Campaigning vs. communicating

Given that there’s lots of overlap between the two, and the fact that the toolkit for each is the same, we often fail to differentiate between campaigning and communicating. But we should.

Campaigning has a single goal and an end-point (e.g. an election, a parliamentary vote, a product launch). It tends to be about framing or reframing the prevailing view (or in the case of defensive campaigning, defending against someone who is). Timeframes are usually tight. Campaigning is a slog and most top campaigners are tough and combative.

Communicating is an ongoing endeavour with no specific cut-off point. It should centre on maintaining (and gradually improving) relationships and the status quo over time. The best communicators are patient, and are as good at listening as they are at getting heard.

Most organisations invariably need to do both, often at the same time, so does this matter? Yes. Longer term communications builds the foundations for successful campaigns. And in practical terms, strategy, process, team composition and urgency will likely need to differ – often radically.

A business delusion: “non-profits win because they can peddle misinformation”

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.

Does media matter?

Of course it does, but in terms of influencing public opinion or the extent to which it dictates decision-making, probably less than we think.

In his book about Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003-04, Joe Trippi recounts how he felt following a car crash interview by Dean on Meet the Press: demoralised and sure their campaign was over. It was the first major political campaign to truly harness online grassroots mobilisation and fundraising, yet at that moment, Trippi, who managed the campaign, was guided by an outmoded paradigm: one in which blowing it on Meet the Press meant you’d get lampooned in every other media outlet and you could no longer possibly win an election.

What actually happened? Dean supporters were enraged: they thought the Republican interviewer had been unduly tough and proceeded to increase activity in support of their candidate. Result? Poll numbers and donations went up the week following the interview. Apparently this was the moment in which Trippi realised beyond any doubt that real people could trump traditional networks of influence.

What’s more, this took place more than 10 years ago, before the advent of social networks or ubiquitous and speedy internet access.

What are, still now, the lessons for communicators or campaigners? Not that we should ignore traditional media, but rather, that:

  • We should be channel agnostic.
  • We should be more meticulous in our study of opinion formation. Influence is infinitely more diluted than it was when everyone followed the lead set by parents or neighbours. What really makes people tick?
  • Obviously, we should re-assess influencers. Network analysis done properly can help us define who really carries clout within a constituency or other community.
  • We should measure impact, not reach. Dean’s Meet the Press interview probably reached far more people than any other single piece of content that week, but its impact on poll numbers was the opposite of what most people would have deducted from mere reach.

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.