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

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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).

I’ve heard this statement in various guises over the years. Supposedly, non-profits win over public opinion by duping gullible citizens through emotive, exaggerated if not outright false tales, which compels decision-makers to approve regulation that unfairly and disproportionately damages business.

When corporates think so-called emotive campaigning makes up the entirety of the activist’s toolkit and leave it at that, they’re guilty of malpractice. And I doubt most citizens are quite as dim as they think.

We’ll overlook two pertinent factors:

  1. Corporates do quite often win. Indeed, market power scale (i.e. job creation and investment) has been proven to be a key determinant of decision-making at EU level.
  2. Non-profits don’t always peddle misinformation: they’re often on the right side of the public debate based on hard fact (think CFCs) although I appreciate this is not always the case (think GMOs, where pseudo-science and demonisation largely trump reality).

Instead, let’s look at a few areas where non-profits, especially those that are larger and more professionalised (including foundations) often do better than most (not all) of their corporate counterparts.

  1. Picking the right battles

Public affairs professionals are always oh so busy working on their 20 dossiers. No one can fight, let alone win 20 battles. Non-profits are vocal about some things but not others because they pick their battles well: they select those they think they can win. I appreciate it may be easier said than done, but corporates should be looking at their issues and determining which are most commercially beneficial AND winnable, and focus on those. Also, some companies get hit more than others that make the same products for a similar reason: again, non-profits pick battles they’re more likely to win. They analyse the competition and attack the companies that are worse equipped to retaliate. Methodologies for commercial competitor analysis are well advanced yet in public affairs they’re patently not. Why?

  1. Start early

Public affairs is often reactive, yet in policy-land, the longer one waits, the harder it becomes to win. Corporates need to start reputation building activities early, way before it even looks likely that regulators might strike. As highlighted above, picking the right battles involves identifying vulnerable industries or companies that have failed to build reputational equity; starting early helps to mitigate this (unless the product or service is overtly nasty).

  1. Fund battles properly

One of the great myths of policy-land, which is gladly espoused by NGOs, is that corporates engaging in public affairs are lavishly funded while all non-profits except possibly the foundations trundle along on meagre donations. This is not true. Public affairs is often seen as a mystifying cost centre and tends to actually be underfunded. At the same time, we’ve witnessed significant professionalisation of the NGO sector and new funding mechanisms, coupled with the advent of foundations and the growth of philanthropy. Overall, this has resulted in non-profits often being better funded than corporates.

  1. Study opinion formation

Corporates often do not know what makes their targets tick: how do they form opinions? And by extension, what can we do to get them onside? I hardly know the workings of all non-profits, but I’ve spoken to a fair few that have applied Values Modes to help develop outreach that targets a broader set constituents, not just “people like me” which tended to be the norm. Similarly, plenty of good academic research looks at the nature and determinants of interest group influence at EU level (some of the best is by Heike Klüver). Is any of this type of stuff ubiquitous in corporate circles? Not as far as I know.

  1. Be campaigners

Most NGO folk I know would gladly be defined as campaigners. A campaign denotes an outcome: I campaign in order to bring about said change. They are often subject matter experts, but also know the campaigner’s toolkit inside out, and are diligent students of both. Corporate public affairs practitioners are often subject matter experts but are uncomfortable with campaigning, or communications in general, which tends to make them knowledge rather than outcome focused, to their detriment.

I’ve been mostly London-based for just over 6 months now. Three divergences in the practice of Public Affairs have stood out for me so far (although there are many more):

1. Media matters

Few truly pan-European publications exist (the FT and the Economist to some extent), while Brussels-EU media are information aggregators or news sources more than reflections of – or shapers of – public opinion. So when trying to influence an EU-level decision-maker via media, the PA professional either has to target pan-European publications (difficult – story needs to be bloody good) or go via national press (virtually impossible at scale – trying to do media in up to +20 markets requires more resource than PA teams tend to have). There’s a place for media in Brussels, but in a single national market with a concentrated, established suite of leading media outlets, media relations is easier (although by no means easy) and more impactful.

2. Sheer number of stakeholders

The bane of Brussels: finding someone who cares. Stakeholders i.e. people or organisations with a stake in your issue, largely only exist at national level. Obviously. This leaves Brussels PA folk with a variety of challenges. How to get national level stakeholders to take a real interest in Brussels? How to not offend by using too many stakeholders from a single member state, or only large member states, or only rich member states? In the UK, most stakeholders you’re interested in tend to care about the issue, and to boot, they’re usually not too far away.

3. Polling as a PA tool

Most issues in Brussels don’t have much of a public angle: they’re often too technical or niche for a wider audience to take any real interest. This almost always makes polling an irrelevance as a PA tool: why poll people, ostensibly in the hope of showing that you have public support, when the public knows nothing about your issue? Alternatively, there may be a public interest angle, but how are you going to poll across multiple member states without breaking the bank? In a national market, there’s almost always a public interest angle, plus polling is more economical to carry out, making it a far likelier PA tool (assuming you have a fair share of public support, clearly).

I suppose the overarching theme is that shaping the environment in which policy making happens is more prevalent in London – and other national markets no doubt – than in Brussels. Effective government relations alone tends to not be enough to win, making the practice of Public Affairs a broader – and I’d argue, interesting – exercise.