Online grassroots campaigning to support Public Affairs: once overhyped, now largely ignored

Even just a couple of years ago, a fair few people in the Brussels bubble were getting excited about the prospect of online grassroots campaigning.

Their logic was as follows:

  1. Regulation increasingly reflects public sentiment
  2. Public sentiment lives beyond the bubble
  3. Being able to showcase public support in member states is thus key to success
  4. However, building, showcasing and/or somehow aggregating support is very difficult
  5. The web is by nature cross-border and quick: a silver bullet for mobilisation, surely

The concept is no longer in vogue, given that, clearly, it was highly unrealistic in the first place: the assumption amongst a fair few PA pros was that there are people out there willing to be mobilised on any issue overnight as long as you looked hard enough.

This ignores the following:

  • Many organizations are either too unpopular or too obscure to rack up support overnight
  • Many regulatory issues are highly technical, making it difficult to create a “narrative” that makes mobilisation realistic
  • What’s more, even with suitable issues, many decisions will likely be based on consensus rather than who has most friends, especially if the Commission is the key player, making the whole premise pointless in the first place

BUT (and it’s a large BUT) that’s not to say there aren’t instances where it can be very valuable to showcase support or that it can’t ever work:

  • It can if the issue has a very clear public interest angle and the EP is a key player e.g. see the recent fish discards campaigns
  • Clearly, if an organization is popular, it’d be easier to drum up support
  • And in some cases, mobilisation can even work for an unpopular or obscure organization if it goes about it sensibly i.e. keeping expectations realistic and giving it time; and usually focusing on a single key constituency, rather than “general public”

As a side-note, personally, I’m pleased people aren’t seeing it as a silver bullet any longer. On one level, it shows we’re moving from hype to maturity. On another, it means investments in digital PA are being funneled into areas where it is more likely to provide a real benefit, such as analytics, content strategy and search.

Reputation and Public Affairs in Brussels: where to start?

I’m running a session on reputation this week at the Public Affairs Action Day and although it’s a subject I’ve been dealing with for years, I’m always slightly unsure of how to approach it in a Brussels context.

Meaning what?

The starting point, we can all agree upon: companies’ and industries’ reputation beyond Brussels is increasingly having an impact on what happens within the bubble.

That’s easy enough, yet the Brussels-based PA professional faces 1 of 3 fairly different scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: Poor company/industry reputation but reputation is owned and done (if at all) by someone far from Brussels (and the 2-person Brussels team is overworked as it is)
  • Scenario 2: Poor company/industry reputation but Brussels owns (or is a major player) in how reputation is defined and managed
  • Scenario 3: Good company/industry reputation to harness in Brussels

Clearly, there are multiple nuances within each scenario e.g. a company can have a better reputation than its industry or vice-versa. Alternatively, a company can have a great reputation full stop, while others have a sound commercial reputation yet are unpopular among regulators (think certain tech giants).

Although there’s always plenty of overlap, each scenario necessitates a different emphasis by PA pros:

  • Scenario 1: Here you’re not really doing reputation management in the traditional sense, but rather, tackling reputational issues in your Public Affairs work
  • Scenario 2: Is the nuts and bolts of reputation management i.e. ambitious, involving multiple stakeholders and multi-disciplinary (communications and beyond, ideally right to the core of how a business operates)
  • Scenario 3: Will centre on strategies that “translate” a great reputation into a narrative that carries weight with decision-makers and will likely involve mobilising or at least harnessing the people that have meant a company/industry has a good reputation in the first place

The conundrum is: do I do all 3 or just focus on scenario 1, which is the most common? My current thinking is probably doing all 3 but with more emphasis on 1.

Digital principles from the US presidential campaign applied to our far smaller pond

My colleague from Fleishman-Hillard in Washington DC, Bill Black, was in Brussels a couple of weeks ago to host an event on the use of digital in the US presidential campaign. Good thing that Obama was triumphant, given that the presentation centred on extolling the phenomenal development of the digital element of his campaign since the last election. It’s getting less air-time given that it’s so 2008, but certainly, the campaign’s use of data in particular is truly ground-breaking.

I was asked to round off the presentation with a couple of brief insights on how the principles of the campaign could be applied to Brussels. Slightly tricky given the considerable differences in scale, critical mass, funding and the fact that we had people with drastically different communications needs in the room (political parties through to embassies and perm reps through to corporates).

Nonetheless, there were 3 points in Bill’s presentation which are unquestionably applicable to Brussels, which I summarised as follows:

Using data

Data can also extremely valuable to a Brussels crowd, albeit usually for a different reason. In the US campaign, as with most large campaigns, the prime purpose of mining data is to understand audiences so as to better target them. In Brussels, in most instances, we know our audiences pretty well, or they’re so small that we can find out about them using more cost effective means (a survey or even just asking them directly). However, exploring and breaking down data can pay great dividends in another way, namely building stronger argumentation.

