Being an online communications consultant in Brussels: annoying conversations

These aren’t transcripts of conversations I’ve had, by any means, but not too far off.

Co = consultant   Cl = client (existing or prospective)

1. Being an online comms agency/consultant

  • Cl: Could you build this cool new flashy online gimmick for us please?
  • Co: Why? What are you selling? Whose opinion are you trying to shift? Who are you mobilising? Where does this fit in?
  • Cl: Ummm. I just want the gimmick. You’re an online agency/consultant, right?
  • Co: Yes, but we should figure out what we’re trying to do first, then think about the tools later.
  • Cl: But I’ve got a proper agency that charges €900 an hour to do strategy. Can you not just build the gimmick?
  • Co: …. (lost for words).

2. What’s the point of campaigning?

  • Cl: We’ve got a really contentious issue, but we should own it. We’re doing the right thing, we’re safe, we provide jobs and growth, we’re cutting edge.
  • Co: But politicians are screwing you?
  • Cl: They know we’re right, they’ve told us so. But the issue is super political they say. The public thinks we’re scum because pressure group X has done a really good job and the media has eaten it up. They need to keep their constituents happy. Politics, what can you do?
  • Co: Shouldn’t you campaign..?
  • Cl: No we lobby. We don’t need to campaign: we know all the relevant legislators and other stakeholders, so they know where we stand already.
  • Co: Clearly that’s not working though. Why not mobilise people in your industry? Answer people’s questions, alleviate their concerns? Try to shift the debate? Use the web more: why not bring all your arguments, 3rd party endorsements and relevant external content together in one place online and market it heavily to constituents?
  • Cl: Ummm. I told you, we don’t need to show politicians our arguments. They know them already. And anyway, politicians aren’t on Facebook (snigger, snigger).
  • Co: …. (lost for words).

Comparing the EU blogging platforms

EUobserver have taken a leaf out of Euractiv‘s book and launched a blogging platform. It looks nice, but I’m not sure they’re going about it the right way. As I’ve written before, Blogactiv is a great resource, but I believe it could be even better if it was an aggregator that took in posts from blogs set up elsewhere rather than forcing bloggers to set up shop on the Blogactiv platform, as this no doubt alienates some bloggers (established ones in particular). EUobserver have actually gone one step further by having a by invitation only policy i.e. not even allowing people to set up a blog (unless it’s really well hidden – in which case, sorry EUobserver). This approach, plus the fact that they’re not doing anything differently from Blogactiv, I think will mean that their effort won’t take off.

Not convinced? Blogginportal.eu is an aggregator that pulls in material from blogs that in some way cover EU related affairs. It was set up in people’s spare time, it’s still in beta, and doesn’t get any traffic via established news portals like EUobserver and Euractiv. Nonetheless, it’s been linkedblogging-platforms to 300+ times although it was launched less than a month ago (see left). EUoberserver has no link:tos yet (guess I may be first with this post – and credit, they’ve just started) and Blogactiv have managed just 1,570 in over a year.

Sure, links referring to a site isn’t a scientific measure of a site’s success, plus the bloggers whose own content is fed to blogginportal.eu (me included) will probably provide the bulk of links in the google search.

Nonetheless, I strongly believe that the aggregator approach will win hands down in the long run.

Trade associations should make more of their websites

Trade associations mainly serve their members by: 1. keeping them informed of developments in Brussels; and 2. lobbying and communicating on their behalf. Both these functions could be developed considerably through the smart use of online tools, even by the most cash-strapped association.

If you look at pretty much any Brussels-based trade association’s website, it’s immediately apparent that they’re not making the most of the tools at their disposal. I picked about 15 associations from Euractiv’s list of Euractors and looked at their sites, and apart from a few exceptions, they all use their sites to: present their mission statement, structure, board and secretariat staff; describe their industry/sector and activities; publish press releases; and promote their events and publications.

This is really a wasted opportunity. Here are three areas within which I think they should be adopting more web tools (measured against an association’s priorities and activities of course):

Publications Sites tend to have a list of publications and an order form, but more should be done to make the content accessible. If the publications are intended to be read by as many people as possible, but the association is not that interested in making money off them, all should be made available as eBooks that are easy to download and easy to forward. If the publications are meant to make money, I think they should be published on Google Books, where users can read but not download, allowing them to verify that the content and quality matches their expectations. This would not deter purchases: nobody would read a whole book online, and most buyers want these type of books for reference, available from a nearby book-shelf at their whim.

