Making digital work in Public Affairs: hold off on campaigning, focus on government relations for now

What should the Public Affairs professional seek to do? Two things mainly:

  • Help build solid relationships with policy-makers through the practice we call government relations – and ultimately try to gain their support.
  • Try to shift the pin on issues more broadly i.e. get public opinion on side so that government relations becomes less necessary (in theory, at least).

Usually, digital is seen as part of the toolkit for the latter i.e. “shifting the pin”.  And for good reason: it’s got unlikely candidates elected to political office and it’s made poorly funded activist campaigns take off and beat the big boys. It’s quick, access is mostly free and it’s ubiquitous. It’s a great storytelling medium and it’s the best and most cost-effective mobilisation channel ever devised. It’s TV, radio, telephone, water-cooler and soapbox in one.

What’s not to love? In Public Affairs, especially in Brussels, two things:

  • Plenty of Brussels dossiers are technical and don’t interest that many people, so there’s actually no pin to shift.
  • More importantly, even when there is pin shifting to do, structural issues within organisations get in the way. The Public Affairs function tends to cover government relations and little else and has the people and budget to do just that. Unfortunately, shifting the pin takes a variety of skill-sets (campaigning, creative type stuff etc.) which organisations may have collectively somewhere amongst their marketing and communications people, but not in PA. Plus it costs lots of money: usually far more than PA folk are given.

Is this a long-winded way of saying that digital in PA is obsolete? Not quite. I would argue that without the right people and budgets, there’s no point in trying to shift the pin. But sometimes the right people and budgets are available, and down the line, when we’ll see PA and other marketing and communications functions at the same table, there will be an upsurge in shifting the pin type activities.

While we patiently wait, I’d focus on where digital can support government relations. It doesn’t have to be big and flashy, but it can help drive an agenda. How? I’d centre on three things in particular:

  • Highly targeted content which mirrors what the government relations team is saying and doing. We’re not talking fluffy content stating that organisation X is saving penguins 5,000 miles off, but rather, exactly the same storyline recited to decision-makers but told through an alternative channel. Then ensure it reaches the intended audience through highly targeted paid media i.e. search engine and social advertising.
  • Social media (Twitter mainly, but possibly also LinkedIn and at some point Facebook, depending on the issue) but only when used as an alternative channel to engage with main targets. If they i.e. policy-makers and key influencers aren’t active, don’t bother: social networking for GR purposes is useless if no one you care about is at it, clearly. And get people who build offline relationships to replicate online i.e. don’t hand it off to the intern.
  • Use a listening platform to do three things: learn more about your targets’ constituents, track stakeholder activity so you know you’re picking up the vital exchanges for social media engagement, and track uptake of your GR activities (see my previous post for further details on this.)

Stop running communications programmes – run campaigns instead

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.

Success in digital communications on issues: the three Cs

A lot of digital issues comms may appear good at first glance, but does not tick enough Cs to succeed, the three being: content, community and campaign.

Here’s a hypothesis representing pretty much any organisation that conducts online communication:

  • Organisation X has a clear story to tell and knows it needs to do so through a variety of content delivery channels (content).
  • It has to speak to a spectrum of people in a variety of contexts in a number channels in order to rebut falsehoods, try to convince the unconvinced, ensure that supporters are informed and motivated, and generally have a clear voice (community).
  • It knows there is lots of competition in the overcrowded communications space, so it needs to have a clear and compelling goal and identity, single core message which people remember, and it needs be splashed everywhere through a variety of channels, and often include advertising (campaign).

To their detriment, organisations will often do one or two of the three. They’ll produce really good content, but they won’t engage with naysayers or supporters in social channels, allowing the other side to dominate the space. Or they’ll engage in social channels but not have convincing content to drive people to. Or they’ll produce content and engage but their programme is not treated as a campaign, meaning it is not as visible as the other side and doesn’t get the pulse racing. Or it’s treated as a campaign and lots of people take note, and then once they dig deeper, they see there’s no convincing story because the content’s poor and there’s a backlash. And so forth.

There’ll be instances where organisations won’t need to focus that much on one of the three Cs. On a niche issue, conversations in social may not be that rife, for instance (this is often the case in digital PA). However, in most cases, organisations are strongly encouraged to tick off all three, or the one or two they do invest in won’t have enough traction to make the programme a success.

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