In short, if you represent the interests of an organisation, country, party, region etc. you can use data collected through various means online to understand the views of people in relevant constituencies, and where relevant, align your position so that it reflects these same views, thus strengthening your case significantly. Too often in Brussels, argumentation is based on assumption, or what you’d like people to hear, or it’s too basic to actually matter. In the private sector, how many organisation, for instance, prattle on about the number of people they employ or the percentage of European GDP they account for?

Instead, imagine you’ve used data to determine – hypothetically – that there are 3,000 people in constituency X who have voiced support for you or are likely to support your position, proven through data indicating what these people have said, published, read and shared. I’m sure some people concerned with privacy will shudder, but there’s sure no better argument winner. In addition, analysing a broader set of stakeholders through data can help identify influencers beyond traditional stakeholder groups.

Smarter about content

Old news no doubt but still worth emphasising: with the mass of information being published, being more personal, conversational and publishing material in a variety of attractive, relevant and concise content types is essential if you wish to break through the clutter. This as ever remains a message worth repeating in Brussels, where we remain enthralled by the highly cerebral, overly detailed report or paper as the sole publication type worth thinking about.

Getting senior people involved in social

Again, hardly rocket science, but an interesting insight from the election. The likes of Axelrod were far more involved in social media this time around than in 2008, and this resulted in more stuff being shared and spread. To be frank, although social media lowers the barrier to entry to communications, often allowing people who are smart and interesting yet not high in the food chain to gain an audience, the fact remains that high-profile people usually carry more immediate clout when engaged in communications. This is a valuable lesson to the organisations in Brussels, both public and private, who farm off social media to the intern or even a 3rd party, when ideally, the figureheads of an organisation should at least be somewhat involved.

Social media fatigue in Brussels

Not long ago, Brussels was wildly excited about the potential of social media, from two perspectives:

  1. Social media = EU saviour: proponents of the EU construct believed that social media could help bridge the divide between member states and Brussels, connect citizens and the institutions, and generally make the EU more visible, democratic and transparent.
  2. Social media = Public Affairs tool extraordinaire: organisations operating in policy-land believed they had a wealth of new options at their disposal, whether they were looking to reach out to policy-makers, build coalitions, or generally raise visibility and momentum around issues that mattered to them.

In both respects, we’re experiencing social media fatigue, as even the most ardent enthusiasts are appreciating that social media is no silver bullet without the right building blocks. Meaning what?

Social media ≠ EU saviour

The EU is dull: it remains uninteresting to many because it’s distant and deals with issues that most people don’t care about. Tax, education and healthcare are more interesting than REACH and fish.

The constitution debacle and now Eurozone has dealt a massive reputational blow: the fact that EU enthusiasts often seem to not care much invariably fuels accusations of it being elitist and undemocratic.

Leadership and communications: many leaders and others responsible for communicating Brussels to the world frequently struggle to articulate its significance without coming across as – again – elitist, pompous and/or uninteresting (some, not all!)

The piñata effect: given that the EU leadership and those responsible for communications don’t articulate their activities and raison d’etre especially well, they’re an easy target for national level politicians, media and others wanting to pin the blame for everything – rightly or wrongly – on Brussels.

Language: last but not least, we may now have channels that allow for instant, barrier-free communications, but we don’t all understand each other.

Conclusion in short: the building blocks aren’t right i.e. if we don’t have the right people saying interesting and relevant things, to the right people, at the right time, in the right tone, who cares if we have shiny social media channels at our disposal?

NB: Mathew has written about EU communication and social media in far more detail and quality than I have here – have a look at his blog if you’re interested in this topic (although he’s stopped blogging for now).  

Social media ≠ Public Affairs tool extraordinaire

Organisations often aren’t allowed to say anything interesting: when talking to policy audiences, or audiences that are affected by policy, it helps to be permitted to talk about policy. Sometimes the lawyers, or company and/or industry culture won’t allow it.

Public affairs functions within organisations often have no strategic communications capability: they operate in a policy silo, blissfully unaware of the fact that communications (on or offline) can actually be pretty effective when done well. Net result: limited use of data, analysis and measurement, and thus poorly targeted and ineffective output.

Structure and resources: linked to the previous point, organisations may think communications is fab but simply don’t have the right organisational structure, people or outside support to conduct it well.