Events Most associations host events and yet their sites only tend to promote them and nothing much else. Where’s the integration? Following events, a lot more material should be made available and promoted (podcasts or videos of attendee interviews, presentations), and it should be really easy to spread. Getting this material isn’t difficult. A simple dictaphone or basic handheld camera is enough. Editing can be done for free (Audacity for audio only; Window Movie Maker for video), and hosting can be done on free web platforms like YouTube. What’s the point? It extends the lifespan of an event; it improves outreach and gives attendees a record of what they saw.

Plus seeing as associations place such value on events, I’m guessing they’d like to host more of them but can’t afford to. Why not move them online? One big annual conference and four smaller online events, with all the functionalities of a “real” event other than the coffee breaks (presentations, Q/A?). This is not expensive or difficult to set up, and could potentially attract more attendees than live events (no travel).

News Presumably, most associations have a newsletter, email updates, maybe some activity in members only areas that we can not see. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure they’d want to be doing more. I’m guessing many members feel daunted by anything emanating from Brussels, and the trade association’s role as a knowledgeable gatekeeper of news and other information is vital. What could they do? Very few trade associations use a blog to update members or anyone else who might be interested with material that is in the public domain, it seems. I think near-instant updates via a blog could be invaluable, much better than email updates, which get lost in cluttered inboxes, or newsletters, which require a certain number of articles. The advantage of blogging in this respect is that you can report just one story at a time, whenever you want, and all stories are stored in one place. And the blog can be short – “check out this really important document” (publicly available only of course); or longer – “we attended a hearing at the Parliament this afternoon. Points X, Y and Z were raised. We’ll be doing A and B”. And if members really want the news in their inboxes, they can subscribe to blog updates via email.

As for news aimed at the press, associations’ press rooms are usually very dull, containing little more than basic info and press releases. Far more could be done at little cost to both spruce up the content and improve reach. Like what? For starters, linking to other relevant stories on the web (a site should be a source for more relevant content than that which you write yourself), short video clips, easy bookmarking to make it easier for people to spread and find material, and RSS, so that users can request updates in a reader or via email. Some of these things, like enabling bookmarking and RSS, take minutes to set up and are free.

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Of course, online communications goes a lot further than this. There’s online monitoring, social media engagement, pay-per-click advertising, eCampaigning and so on. These tactics would probably be a step too far for most trade associations given their scope and resources, but they have no excuse for not taking advantage of a number of cheap and cheerful web tools that could really add value to their work and delight their members.

Good campaign on show in Brussels

I saw this poster strung to a lamp-post near the European Parliament last weekend, and pretty much every other lamp-post in the vicinity, urging MEPs to insert more stringent measures in a CO2 reduction bill doing the rounds at the moment.

Its message is simple and to the point, pulls the heart-strings and guilt-trips naysayers, it uses familiar imagery, AND is visible to the right audience at the right time. Quintessential, well-executed, NGO fare.

The site the poster refers to is OK too. Again, simple, provides further information but does not overwhelm users, and makes decent use of YouTube to present the issues. What I don’t like though is the call to action: a pre-written letter to post or email to an MEP. These are annoying and disingenuous. I think it’s much better to provide links to contact details for relevant MEPs and a few pointers on what to write, but most importantly, insist that the letter be personal, as I’m sure that ten personalised letters from concerned citizens carry more weight than a hundred of the same.

Explaining digital to clients in public affairs

While their efforts to remain in the communications stone age and withstand the onslaught of digital have been valiant – MEPs don’t use the web, they’ve often claimed –  Public Affairs professionals in Brussels are slowly coming around to the fact that digital can work for their clients too. Next up is the clients themselves and convincing them to invest in online activities, which is no mean task. First, although their ability to radiate expertise on topics they’ve first heard about over lunch an hour before a meeting should never be underestimated, with limited experience of digital themselves, PA professionals might struggle to explain its full scope. Second, old-school clients who barely use the web and think no one other than their teenage grandchild does either will really take some convincing.

