15 consequences of multiple channels (media fragmentation) for the communicator (yes, Brussels too)

  1. Greater audience fragmentation (i.e. audiences get their information from more channels than before)
  2. More “competition” to get message to target audience i.e. far more material available from a variety of sources
  3. Audiences are arguably better informed than before
  4. More content production required
  5. Publication on multiple channels required
  6. Greater differentiation of output (content complexity and length, channel type, style, tone) required
  7. Mass marketing / spray & pray doesn’t work
  8. Harder to stay “on message”
  9. More people have a voice thus more people “matter” e.g. think Wikipedia edits, not just pesky bloggers
  10. Greater need to respond to challenges, comments, questions etc. = time, effort + risk
  11. Less prep time for responding
  12. Responses required in different fora, in different tones, and the communicator needs to sound like a real person (shock, horror)
  13. More complex to monitor noise
  14. More complex to measure
  15. Different media training required

(Perhaps it’s not surprising that some PA professionals stick their head in the sand and refuse to admit digital is relevant.)

Three challenges of digital PA

I just re-read my last post and wanted to expand a little on the challenge that is PA and digital in Brussels especially. Using the full array of digital is tricky on a number of levels, of which I’d cite three in particular.

1. Limited “critical mass” on most issues

Digital is always relevant in some way. Even with an audience of 20, the 20 will use Google to access information and will expect an organisation to have good material on their website (or at least relevant and up-to-date material). So content and search are always essential.

However, the true and game-changing value of digital lies in the speed and ease of engagement, and on this front i.e. engaging on issues online, there isn’t much going on. Part of the reason is that on a number of issues, the number of players involved is tiny, and even a successful online micro-community requires at least say 30-50 people who are highly active (ideally far more). Plus the community should include a suitable array of players. On issues, this would be, say, government (national and Brussels), industry and civil society. Yet on many issues which PA professionals work on, at least one significant player will be absent online (i.e. perhaps industry and some national-level civil society are active, but no one on from the government side, or vice versa). Online engagement then becomes like a concert where a headline act has failed to show up: a bit pointless.

Another element has an impact on the limited mass on Brussels issues: the paucity of links between online conversations at national and EU level. I’m not going to get into why it’s the case (language, parochialism, basic lack of knowledge of what others are doing etc.) but the fact of the matter is that if PA issues were seen in a pan-European light, digital might offer a platform for broader conversations and help build up critical mass. As it stands, Brussels issues too often remain Brussels issues, unaffected by activity at national level.

2. The nature of (some) issues

I’ve touched upon this in the paragraph above to some extent: niche regulatory issues discussed in Brussels are often not of interest to larger groups of people, meaning that the critical mass needed for active conversation online is simply non-existent.

The point about the nature of the issues goes a step further though. In many cases, PA professionals don’t want to or simply don’t have the consent to engage on issues “in public” – which the web essentially is even if a conversation is confined to a micro-community. And it’s not because they’re shady operators trying to elude the public, but because there are often complex legal, competitive and political ramifications that need to be resolved before an organisation can go public.

3. The PA professional

I can’t count the number of times a condescending PA pro has implied that digital is irrelevant in Brussels and should be left to the marketers and consumer PR folk, the fallacy being that digital is a mass market medium. It’s not, and anyway, digital is only part of the parcel of how a broader, more integrated approach to PA is increasingly required to ensure success in Brussels (see a previous post on this here.)

However, these developments require an appreciation of and an interest in integrated communications as a discipline: the ability and willingness to analyse a wider set of audiences, to explore and utilise new channels. Too often, the PA professional does not view him or herself as a communicator, but rather, would prefer to be defined as a political scientist, policy counsellor, regulatory expert, or a lawyer even. Undoubtedly, the skills required to be any of these remain key to PA success, but on their own, they’re not enough if the people in question fail to embrace communications more holistically, whether on or offline.

The digital political party of the future

I was a panellist last weekend at a workshop held at the party conference of the Dutch Liberal Party (D66), along with MEP Marietje Schaake and Rosa van der Tas, Dutch web politician of the year. The theme of the discussion was “the digital political party of the future” and I was included amongst such a stellar cast for my insights on how political parties could pick up a trick or two from the corporate world.

