging etc. themselves and then trying to tentatively build relationships with people who write about their issue, not those most likely to be read by MEPs. As a consultant or communications adviser, your role should be guidance, not doing the blogging yourself.

Here’s an extract of the comment I wrote in reply to Julien’s post in which I describe in brief how best practice blogger relations should be carried out (and in turn how it should mean Brussels agencies won’t be pestering him for much longer!)

I work on social media strategies for clients… I can honestly say that my approach to blogging, Twitter et al (and ZN’s too) centres on how I can best help clients use the tools themselves… Why? Frankly, it works better… you’re far better off helping clients build constructive relationships themselves, and generally not with eurobloggers but preferably with issue or sector experts…(.)

Although some agencies no doubt make the mistake of simply transferring media relations to the web and seeking out people most likely to be read by legislators, I suspect this practice will fizzle out. Why? Because an article in the FT is undoubtedly worth more in “PR dollars” than a far better article in a relevant trade publication, whereas online, impact can be determined more by quality than by reach because of search, hyperlinking and aggregation.

To spell it out, here’s two (very simplified!) scenarios I could propose to clients (no prizes for which one I think is most likely to work.)

1) We’ll write a post on our blog saying you’re great. We’ve hooked up with Julien Frisch and the other 30 popular eurobloggers – maybe one of them will pick up your story (but don’t hold your breath, none of them have ever written about your issue.)

2) Your 3 experts could blog or tweet (assuming they want to.) We’ll help them out with the dos and don’ts, but they have to do the writing and it has to be honest. We’ll do some research to identify other people (academics, scientists, companies, pressure groups, students etc.) writing good content on your issue (whether for or against) and run them by your experts. In due time, we can add them to our blogroll, your experts could link to them in posts or comment on their blogs, and maybe we can build relationships with them if they’re interested, and hyperlink to their content or maybe even get them to be guest bloggers.

The difference is obviously that it’s the organisation’s experts and not the agency that is telling the story, and you’re promoting good quality content and interaction rather than throwing a story at someone who happens to have MEPs amongst his/her readers and hoping that it will stick… (.)

Digital adoption by Brussels agencies

From a post on the “Behind the Spin” blog:

PR agencies currently fall into three distinct camps: consultancies that are embracing and actively creating the digital PR future by retooling their businesses; consultancies that believe digital calls for traditional techniques to be transposed to bloggers and via networks such as Twitter; and those that are standing still.

The post refers mainly to PR agencies in London, but I wonder if the same is true for PA/PR agencies operating in the Brussels bubble? I work for an agency that operates online and have never been at a traditional agency, so this is speculation on my part, but I’d say it sounds about right.

I suspect the “standing still” camp may be a little bigger in Brussels than London however, due to the nature of PA more than anything else. Most PA professionals have political backgrounds and are sector experts, not communicators. I’m not saying it’s a problem per se, except that their expertise is often not aligned with that of communicators, as some agencies don’t integrate especially well to the extent that they maintain a PA and comms hierarchy where the two disciplines are actually kept quite distinct rather than being two fully integrated parts of the same communications toolkit.

In addition, for Brussels (perhaps London as well) I’d add one more group to the three above: consultancies that want to embrace the web, understand its importance and what it can do, are tip-toeing, but are not fully committed because they struggle with how they would adapt their business model (I’ve heard this a few times.)

Like I said, this is largely speculation on my part. I might be wide off the mark, so I’d be curious to hear what other agency people have to say about this.

Countering fragmentation in Brussels by integrating and aggregating

jigsaw_puzzleThere’s too much fragmentation going on in Brussels. First there’s internal fragmentation of communications within organisations. Marketing are doing this, product guys doing that, issue specialists saying X, PR saying Y. Surely companies need to be better integrated. In particular, marketing and PA especially need to be telling the same story far more. Why? Because selling to consumers and legislators is a lot more similar than it was a few years ago. Marketing back then would have said: we’re cheaper and/or we’re better. PA would have said: we’re providing jobs and innovation. Now? They’re still saying that, but they’re both also saying “our company is a model citizen because of X, Y, and Z” and in this respect, there needs to be a lot more collaboration.

Beyond that, there’s what I’d call external fragmentation on issues, which is totally different, but is still about fragmentation, so I’ll put it in the same post. Call me lazy. What do I mean? That when looking at an issue for a client or prospect, everyone is always struck by the mess: multiple players at national level and pan-European level, public and private entities, associations and pressure groups, old media and bloggers. Even within the Commission say, DGs can have totally different priorities on an issue. People are talking about pharma this week: it’s now largely under DG Enterprise, but DG Sanco want it because surely Pharma is about health, they say. Whatever the outcome, fact of the matter is that their approach would be quite different.

In communications terms, what this fragmentation of players results is in turn a fragmentation of content and story which frankly makes an issue appear far more complex than you as an organisation want it to be. It’s hard to thrive within complexity because your story is one of a thousand; legislators might not have the time, the nous nor the willingness to really understand it well.

So what should you do about it? You create your own story that is tangible and relatively easy to digest of course. In addition, and more importantly, you should be the one player that makes sense of the fragmented landscape, and you can do it online. How? You become your issue’s portal by aggregating and hyperlinking content from all stakeholders in one online HQ available on your site – whether they’re private, public, competitors, pressure groups, media or bloggers.

What’s the point?