Here’s a few things that might, combined, win them over.

1. The Internet is a mainstream medium

Old fogies might initially appear hostile to the web because of reasons bordering on: “our target demographics/stakeholders are not male and prepubescent” usually followed by something like “we’d like a website because it seems we have to have one, but that’s all for now thanks very much.” This outlook was pretty prevalent a few years ago, but admittedly much less so today. In any case, to anyone who does need convincing, it’s fair to say that the web is now a mainstream medium. 60% of Europeans are daily users with an even male/female split, broadband adoption is growing by over 10% annually in Europe, and 70% of journalists claim to use online sources to research stories. In short, the vast majority of relevant stakeholders are active online, and if they really are not, the influencers who reach them are.

2. Campaigning is increasingly important

From what I can gather, advocacy at a European level is not what it used to be. Sure,  a combination of expertise on the subject matter and direct contact with relevant legislators is extremely important. However, what influences these legislators has arguably changed following enlargement and societal developments that have altered citizens’ demands of their elected officials. In short, public opinion matters more than it did a few years ago – and what’s more, public opinion has shifted.

On enlargement, it seems (although I might very well be wrong) that having 700+ MEPs from 27 member states has led to fewer concentrated group allegiances within the European Parliament i.e. MEPs are now less likely to follow the group line than do what their constituents demand than they were before. Certainly, on an issue I’ve been working on for a client, there were significant divergences within the major parliamentary groups, which experienced lobbyists claim would not have been the case a few years back.

With regards to public opinion or citizens’ demands, very briefly, I’d say that in general these have changed dramatically because Europeans behave like consumers even when choosing who to vote for and essentially “shop” for their favourite politician based on issues, rather than broadly accepting what the party/politician their family or community traditionally votes for tells them. What’s more, the nature of the “issues” that drive their demands has shifted as well, as people’s concepts of well-being are different. Sophisticated personal quality of life factors such as concerns for the environment, healthy living, a solid work-life balance etc. are these days far more prominent than simply being happy if basic necessities are met and the Soviets don’t invade. This is a gross simplification of pretty complex developments, but what I’m essentially getting at is that citizens are more selfish, demanding and fickle; their notion of well-being has evolved to matters which affect them personally; and legislators are having to take notice.

Does this matter to communicators? Yes, because campaigning directed at citizens is now as important as advocacy if not more! Not convinced? Think of the success NGOs have had on a range of issues and ask yourself once again.

3. Online communications is different

What’s even more important to stress is how eCommunications is different: a) the tools allow for far more intricate means of communicating; b) they allow you to listen and engage; and c) they allow you to measure activity more precisely.

a) The scope of the tools

The mere scope of eCampaigning in terms of what a campaigner can do, or mechanisms to engage a user and spread the message further, are immense. Take for instance as a benchmark an exceptional eCampaign such as The Girl Effect, my current favourite, which incorporates the best of TV advertising in terms of high quality video, audio and copy in its introduction video, but in addition, runs a lot longer than a TV ad can, then immediately allows users to send to a friend, donate, find out more, and engage, all at the click of a button. I myself watched the video on The Girl Effect from start to finish, sent it to a fair few people I know, and nearly donated (which is closer than I usually get). I’m trying to imagine seeing the message in another medium and wonder whether it would grip me in the same way and then make me help it go viral by sending it on to friends. Probably not. A TV or print ad would be too short, and even if it did grip me, I would not immediately be able to act on my interest by sending it on, and knowing me, would forget by the evening.

b) Listening and engaging

I’d say the ability to listen is actually one of the most important changes the web has brought about. It might seem pretty basic, but I do honestly believe that it’s transforming communications no end. Focus groups, polling, surveys etc. existed before but these methods either did not account for many people or were very expensive. Now, companies or organisations can actually sit back and listen to what scores of stakeholders of any sort are thinking and communicating about you or your field, and can react accordingly rather than by second-guessing and hoping for the best.

As well as the ability to listen is the ability to interact. Old-schoolers adopting the web have often made the mistake of treating it like another medium to harness in addition to radio, print, direct mail etc. i.e. where you simply post your message and hope someone picks it up. Yet this is wasting an opportunity because the web allows for two-way engagement. Whether it’s via a comments feature, email, discussing something on a forum, reference in the blogosphere, the fact of the matter is that you’re now able to engage in a conversation.