My key points were as follows (with lots of apologies for the use of ghastly PR jargon):

  • As an aside, it’d be wrong to think that business is always a step ahead: politicians, parties and political movements have forever been driving innovation in communications, from radio addresses to television advertising through to mobilising networks of support and fundraising online.
  • Having said that, in some areas, business is leading the way (although there’ll always be some political entity somewhere that’s just as cutting edge, and every area I mention has already been mastered by some political party or campaign at some point.) For instance, on “content”, business (not all of it, by any means) has learned that, in an age of information overload where users increasingly access information via search engines or through peer recommendations, simply delivering content does not work. Cutting through the clutter and convinving increasingly cynical constituents requires a compelling narrative, developed through what we call (PR jargon #1) “content strategy”. In short, that means identifying and breaking down audiences, and methodically assessing what will make them tick, including what they’d like to hear and what medium they might like to hear it via. So the digital political party of the future should not just regurgitate dry commentary: it should develop a system for determining what its constituents care about, and it should respond to it by delivering a heart-felt, interesting, honest and relevant story, through a variety of channels.
  • As part of that package, the digital political party of the future should also develop its capacity for (PR jargon #2) “community management”. It should not just track and assess audiences so that it can develop a more compelling and relevant narrative through content, but should also do so to nurture and expand its community of supporters. Meaning what? That the party has communicators on board dedicated to identifying and tracking people interested in it and its issues online, engages with them, answers their questions, asks for their input, allays their fears – and importantly, helps connect them to each other, on and offline. This latter point is key. Are there people in a neighbourhood in city X or in village Y of the same political conviction but who do not know each other? The community management element of the party’s programme helps connect them.
  • A frequent conundrum for businesses engaging online is how to manage the brand vs. people balance, given that lots of people will engage with a brand if it articulates a vision they believe in, but others prefer to engage with individuals that represent the brand. Ensuring a good balance will also be key to the digital political party of the future. In practice, this means that elements of content and community management can be centralised via the party, but in addition, the party needs to help to harness the (PR jargon #3) personal brands of those within it i.e. its politicians. So beyond producing content and managing a community on behalf of the collective narrative of the party, it needs to help nurture and promote the “personal brands” of its proponents by acting as a guide to those who have not yet mastered online communication, as well as offering a focal point for their activity by aggregating and promoting their social media activities centrally and helping to redistribute via the community manager role.

Get off your high-horse PA folk

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.

Develop a content strategy to succeed in Public Affairs

As PA professionals, we know our issues. Intelligence is our lifeblood: we understand the multitude of factors which determine how an issue might progress over time, we know who’s who, and so forth. However, we’ve developed a habit over the years of going straight from knowing our stuff to delivering it. We’ve kidded ourselves into thinking we’re not like marketing, corporate communications or consumer PR folk who need to tell a good yarn.

Meaning what? That our output often isn’t adapted to our audiences. We provide a 100 page document when someone wants 10 bullet-points. We talk about clean air when people would rather hear about the economy. We try to get a meeting when our target audience is looking us up on-line.

So what should we do about it? Learn from the marketers, corporate communicators et al: use insights to better analyse our audiences, differentiate the message, develop a gripping and relevant storyline, test the message, vary the output, vary the channel. In short, develop a content strategy which turns your intelligence into a compelling narrative, and then deliver.

Public Affairs and Digital: 3 realities

This is how I’d summarise the realities of organisations operating in the Brussels regulatory space and how they need to apply digital, developed a little further than done in my previous post entitled Digital in PA: two client types.

Couple of points:

  • There may be plenty of overlap – an issue may be mainly 1 with a bit of 2 looming; or an organisation may be dealing with an issue that’s 1 but overall very much fit into 3 due to issues beyond the PA bubble.
  • Most organisations operating in Brussels probably think it’s all about 1 but should be thinking a lot more about 3 (read my post on the “constituent consumer”).

It’s a content strategy you want, not social media

This recent post by Will Davis entitled “Why Companies That Say They Want Social Media Really Want Content Marketing” struck a chord. A lot of times, organisations operating in the Brussels regulatory space will ask me: “how do we start engaging in social media?” rather than “should we engage in social media?”