Organisations sometimes really don’t have anything interesting to say: sometimes there’s a lull when no particular dossiers affect an organisation and they have nothing remotely interesting to say that would interest policy audiences (NB: this is only the case with utterly uncontroversial industries, of which there are only a few e.g. if the Financial Services industry had nothing on going at the moment – utterly hypothetical of course – they’d still have lots to do to mend their reputation and thus to communicate).

Conclusion in short: again, although some digital PA is very good, the building blocks often aren’t right  i.e. as above, if we don’t have the right people saying interesting and relevant things, to the right people, at the right time, in the right tone, who cares if we have shiny social media channels at our disposal?

Dodgy to amazing: where do Brussels communicators lie?

I recently helped a client develop a framework that defines multiple phases of development in digital comms, broadly and in specific disciplines (e.g. content marketing, social media or search, for instance). The thinking is that it’ll show where the organisation currently lies and where it ultimately wants to get to – a very useful exercise indeed.

For my own amusement (I’m that sad) I’ve drawn up a simple (and slightly sardonic) grid for communications and communicators in Brussels

NB: I treat comms and policy work – i.e. traditional advocacy – as separate activities given that it’s usually how they’re approached in Brussels. The pedant in me would say advocacy is just one channel in an organisation’s communications suite.

  Dodgy Half decent Good Amazing
Mind-set Comms is for idiots who don’t get policy We understand the value of comms in informing traditional policy audiences We appreciate the value of comms in shifting the pin in Brussels and beyond, which in turn can affect policy-land Comms will be as important – often more important –  than traditional advocacy, if it isn’t so already
Brussels bubble Nothing matters outside Brussels Sometimes stuff outside matters, but we tend to ignore it Stuff outside matters, and we work actively with people at national level We make no distinction between Brussels and national level interests when necessary
Structure for communications No structure (or the intern does it all) Mid-level comms manager and limited support Senior level comms manager and good support Senior level comms manager fully integrated in organisation’s leadership
Channel strategy Comms = press releases to the entire Brussels press corp Mainly owned and earned media (e.g. events, website, newsletters, media relations that isn’t spray and pray) Full array of channels (paid, earned, shared and owned media) i.e. include more marketing and social media Full array of channels, part of a single overarching strategy, fully integrated
Integration with traditional advocacy There’s policy work, then separately from that we’ll do a press release when we host an event We have our basic positions available publicly but don’t update regularly We regularly communicate around our policy work in all comms channels Policy work and comms are fully aligned
Targeting “Decision makers and the general public” i.e. no idea who we’re talking to and why We have given serious thought to who we’re talking to and why but don’t have data We did some initial analysis (polling, focus groups, interviews) to understand our audience We did initial analysis and do ongoing tracking based on specific KPIs to make sure our comms is always relevant
Content production What’s content? Regular content updates, but ad hoc and limited senior level input Regular scheduled content updates, some senior input Very regular scheduled content. Senior expertise apparent in all content items
Measurement Huh? Basic KPIs for core activities measured manually or with basic tools e.g. media coverage, event attendance, website hits – but tracking without consequences KPIs for an array of activities and use data to inform future comms activity KPIs for an array of activities and use data to inform comms activity AND overall strategy

Thoughts welcomed.

Online habits vary: social technographics applied to Brussels

Forrester’s Social Technographics Profile Tool is superb; take a look if you haven’t previously. In short, it breaks down social users into different categories, ranging from inactives (don’t use social) to creators (produce and publish stuff). The figures can be broken down further by demographic variables (age, sex and location) which makes it useful reading for marketers and communicators. Looking to reach German men in their 30s? Focus on content more than engagement, given that they read lots but don’t like to share and interact. Italians? Go for engagement and even user generated material, cos they love the stuff.

What if we applied a similar model to Brussels, with the following variables:

  • Sex
  • Age
  • Nationality
  • Sector/area of expertise (health, financial services, tech, environment, trade etc.)
  • Organisation (Commission, Parliament, Council, Perm Rep, in-house, NGO, agency, trade association etc.)

What would we likely learn? No doubt there’s extremes: a southern European male, aged 45-55, specialised in financial services and working in the institutions would likely be an inactive (although there’ll certainly be exceptions). Meanwhile, a young Swede working at an agency on tech issues would probably be at the other end of the spectrum.

But what about the less obvious middle ground? A 40 year old Hungarian working on trade issues at their perm rep? OK the critical mass of data to get that specific would probably be lacking, but as a basic indicator, I think it’d be fascinating nonetheless.

Stakeholder mapping = online stakeholder mapping

Despite the various “influential bloggers” lists and the like about, what often escapes the otherwise astute PA professional is that the online world is not a different universe, at least in Public Affairs in Brussels. Citizen blogging or tweeting on the majority of issues that PA folk in Brussels care about has not taken off, meaning that the usual array of politicians, officials and journalists that are artfully mapped out in the hallowed stakeholder maps, a staple of PA, just need an extra couple of columns and it’s an online stakeholder map too.

