Too often, communications efforts conducted in support of Public Affairs ends are treated as programmes and not campaigns, making them mundane and less likely to work.

Meaning what? Let’s imagine, in theory, that we’re trying to ban the Internet. What would a programme look like (utterly simplified and wildly hypothetical)?

Standard PA fare no doubt:

  • After planning and strategising, we’d probably build a coalition of likeminded people and organisations (angsty parents, with the backing of responsible newspaper publishers and the music industry perhaps?)
  • We’d develop a series of suitable messages and storylines about how the Internet has led kids astray and destroyed businesses, which we’d test and finalise, and distribute as content/storylines in a variety of channels (on and offline)
  • We’d work with targeted media and bloggers to try to get our side of the story across in their publications
  • Clearly, we’ll have identified make or break policy-makers (an eclectic mix of arch conservatives and anti-business types probably) and developed appropriate programmes for the coalition to engage with them

That’s all very well, but probably won’t help us stand out from the crowd and win over hearts and minds.

What would a campaign look like? Oddly enough, pretty similar, except we’d also have the following:

  • A campaign name (short, memorable, punchy e.g. save our kids, but obviously much better and with no competition in search engines)
  • A 10 (max) word catchphrase to describe the one main campaign goal
  • A striking visual identity (logo, colours etc)
  • Some milestone that represents an end date (X is happening – we have 60 days to save our kids!)
  • A dedicated home online (i.e. not as a sub-page of a larger site, as you’d invariably have with a programme) as well as supporting channels (social media, probably)
  • A champion i.e. an individual who “owns” and is the face of the campaign, be it a business leader, celeb, community leader, or a complete random elevated to champion status because they’re relevant (an aggrieved parent looking to save her cute, buck-toothed son from web wickedness)

Does it all sound a bit gimmicky and unsuitable to the oh so technical and cerebral dossiers most people think they work on? Perhaps, but the type of campaign you choose to run can vary greatly, depending on the nature of the issue. When there’s a clear, simple grassroots angle, you can go boisterous and colourful (like Hugh’s Fish Fight, say). But if your issue is less likely to capture the public imagination or is inherently unpopular, sure, be more staid and low-key. However, the principles remain the same: a campaign trumps a programme every time.

I use this image frequently when presenting on how Public Affairs is developing in Brussels (usually in the context of Public Affairs and digital specifically). It’s not a particularly novel or intricate notion: campaigners/pressure groups, have influenced policy making beyond what their resources should have permitted because they have told a better, and simpler, story. They’ve aligned with public opinion – and later driven public opinion – sometimes by pulling at the heart-strings, always using compelling, simple messages, oft-repeated – and plenty of visualisation. In the PA context, industry has famously been poor at doing just that: telling a simple story that resonates with people – including policy makers.

There’s usually a fair bit of nodding in the room at this point followed by one or more of the following inevitable rebuttals:

  • Yes, but you see, they can get away telling tales, we can’t.
  • Yes, but you see, our customers, directors, etc. expect us to be credible, scientific, cerebral, fact-based etc.
  • Yes, but you see, we can’t talk openly about our issues, they’re tip-top secret.

Tosh. The suggestion that pressure groups merely make up tales which gullible folk fall for is overemphasised. It happens, sure, but you need to give them more credit. Pressure groups do their groundwork: analysing audiences, developing storylines based on insights gained from their analyses, testing messages, delivering them through multiple channels and multiple forms of media with a fairly good inkling that they’ll succeed. They don’t do every issue, or attack every opponent: they focus on where they’re most likely to win.

Also, being story driven rather than fact driven need not imply fluff: it can simply mean talking about issues in an everyday context, openly and honestly, using real people, and language which people understand. It implies dropping the condescension and perhaps showcasing information in summary form or visually. It can mean talking to local community leaders and retirees rather than just policy-makers and the FT about things which resonate with them. In short, communicate about things people care about, in a language they understand, and be nice doing so.

Quick thought. I’ve just reviewed an audit on an issue in three European countries for a client. Can’t give the details, but here’s the gist:

  • One country is broadly pro and the other two are anti.
  • In the pro country, however, media and blogosphere, which are both very active, are not aligned: the blogosphere is pro because of reason X, media because of reason Y.
  • In the two anti countries, one country is virulently anti (media, blogosphere, academia, politicians, government bodies) even though it is only minimally affected by the issue. And the reason it’s anti is not even on the radar in the pro country.
  • The other anti country is less anti, but as with the pro country, media and the blogosphere are not aligned: the blogosphere is very anti while media is fairly balanced. And as opposed to the other countries, industry has a significant voice.

