Evaluation of communications activity tends to centre on external reach and impact, measuring basics like awareness, and ideally outcome related metrics like shifts in opinion of target audiences as well as genuine impact on communications, policy and business objectives.

A further useful form of evaluation which we often neglect is internal, revolving around questions like:

  • What should we actually be evaluating from an internal perspective?
  • What constitutes best practice (and poor practice?)
  • How are we performing?

The (hopefully visible) table below lists five core components of digital public affairs along with a short description of what constitutes basic, good and great for each, which I’ve used as a benchmark to assess activity.

I’ve arguably been conservative: some public affairs and communications professionals will likely think that some items in good or great should be considered basic in 2016. Perhaps, but I’d argue that given the cultures inherent in most public affairs functions – technical/legalistic and government-relations centric, and operated by policy wonks rather than marketing-communications professionals – I think it’s realistic. Happy to hear thoughts, as ever.

Digital PA grid

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I developed the digital public affairs wheel a couple of years ago, which does a decent job of summarising how digital can support the three main components of execution in Public Affairs i.e. intelligence gathering, message delivery and relationship/coalition building. What it misses is the background stuff i.e. the unseen work which makes the execution actually work. To this end, I think the following 3 + 3 split works quite nicely i.e. you still have the execution (the “seen”) but in parallel we have the “unseen.”

digital public affairs

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.)

Scores of PA professionals are creative now, it appears, given that they film talking heads or ask a designer to decipher some data and represent it in visual format.

There’s a discrepancy between creativity and publishing in content formats that traditional audiences aren’t accustomed to, however.

By all means, experiment with new content formats, but creativity doesn’t lie in format, but rather, in developing a smart, relevant, snappy, memorable, thought-provoking and possibly funny (depending on the subject matter) creative concept. If it’s good, it can be translated into whatever format you want, whether in written, spoken or visual form.

In short, the creative process is not deciding on a content format, but rather, developing a creative concept, and it will likely be a lengthy, arduous and frustrating process.

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.

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.

Two staples of the PA comms suite in Brussels are policy focused websites and position papers. They’re usually chockerblock with useful stuff, but in most cases, fall prey of being too detailed. A majority of your audience will not be experts, although some will, so a range of knowledge levels must always be respected. As my colleague Aaron frequently says: most MEPs are lawyers – not scientists, engineers or economists.

Hardly rocket science, but these two triangles illustrate what I mean in a tad more detail.

On websites, a site visitor should first be presented with easy access to basic information, and if he or she wants more detailed information, or even highly advanced information aimed at experts, they’ll find it by clicking further. Some sites do this, but most don’t: they’ll either not cover all levels of detail, or they’ll be overly detailed from the off.

Position papers are always detailed by nature, albeit to varying degrees. That’s fine, but the issue is that they’re frequently left unread because of it. What’s missing is that the position paper is never broken down into smaller bits. There are real opportunities here, given that a position paper represents an organisation’s detailed and virtually complete vision of an issue, so the building blocks are all there. Meaning what? Take the information and do one or more of the following:

  • Create an alternative version in 10 bullet points or structured like an FAQ
  • Create an executive summary in visual form (infographic)
  • Feature the author(s) in a video, podcast (or series of) describing its contents
  • Create a series of online news items, blog posts or whatever, each highlighting one section of the position paper
  • Publish a series of tweets highlighting the key points and a link through to the detailed paper
  • … And market each item heavily