So what’s different, or why does it matter? Well it’s a great opportunity for one. Honest and transparent engagement, done well, will make a company/organisation/person appear more credible, and frankly, more genuine than if all their outgoing communications simply consists of highly vetted messaging.

More importantly, and we’re seeing this phenomenon really striking gold in the Obama campaign in the US, engagement can result in mobilisation. The web is a phenomenal mobilisation tool – in fact, it’s far better at mobilising existing supporters than reaching or persuading new ones, because it’s easier for people to pick and choose online than it is in other media. I’ve often called this the “town hall effect” based on the age old tradition of town hall meetings where candidates and voters would discuss issues face to face. This had died out but is being revitalised in a different, and possibly more effective format, on the web. In practice, online mobilisation largely involves putting supporters in touch with a candidate/organisation/association/company etc. and with each other, then facilitating their ability to spread the word, on or offline, via their own networks and in their own communities, through events, calls, letters, emails, fliers etc.

In addition, not engaging can be a lot worse. I’ve done work for companies operating in highly unpopular industries, and for decades they’ve tried to limit communications or at least rigidly control it. They can not do that anymore, because the growth of the web means that, more than ever: 1) secrecy is frowned upon; and 2) you’ll be slated without actually being out there defending yourself. And this matters more when it’s happening in a place that’s accessible by anyone and can at worst go viral, than from atop a soapbox – “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” (Mark Twain).

c) Measuring

While you can listen to people, you can also track their activity. Everything online can be measured, from the number of people visiting a webpage; how they get to the webpage (directly, via an ad, via another site); to the number of times they return to the same page, time spent on it, what they click through to; to where they are located geographically; and in some cases, who they work for. This allows you to grasp whether your campaigns or other web activities are reaching your target audience and whether they are responding as you’d hope they would (by visiting numerous pages, staying online for a long time, downloading material, donating, forwarding to friends etc.), and to constantly improve according to what you can tell users want. Again, this could be done before via, say, a phone survey, but it’s far easier now and the level of detail you can acquire is quite astonishing.

4. Using the web to improve working practices

The web does not just have to be sold as a campaign tool or a way to interact with stakeholders. There are countless ways to use online tools to improve and streamline internal working practices e.g. an internal team blog by the engineers explaining what they do (which, say, the marketers had no idea about); collaborative authoring in a wiki rather than umpteen emails and version numbers; a podcast by the CEO rather than a conf call no one listens to; eLearning or conferences via webinars instead of flying people places; or social bookmarking to collect useful learnings available online in one place.

Sure, this does not fall into the realm of public affairs, but frankly, so what. One, it’s an easy way of winning people over. If they’re not convinced that they need an eCampaign or need to be engaging in social media, tell them to try some simple tools internally before moving onto the bigger projects, and you might win them over. Second, it really serves a purpose, namely of connecting various elements of a company or organisation, or “breaking down silos”, and making it more efficient.

5. It’s (potentially) a lot cheaper

I don’t like this rationale, but if all fails, expense is always a winner. Web projects can potentially be enormous and very costly. On the other hand, communicating online can also be done well at a very low cost, as it’s largely about communicating in the right channels and in the right way, rather than buying media that might reach the correct demographic.

6. The web as a direct (nearly) advocacy tool

If people still need convincing, the web can also be sold as a tool to be used in direct support of advocacy. If key target MPs or MEPs have been identified in an advocacy campaign, as any good lobbyist would do – say all M(E)Ps in the most relevant parliamentary committee – web tools can be used to directly target that M(E)P’s constituency and exert pressure on his/her constituents. How? It would involve targeting online advertising within the correct geographic location e.g. a Google AdWords advertising in the region of the target’s constituency only, with keywords carefully devised to suit its constituents’ prime concerns, or advertising being placed on media that is especially popular in that region, or as a last resort, purchasing an email list for that given region and linking through to dedicated areas on an M(E)P’s website which deals with issues pertinent to the constituents’ needs and fears.

And if your client still needs convincing, I’d say you have yourself a lost cause.