I fell into digital public affairs entirely by accident around a decade ago (I’m by no means an early adopter of technologies). But I stuck with it and remain excited by its impact and potential.

Why I love it

While we often obsess over how digital can deliver information, its effects on the environment in which public affairs operates is the better starting point.

Anyone can communicate to whoever, whenever, making ‘access’ less important, and granting a louder voice to activists. This in turn drives greater scrutiny and increased risk (at great speed, and from farther afield). As citizens, this should delight us. As people in business, it is obviously cause for concern.

Navigating all of this with success requires change within organisations: collaboration between business functions; broader and more aligned risk management; new skills; and often more transparent or just plain better behaviour. Which invariably calls for structural, operational, and cultural change.

An increasing number of public affairs practitioners appreciate that ‘doing digital’ properly involves all of the above, and not just setting up a couple of social feeds. I have helped some of them evaluate the risks and opportunities that digital brings to their organisations from a public affairs perspective, and have subsequently worked with them on appropriate strategies and operational plans. This sort of work is the most stimulating I’ve done over the last couple of years, and helps explain why digital public affairs and I remain an item.

From the perspective of communications execution, digital is of course also really exciting. Given reduced trust and greater scrutiny of business, message and reputation increasingly dictate policy outcomes. The scope for reputation building and environment-shaping on digital are endless, from creative and storytelling techniques, through to social interaction with friends (and foes), and using online tools to manage complex programmes, all underpinned by sophisticated uses of data. As with the digital transformation stuff I outline above, working with clients who make the most of these tools and methods is really motivating.

Why I hate it

‘Hate’ might be overplaying it. But I am disappointed by how low digital maturity levels remain in most public affairs functions. Its impact and scope are appreciated narrowly, as it is seen merely as an ‘awareness’ channel for ‘getting a message out’. More sophisticated uses of digital – the fun stuff I describe above – are usually not considered, which can be rather dispiriting.

Why not? Brussels remains a policy town, where technical knowledge trumps the science of influence and reputation-building, whether on or offline. Few public affairs professionals appreciate the principles of campaigning and marketing that would make them effective beyond the technical components of their work.

And in all honesty, I understand why. The staples of government relations – technical information provision and navigating the policy process – remain the key determinants of success in Brussels. And personal access remains quite easy, so why bother reaching policy-makers online? Moreover, a lot of the exciting components of digital relate to what Americans call grassroots: mobilising supporters to drive bottom-up influence. But European publics are based in member-states, while most PA practitioners have Brussels-only remits (and budgets).

Having said that, there is still plenty of scope for digital even on the most technical and Brussels-only dossier. At its basest, it can be used to analyse competition, monitor, and provide basic information via content and search.

But more importantly, due to digital (and other forces), public affairs is increasingly moving beyond the prism of the technical and Brussels-only. Reputation-building and opinion-shaping activities are prerequisites for success, and a modicum of digital aptitude is required to do either well.

 

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The notion of ‘influencers’ has been all the rage in Brussels recently. Understandably. In the real world, influencer marketing – the practice of teaming up with influential people to help promote an organisation or product – can be highly effective.

The principle of influencer marketing is not new. We’ve all sniggered at grainy ads from the 50s featuring doctors flogging cigarettes that do wonders for a niggly sore throat. And in public affairs, we’ve also been at it for years – think pharma and patient groups, or agrochemicals companies and farmers – but calling it stuff like key opinion leader mobilisation (or whatever).

But in the social media age, the concept of influencer marketing has moved on a notch:

  • It is far easier to build a public platform, so there are simply more people who are influential (as well as plenty more who think they may be, but patently are not)
  • Similarly, it is easier to get an influencer in front of those one is seeking to influence online than it is offline
  • Higher levels of mistrust in entities like industry and media makes credibility harder to attain, and influencers can help

Cue: lots of people, including public affairs practitioners, with high hopes for online influencer marketing.