In short, check if the said individuals tweet or blog or otherwise engage (avid engagement in a certain LinkedIn group perhaps?) and add a couple of extra columns, one for whichever channel they use, and another on how they use it (last tweeted 6 months ago, ignore; avid and insightful blogger, don’t ignore.)

A shame somewhat, but still a reality on the majority of issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are influential people here or there outside the regular offline crowd, especially in tech and energy, and there are a few influential generalists, but the issues based influential crowd in Brussels is pretty much the same whether on or offline.

Public Affairs and LinkedIn: big potential

Whatever the issue, Public Affairs professionals in Brussels will usually seek to do two things: obviously, communicate with policy-makers, whether directly or through what we in PR-speak call “influencers”; and build coalitions of support, ideally in both Member States and Brussels (note: how to manage the Member States and Brussels nexus – in particular how to identify and harness activity at national level to drive political developments in Brussels – is arguably the greatest bane of the Brussels-based PA professional).

With the advent of digital, PA professionals got rather excited about prospects for the latter: the online space would allow them to build pan-European coalitions with ease and speed, and on the cheap. These coalitions of people interested in very specific issues (web-speak: micro-communities) – so far often scattered and unaware of each other – would finally have a single place in which to unify and mobilise their activity, which when fed into the policy loop would help drive political developments far more effectively.

It didn’t happen, however:

  • People across the EU may have been active on issues online, but on different platforms (and communicating in different languages) i.e. like-minded people may have been producing lots of good material and doing stuff which policy-makers and influencers would have taken note of, but their activity remained as splintered as before.
  • When anyone did try to set up an online community to join the dots, it was hard to get people to join: raising awareness of a one-stop online community was difficult, and even if likeminded people were informed, getting them to join (and stay active) in a dedicated community was (and remains) nigh on impossible.

Enter LinkedIn Groups, and we finally have a community platform that ticks the following boxes:

  • It’s pan-European and has critical mass (or getting there.)
  • It’s credible.
  • People are already on it so no one has to join something new and unfamiliar.
  • People check their LinkedIn regularly, so will likely check the community and be active on it more than they would on a dedicated platform.
  • It has all the required features (aggregation, discussion, sharing) to enable what’s required of an online coalition i.e. being a single unifying hub for good information scattered in lots of different places (blogs, sites, Twitter feeds, whatever), and allowing like-minded people to meet, engage, share, mobilise and – in particular – consolidate their activity.

Needless to say, a group has to be managed very efficiently if it’s to act as a single hub and drive cohesive action on an issue, but the potential’s there.

The telephone was once pretty useless too, so what?

I recently heard for the umpteenth time that someone who had signed up to Twitter and didn’t gain a following of a million within a few weeks had given up, claiming it doesn’t work as a channel to raise awareness and engage on policy-related issues because it’s not credible and 140 characters is only enough for a bit of mindless babble.

I doubt it. There are two reasons it wouldn’t have worked (beyond the fact that it always takes a bit more time than you think): either tweets were dull or irrelevant, or, on the given issue, there aren’t enough people interested in it active on Twitter YET i.e. there’s no critical mass. A telephone too was pretty useless when hardly anyone one had one.

So two points:

  • A channel is just a channel: it’s not the nature of it that determines whether it works or not but what you transmit on it. Does an annoying telemarketer trying to sell you something utterly useless make you think the phone is a worthless communications channel?
  •  A channel is just a channel: it’ll work if there’s enough critical mass i.e. lots of people on it, meaning people in your sector/area of interest/issue, actively using it. Fact of the matter is, in most areas, they aren’t all on Twitter yet.

And a third:

  • Enough with the “only 140 characters”: it’s enough for a quick exchange and to drive traffic somewhere else where you have as much space as you like to delve deeper (a blog, for instance.)

Pet hate: “there’s no digital element in this”

There always is. ALWAYS. And thanks to input from my clever colleagues, Aoife and James, from now on, in order to make this very, very clear, I’ll explain digital to PA crowds solely in terms of how it can be used in support of traditional PA activities and will always avoid supposed jargon like content and engagement.

Meaning what? Summarising PA very neatly in 4 categories – i) getting your message to policy-makers and influencers; ii) building relationships with policy-makers and influencers; iii) building and mobilising alliances and networks of support; iv) intelligence monitoring – I’ll then move on to explain how each of these four categories can be enhanced using a variety of digital tactics.

Fingers crossed it’ll get more of the nay-sayers onboard.