OK clearly without the details, this might not sound too enthralling, but the point I’m trying to make is this: pan-European campaigns exist and can be a success if planned and executed well, but only the overarching framework can be uniform. Everything from research and monitoring through to message and channel selection has to be done at a more local level. And local might not even mean national: micro-targeting of groups within countries needs to take place, and the groups may be determined by local geography or demography.

So in short, when thinking pan-European, think overarching goals, but then break down the campaign into multiple sub-campaigns. And feel free to set the campaign goals centrally and retain some control, but avoid local groundwork and ongoing intelligence at your peril.

PA professionals are increasingly having to look beyond their government relations comfort zone. Campaigning more widely around their issues, and the practice of informing, engaging and building a wider support base than previously required – whether via on or offline channels – is ever more important.

Why? In short, because the mechanics that dictate the political process have become far more complex. Until a few decades ago, the process was determined by a minority largely comprising politicians and big business. Joe Public was not especially bothered, because he was usually not opinionated about things taking place far beyond his backyard. His reality was structured according to a number of inevitabilities: the same which structured his parents’ and peers’ lives, say the Church everyone went to, or the party everyone in town voted for.

And now? A number of factors have ensured that this, rather static, reality has been radically transformed. Mobility has meant people move around and mix, exposing them to more outlooks and isolating them from the conformity which made everyone think and act the same, while ideology and religion are increasingly irrelevant in determining people’s beliefs and values.

Instead, a different set of values is taking hold, often based around issues like personal freedom, fairness, health, equality or the environment. In parallel, independence and the growing trend towards a strong sense of personal expression and rights, has emboldened people: they are now more demanding in asking “what’s in it for me?”

This is reflected in how they approach politics, and hence the term “constituent-consumer”. Citizens are less likely to select politicians based on age-old affiliations, but rather, they act like consumers: they shop around, and either look for matching values (Politician X thinks we should save the whales, just like me) or someone who is likely to lead to personal gain (Politician Y is more likely to cut stamp duty on my new house – or Politician Z is anti-business and thus more pro-Joe Public like me.)

As a result, politicians are having to pay heed to the constituent-consumer. And concurrently, PA professionals on a number of high-profile issues increasingly need to look at how they can win over the same constituent-consumer, knowing that no matter who they have on speed dial or how good their body of intelligence, they’ll be fighting a losing battle if they are on the wrong side of wider opinion. Which means engaging in reputation management and building sizeable coalitions far from the government relations comfort zone.

Mildly paranoid note/get out of jail card: I think my reference to the constituent-consumer in this context is my own, and a quick Google search has not revealed that scores of people have been using it for years. If it turns out I picked it up somewhere and am not referencing it, I promise, I’m not trying to pass something off as my own that’s clearly not. If indeed this term is someone else’s, please let me know and I will amend. Thanks.

Digital advocacy has been effective on issues that capture the public imagination because the web is an effective grassroots mobilisation tool. From whale hunting to GMOs, pressure groups and concerned citizens have expressed anger, spread the word and mobilised likeminded people. Were Greenpeace to announce a big-time campaign tomorrow on, say, mink farming in Europe, it could be web-centred, with offline elements operating around it.

However, the vast majority of advocacy issues don’t capture the public imagination: nobody cares; media pays no attention. Until a short time ago, these were the sort of issues where advocacy was done off the radar i.e. primarily with stakeholders and policy-makers sitting down face to face. There’d be no large-scale media campaign or the like in support because it wouldn’t have been worth the effort seeing as all stakeholders were a phone-call away.

Digital advocacy is now nearing the real deal for niche issues as well. It is ubiquitous enough – even in public policy land (see Fleishman’s EP Digital Trends or Edelman’s Capital Staffers’ index) – to work as a direct advocacy tool.

In practice, if you plan and execute the online element of your campaign well, you can safely assume that you’ll reach relevant policy-makers directly, as well as engage and/or mobilise the aforementioned stakeholders that are just a phone-call away, using primarily online channels. By no means does that mean that traditional advocacy or media relations are a dying breed, but they can now be supported, enhanced and sped up no end. Exciting times ahead.

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A little late in the day perhaps, but a quick after-thought I’d have to last month’s Copenhagen debacle is that campaigners hold more responsibility than they’d likely admit. Despite the urgency and apocalyptic tones that have been in use for years over the issue of climate change, by the time we got to 2009, the momentum in favour of doing something about it had decelerated in part because they weren’t going about their jobs in the right way.

I’m not for one instant claiming that political realities – in particular, the constraints placed on politicians dealing with somewhat vague and far-away issues at a time of global crisis, and the developing vs. developed country schism – aren’t by far and away the prevailing reasons for the gridlock.