While not doubting the effectiveness of online influencer marketing when done well, I would urge caution to anyone expecting it to make a massive dent in Brussels. In the marketing world, influence comes from being able to help sell a product. In Brussels, the product for sale is policy impact, usually driven by: the provision of high quality technical information; proof of market power (i.e. the ability to generate jobs and growth); or proof of public support (at least amongst key constituencies). If online influencers can help deliver technical or market power information that supports one’s case but might otherwise not cut through the clutter, or whose reach can be taken as a sign of popular support – then great, they will likely deliver policy influence. But I doubt there are more than a handful of Brussels-based individuals who fit this bill. There may be plenty of people who are followed by the entire bubble and whose stuff gets shared because it is amusing, topical or controversial – but this does not equate to influence.

So should we discard influencer marketing entirely in Brussels? Not quite, but we may wish to alter the paradigm by which we approach it:

  • Online influencers that can influence policy (experts, high-profile green bloggers etc.) do exist, but usually at member state level. So if a key target stems from a country in which an all-powerful online influencer may realistically support your cause, by all means, explore the option.
  • Given how small the Brussels bubble is, the key triumvirate – entity seeking to influence / influential people / target audiences – have fewer degrees of separation between them than in the real world. And sometimes they are the same person. Spokespeople are sometimes cited as influencers, for instance. But are they not also targets? You might be seeking to influence, but are you not just one useful piece of online content away from actually being the influencer yourself?

In summary, for anyone seeking to use the online sphere as a means to influence in Brussels, I’d advise two things:

  1. Do not develop an ‘influencer’ list for Brussels, as there are not enough influencers, and there will be too much overlap between it and your target list. Simply create a target list that doubles up as an influencer list. It should include details on each individual’s online presence, especially a recommendation on how best to reach and leverage each e.g. target directly, target indirectly through paid, engage openly – or indeed, seek to leverage as an influencer.
  2. Try to become influential online yourself rather than seeking intermediaries to carry your message, through a really relevant and high-quality content strategy. Given the dearth of brilliant online content in Brussels – and the reluctance of many otherwise excellent public affairs practitioners to build their ‘personal brand’ online – there are rich pickings to be had.

Below is a slide I developed for a recent presentation to a lovely collection of my countrymen.

It summaries viable digital tactics across three ‘types’ of public affairs activity:

  1. Technical i.e. classic government relations on a legislative dossier on which experts on every side are wrangling over the details of key texts
  2. Reputation building amongst policy-makers i.e. when an interest group is seeking to build a relationship with policy-makers beyond the technical wrangling through positioning/differentiation
  3. External environment shaping i.e. what Americans often call grassroots – the attempt to influence publics in order to indirectly influence policy

As ever, kind thoughts or even brutal take-downs would be appreciated.

Digital Public Affairs

In public affairs in Brussels, we frequently skip from message to delivery: we blast our preferred message out through various delivery channels, be it face to face, or media, or digital – with little thought to how it will resonate with a target audience, but hoping that some of it will stick. Call it the sledge-hammer method.

Sadly, the bit in between message and the delivery mechanism is often overlooked – i.e. analysing what will drive influence and developing a corresponding strategy.

Why is this the case?

Perhaps it is cultural: we venerate knowledge, from understanding the complexities of the political process to the intricacies of a highly technical dossier, but are less interested in the communications methods required to drive awareness and influence, like audience scrutiny, testing, or measurement.

Or perhaps it is because successful outcomes in public affairs are less clear-cut than in other communications disciplines. While marketers and political campaigners are purely assessed on their ability to sell a product or a candidate respectively, a successful PA result is less clear-cut. There are unambiguous political outcomes, like policy change or the avoidance of harmful legislation, but there are also looser ones, like building a relationship with a policy-maker or establishing a coalition with useful political players. If we are just expected to deliver the latter, there is little reason to do much strategising.

Whatever the case, it’s a shame, as public affairs sells itself short when fixating on technical detail and relationships over truly delivering influence. And frankly, the strategic planning process does not have to be overly difficult. It can simply comprise the following:

  1. Narrowing down objectives to those that are most important and realistic/achievable.
  2. Narrowing down audiences to just those who makes decisions (being very specific).
  3. Figuring out what will influence them (e.g. data, case studies, technical vs. non-technical, centre-left vs. centre-right values, proof of market power, proof of popular support, local, national) + who will influence them (e.g. you, a constituent, an influential person, media) + how they consume information (p.s. if you do not know or cannot hazard a sensible guess on any of the above, ask them).
  4. Re-assessing how realistic and achievable success is.
  5. If indeed it is realistic and achievable, develop a strategy and a corresponding implementation plan.