  • You’re doing people a favour by making things easier. They’ll appreciate it.
  • Making things easier will also enable people to understand your take on an issue more clearly, as well as understand it within the context of other stakeholders.
  • The base assumption is that your argument is valid and that most of the content you bring in backs up your story. Assuming that’s the case, the outside content you bring in will give you the 3rd party credibility you crave.
  • Becoming the focal point for web content will enable you to own the discussion online, naturally making you a key stakeholder rather than just one of many. Search comes into it too. By becoming an online hub, others will link to you and you’ll get better a search ranking on your key issues.
  • You’ll showcase both sides of the argument (again, assuming your side is strong) and thus prove that you’re a fair and open player.
  • You’ll have taken step one of the the four-step approach to online engagement. I’ll be building on this in the coming weeks, so watch this space.

MEP trends survey: some more thoughts

I wrote about the EP Digital Trends survey the other day – a godsend to people like me who often face the inevitable comment “yeah, but MEPs don’t use the web” – as it highlights that they in fact do indeed use it,  primarily for search, but even to (shock horror) read blogs. James, whose team published the survey, has written a post describing what the results actually mean to PA practitioners, essentially detailing how they must make sure that they combine their advoacy and media relations with a sound online search and content strategy.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’d also add that beyond ensuring that their content is found, there’s a lot they can do to ensure that the content might actually influence an MEP’s view of an issue. MEPs are accountable to their constituents, so even if your content is top-tier and convincing, you still need to prove to them that voters are on your side (or at least a good portion of them.) To do so I think you need to match content and search strategies with a broader engagement strategy. Here’s a few first thoughts (not all applicable to all issues and organisations, but it’s a start):

  • Adopt a portal approach: don’t just showcase your own content but bring in good-quality third-party material that backs up your case and gives you credibility by association. If you really trust your sources, you can automate the process via aggregation.
  • Similar sort of thing: make stakeholders your “ambassadors” by showcasing them on your site directly, ideally using video. Bite-sized interviews and preferably basic production standards, and you’ve got something a lot more powerful than a written “key message.”
  • Appeal to potential supporters (assuming you have some) by adopting a really personalised approach. Don’t just have good, sober content but also one or more personal blogs or vlogs which show the real you. This then becomes a mechanism for stakeholder dialogue, where people can comment and you can personally engage with them.
  • Use multiple channels if you have the resources and feel your audiences are scattered – social networks, Twitter etc. – but stay on message and lead people back to your main site. The latter point is key: always ensure that everything you do is showcased in your main “hub” i.e. via one URL.
  • Make your online platform a “community” rather than a mere site (you’re already half-way there if you’ve taken some of the steps above.) Not meaning that you recreate Facebook on your €20,000 site; but rather that you make it a place where plenty of people, within your organisation or not, are featured and engage in some way. These people will then be more likely to mobilise on your behalf and help spread your message; a sort of Obama effect in miniature.

And here’s the bonus. If done well, you haven’t just put mechanisms in motion that will help convince MEPs directly if they find your content online. You’ve also got yourself a fully fledged eCampaign that could spread online (again, scope really depends on the issue and organisation in question!) and influence the wider debate. And eventually your MEPs might not just hear about you via you own channels; they might even hear indirectly via their constituents or traditional media that’s picked up the story. It’s come full circle, and that should really be your end-goal.

Why the Brussels PA bubble isn't embracing the web

gorilla1Smug online consultants in Brussels (and elsewhere no doubt) are constantly saying that traditional communicators are not embracing the web because they just “don’t get it.” What a load of tosh. However, web uptake has been slow, but it’s not because thousands of smart people have suddenly gone dim. Sure, plenty think that the web isn’t important because “MEPs don’t use it” or “surely only lonely teens use Facebook” etc. However, they’re not in the majority.

Instead, I’d split the majority of web naysayers into three groups:

1. The people who generally don’t value campaigning. Those who think all decision-making takes place in cramped offices with key stakeholders while everybody else is happily getting on with their lives with little knowledge or interest in complex matters of politics. These people “don’t get it” more broadly: they think comms plays second fiddle; they split PA professionals and communicators into two different camps and consider the former far more important (and clever no doubt.) Are these people dumb? Generally not. Their model has worked for decades and I’m sure backroom dealing is still the most important tactic out there, especially for issues that haven’t made it into a pressure group’s in-tray.

2. An extension of the first point – let’s be honest, there are people who don’t really need the web. The experts whose job it is to really explain the nitty-gritty of policy to legislators. They still make up the majority of communicators in Brussels and they’re pretty essential.

3. Those who appreciate the value of the web in communications terms but can’t see the ROI (i.e. primarily the agencies). The thinking here is: “I can charge 100K for an event but Twitter is free. It’s a no brainer.” They’ve got a point, and until they’ve got clients that will happily pay for events and see more value in a trade-press article than a blogger relations campaign, they’ll stick to it. And rightly so. They’ve got a business to run, after all.  Two points I’d make though. First, mastering the web is difficult: selling really competent web strategy, putting together the pieces, mapping online conversations and how to react to and shape them (and so on) doesn’ t come cheap. And as for billable hours, sure, setting up a Twitter account is quick and easy, but following conversations, engaging in them, producing content for multiple platforms, engaging with bloggers etc. takes a lot of time! Second, you’ve got the risk of the client one day saying: my competitor is doing really good work online, why aren’t we? What do we do? You want to be proactive now rather than reactive later.

What’s my vision? The scenario is really not a showdown of traditional vs. modern models. They key lies in integration of all tactics in the most suitable manner considering an organisation’s communications objectives. However, I do think any approach should embrace the web, whether its simply the place where information is centralised and made easily obtainable for all stakeholders; or the focal point of an engagement approach in which an organisation seeks to listen and engage in wider debates that can ultimately dictate the pace and nature of regulation (or ideally both…)

The said model has worked for decades and I’m sure backroom dealing is still by far the most important tactic out there, especially for issues that haven’t made it into a pressure group’s in-tray.
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