However, I’d still go as far as saying that political pressure had waned so much that politicians could go to Copenhagen without there really being anything substantial on the table – i.e. a legally binding document that demanded sacrifices of its signatories – and get away with it, in part because campaigns on climate change were often poorly executed and always disjointed. As their constituents lost interest or even became bothered by the prevalence of the issue, spurred on by an irresponsible populist press, politicians could dither: such is the nature of the game.

If we split the climate-change debate into two phases over the last decade, the first phase had a figurehead – Al Gore – who came to symbolise the issue. He carried real clout as a senior politician who had abandoned politics to focus on the one issue alone. What’s more, he approached it with a real wealth of knowledge and understanding of the science. As a result, campaigners who became involved in the issue usually did so in his shadow while adopting a serious and cerebral approach. In public consciousness terms, the issue was escalating fast and the doubters weren’t too comfortable about raising their voices.

Phase 2 began once Gore stepped out of centre-stage, transforming the issue into an exercise in jumping on the bandwagon. All of a sudden, reducing one’s carbon footprint was the de-rigueur do-gooder issue for all organisations. Scientific argumentation got lost in the muddle as second-rate celebs pleaded with us to ride our bikes. Similarly, the lack of a focal point for the campaign meant it became disjointed: every oil and gas giant had its own separate campaign; it seemed every pressure group was doing its own thing too. Single-issue campaigns propped up everywhere but seemed to have different messages and I personally was never quite sure who was behind them. Lots of these campaigns were very good in terms of output – Kofi Annan’s tck tck campaign looked especially crisp and garnered a lot of signatures, although it came too late in the day – but there were simply too many overlapping initiatives rather than a single, strong, global voice spurred on by a number of interconnected campaigns. Result? The real message got lost and the populist press turned the issue into yet another fashionable and elitist pursuit for politicians detached from the man on the street.

Is all lost? No, mainly because the issue is real. What’s more, with the crisis diminishing, more people may start thinking beyond their day-to-day to issues outside their backyards. And with regards to campaigns on climate change, I think we’ll see a shift. Organisations who have hopped on the climate change bandwagon (or any other issue for that matter) are being scrutinised evermore by cynical consumers wary of greenwashing and will have to prove that they are serious about playing a positive role, while pressure groups should increasingly seek to join forces. This should result in better, more low-key, integrated campaigns by a number of public and private players, involving stronger grassroots engagement and mobilisation. Hopefully, this will put renewed pressure on the political class and ultimately result in responsible action, not hesitation.

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The story goes that NGOs were able to mobilise support and spread their message online over a decade ago, when the corporates they were up against barely had any web presence to speak of. This is cited as one of the reasons for their ascendancy in the political power game.

How are they faring these days? This is by no means a long analytical piece: I haven’t combed through hundreds of NGO sites from which I’ll cite dozens of examples; but in short, my general feeling is that NGOs aren’t as effective online as they used to be. To some extent, it’s probably their fault. Some have amazing stories – especially from the field – but are not using social media as well as they could to tell them. Sometimes they use the tools but not in an integrated manner e.g. offline campaigns aren’t backed up online and vice-versa. Big NGOs are often too split along country or regional lines: rather than sharing material across platforms they’re keeping it separate, which is pointless as well as detrimental. Also, some of these same big-time NGOs have sites that are far too pristine and corporate-looking. Meanwhile, others have crammed too much into their toolkit, meaning that they do a little of everything badly rather than a few things well; and others, especially small-time single issue pressure groups, are not using cheap and cheerful tools nearly as much as they should (although I hasten to add that some do!)

To some extent, their loss of the best practice mantle is not really their doing. With their mammoth budgets, their corporate adversaries have played catch-up very well by developing credible CSR programmes and hiring smart agencies that do great communications online, with plenty of effective social media in the mix and winning the search-ranking battle.

Having said that all that, the spirit of the NGO is alive and well, and their message is stronger than ever. However, it’s not necessarily them that’s delivering it. Firstly, “regular folk” are often more militant than most NGOs nowadays, and they’re very active online in forums, blogs etc. I did a little bit of research last week in response to a report from the Food Standards Agency in the UK which claims that organic is no healthier than regular produce, and was astonished to see how many people (with no affiliation to official groups) were taking a stand against the FSA. And they were pretty angry. Secondly, corporations themselves are making noise about the sort of issues only NGOs seemed interested in until recently.

Conclusion? Having mobilised people to such an extent over the last 10 or 20 years to the point where they have actually radically altered the common man’s sensibilities over a range of issues and leading ultimately to far more responsibility in corporate-land (as well as politico-land of course) is no doubt a great triumph and impressive legacy. It probably might not seem to matter so much that they’re not good with Twitter: that’d be taking a myopic view of the global challenges we still face and which they can contribute to. Still, I think they should brush up a little online.