Easier said than done?

This post is an extract from an eBook I shall be publishing soon: watch this space.

When utilising digital to support their programmes, corporate public affairs practitioners often fixate on how it can help deliver information at high speed and volumes. Understandably. Reaching policy folk is a challenge, so the notion of doing it at the click of a button is tantalising.

But it is important to first look beyond information delivery and consider the risks posed by digital, especially its celebrated progeny: social media.

Due to mistrust in elites and shifting societal values, corporations are expected to be paradigms of virtue. If they are not, social media is at hand to let citizens and activists express their discontentment. Moreover, a story can no longer be ‘killed’ given that social media means we have one perpetual news cycle. If a story is big enough, it will keep on running through likes and shares, and be amplified through petitions and campaigns. Social media does not even respect geographic boundaries, with salacious hearsay from a far-away continent likely breaking faster than a less juicy local story.

In public affairs, this all matters because it is now easier for opponents and activists to leverage corporate misdeeds from across the world (real or perceived) to gain political advantage.

Many argue that we should take protest in the digital age with an enormous pinch of salt given how easy it is to express indignation on Facebook or sign multiple petitions (the slacktivist phenomenon). But sometimes online protest does balloon, and with decision-makers eager to convey democratic legitimacy by following the tide of public opinion (and, one would hope, wishing to do the right thing), such protest can sway policy.

The most oft-quoted recent EU examples are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the much-vaunted trade deal between the EU and the US, and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a treaty aimed at cementing international standards for intellectual property rights.

I shall not enter into the merits of either package, but merely say that while both had seemed shoe-ins at the offset, they were derailed by large scale protests which would not have escalated so fast and attracted such numbers were it not for online mobilisation and petitions (Avaaz petitions against TTIP and ACTA were signed by 3.5 and 3 million people respectively).

What to do about it all? Beyond being virtuous corporate citizens, being better equipped to handle the risks posed by the spread of potentially perilous information online is the obvious starting point. This involves a melange of operational and cultural remedies which we shall scratch the surface of here:

  • Public affairs should work closely with counterparts globally – EU functions tend to be quite isolated – and with marketing-communications (not just legal, as is frequently the case). Working with marketing-communications – the main brand and reputation ‘owners’ – will ensure alignment and joint plans on reputation-building (proactive), and the ability to act quickly when trouble arises (reactive).
  • Organisations should make crisis mitigation global and cross-functional. Issue monitoring, scenario planning, and messaging should be shared. In practice, this should help public affairs professionals keep track of events outside their backyard which could affect policy. And vice-versa: knowledge of policy developments which could affect broader reputation will help corporate communicators.
  • Organisations should strive to institute greater transparency, including a willingness to be open and publicly engaged around policy priorities and advocacy activities (on and offline).

I recently wrote about the nuance between technical/legal and public interest driven dossiers in EU public affairs. In short, high-quality technical information provision is the key determinant for success on technical dossiers, while on politicised issues in which public sentiment plays a role, a successful PA programme will likely need to include more of the marketing-communications toolkit.

This same nuance affects the use of digital and social media in public affairs. On communications-driven dossiers, strategies will frequently have considerable digital components. Run-of-the-mill examples might include:

  • An online-centred rebuttal programme when a public affairs goal is being hampered by a specific item of misinformation.
  • Leveraging public support from a specific constituency – people who live in a certain place, work for an affected company or industry, or have a certain set of values – with the help of online tactics like petitions and social networks.
  • Utilising digital storytelling techniques to raise awareness amongst diverse stakeholders in a cluttered information space.

In legal-technical public affairs activity, like tracking and analysing ramifications of policy or drafting and advising on policy-related texts, such strategies may seem irrelevant. And in all honesty they often are, at least on a large scale.

But by no stretch does that make digital channels as a whole irrelevant, as they remain viable tools across three core components of all public affairs activity:

  1. Intelligence tracking and analysis

While the use of data in public affairs remains rudimentary, quick wins may be found in areas such as proof point identification (e.g. what do people in a key decision-maker’s constituency think of your issue and can this be leveraged) and analysing the opinions, habits and communications preferences of targeted decision-makers active on social media.

  1. Message delivery

Providing policy-related information online is obviously key. Even on the most procedural of topics involving limited stakeholders, information will be sought online. Meanwhile, highly targeted digital marketing methods can help get relevant content to the narrowest of audiences.

  1. Relationship-building

Last but not least, if target decision-makers are engaged in social media, it presents an alternative channel for reach and influence. There are only so many meetings one can attend.

The use of digital and social as one minor cog in technical/legal-centred public affairs programme may seem unexciting and perhaps even irrelevant. Undoubtedly, the options available when campaigning to influence a wider set of influencers will appear more enticing to most communications professionals. But don’t underestimate the value that digital and social can provide in shifting the pin even on under-the-radar PA, be it through a piece of intelligence uncovered online, first-rate content, or because of reputational capital and relationships built up over time in part via social media.

We’ve been told for years now that traditional public affairs (face to face, technical lobbying) is not as effective as it used to be in Brussels. The logic is that many issues, and even entire industries like financial services or oil and gas, are now “political”, meaning decision-making on legislative matters is no longer based on the rational analysis of available information, but rather, the tide of public opinion.

For this reason, the adage goes, public affairs professionals need the support of marketing-communications professionals more adept at applying techniques that can affect the opinion of constituencies, with a view to shaping the environment in which decision-making takes place, rather than just the decision-making itself.

In other words, PA professionals need to run “campaigns” that seek to build and/or showcase some level of public support in parallel to lobbying on policy. Good campaigns should be focussed and simple: channel agnostic, definable in a single sentence, with a single and specific goal, a visual identity and end-date. Fish Fight was a PA campaign, aimed at banning fish discards. As are Renovate Europe and Keep me Posted in the UK, looking to set deep renovation targets for buildings and banning email only billing, respectively.

So does campaigning represent the future of EU public affairs? Yes and no.

However detached Brussels may be from real European publics, its legislators gain legitimacy in part by demonstrating that they respect and represent public constituencies. Hence why some activist campaigns have been so successful. Fish Fight and ACTA campaigners took issues that were not on the public agenda, put them there, and flipped decisions that had previously not been in doubt. On the corporate side, scrutinised organisations need to build and harness the support of specific constituencies, often through campaigns, in order to legitimise their policy objectives. Think pharma and health care professionals or patients, agrochemicals and farmers, or tech and entrepreneurs. But campaigning is not the dominion of corporates on the defensive. There is real value in campaigning when one is on the “right” side of the public debate, or even when no “right” or “wrong” sides have been defined and early mover advantage may be gained.

Having said all that, organisations should be less hasty at hiring marketers and creative agencies while eschewing technical expertise. Traditional public affairs remains dominant in Brussels.

In her study of interest group activity in Brussels, Heike Kluwer concludes that the quality of technical information provision remains the foremost determinant of lobbying success, ahead of demonstrating market power and public support. Her work is admittedly not very recent, but there’s little reason to assume much has changed.

Apart from certain issues (the likes of GMOs and shale gas), national publics remain largely disengaged, and legislative activity remains highly technical. Put simply, on most issues, there is no public debate and no constituency to mobilise, so campaigning would not provide a competitive advantage to public affairs practitioners

And even when an issue has been politicised, better lobbying can still win the day. The most notable example is probably that of mandatory food labelling around the turn of the decade, when better lobbying arguably meant the food industry’s favoured system, guideline daily amounts (GDA), prevailed over the traffic light system endorsed by consumer groups and health advocates.

So which is it: to campaign or not to campaign? As ever, it depends. If an issue has been highly politicised and external forces are reducing prospects for lobbying success, there may be no choice. If an issue is slightly off the radar but campaigning can improve the likelihood of success, it should probably be added to the mix. But with three major caveats: 1) campaigning is usually expensive and difficult, so adequate resources need to be available, which is often tricky given intractable siloes (e.g. PA and legal vs. marketing and communications); 2) campaign success relies on building and showcasing support from a key constituency, whether small or large, so at least one such constituency needs to exist; and (controversially) 3) if the other side is ineffective and failing to win over a major constituency, campaigning may not be necessary even on a somewhat politicised matter (e.g. food labelling).