FH’s survey on how Members of the European Parliament – clearly a key Brussels constituency – use the web, illustrates in no uncertain terms that MEPs mainly look for content, not engagement. For instance, we found that while only 34% use Twitter (and only 31% state that it is effective or very effective as a means of communication – presumably because they use it as a megaphone rather than a mechanism for dialogue), 99% of them use a search engine several times a week to find content on policy.

Sure, in some policy areas, like ICT, MEPs, Commissioners, officials and other people engaging on the issues are fervently exchanging information via social media/social networks. In the majority of areas, this is not the case. And anyhow, you still ideally need content as a starting point for feeding information into the engagement loop to provide value and ensure that people take notice of you.

So if you’re doing online outreach in Brussels, take these steps:

  1. Develop a relevant content strategy and make sure you’re found via search.
  2. Figure out who is active in social media amongst your key audiences on your issues and track them.
  3. Determine how these people choose to engage: if they are demonstrably open to listening and sharing, by all means engage with them, but don’t jump straight in the deep end.7BMA5AEWAW6

Reaching decision-makers online: two key points

I am often asked something along the following lines: “I need to convince 50 key decision-makers in Brussels about our position. My colleagues deal with others (stakeholders at national level, media, customers etc.) I’m sure digital/online/the web/social media (take your pick) is important to them because their audiences are big, but is it relevant to me given that my remit is just the 50?”

Quick answer: yes, it’s always relevant, but how and why varies according to the nature of your issue and how the 50 operate online.

My two key points are as follows:

99% of MEPs use online search to conduct research on policy and 80% read interest group sites (FH’s EP Digital Trends Survey, 2011). Your audience of 50 will fit in there so you need good online content when they look you or your issue up i.e. you need a content strategy first and foremost. And here’s the first key consideration in your strategy: content type, should your arguments be more technical or value based? Is your dossier highly technical and not of interest to anyone beyond the bubble? In that case, keep your arguments technical (but do simplify, not all readers are experts.) Is your dossier linked to a mainstream issue that at least some part of the public knows or cares about? Then your audience of 50 won’t care about technical argumentation because they’ll likely align with public opinion no matter how good your meticulously researched data is. You have to – as far as possible – show that you reflect public interest and make your argument more value-based (health, safety, environment, personal freedom, personal gain, human-interest etc.) And it’s imperative to hook up with the aforementioned communicators targeting other audiences and look at how, together and over time, you can work at enhancing brand and reputation. Yes, that means looking outside the Brussels comfort zone.

The other part is: how do you then deliver the content to the 50? Online at least, the only words on people’s lips seem to be social media, but that’s only part of the equation. The key is being found through search: all decision makers search via Google, few tweet or use Facebook to interact with constituents, let alone interest groups. So a search strategy is usually step number one. Step two is to assess if social media engagement with the 50 is viable. How? See if the 50 blog or tweet, and then assess how they do so. If they use them infrequently and as one-way channels, don’t bother. If you spot one or more of the 50 sharing information and thoughts with others, then make an effort to connect and tentatively provide value back.

Originally, this post was meant to include the image below and a couple of bullets. Went overboard, but here’s the visual anyway:

Your first priority online: become a resource

In PR/PA anno 2010, the web is acknowledged as being an absolutely integral part of the communications mix, but quite often for the wrong reasons. PR professionals who view their job through the prism of media relations have transferred their thinking to the web, but replacing journalists with bloggers and the like. They view the opportunity purely in having more influencers to tell a story to; they’ll even ignore the web entirely if they find there aren’t high-profile bloggers interested in their issue.

To be honest, it’d be tricky to run a blogger relations campaign or build community on most issues. Sorry, but there just isn’t enough critical mass yet. That doesn’t mean the web has no value in these instances though! We’re moving from a world of push to one of pull. People’s first point of call? Google. So when they do search, you need to have a presence: and an impressive one at that. So forget about the external influencers for just a second and start thinking of yourself as one instead. You reach the end-user DIRECT through search. Grasp the opportunity.

p.s. and even if your issue could warrant a blogger relations campaign or a community-building approach you STILL need to build a great presence before engaging, or you won’t be taken seriously (the four pillars of online engagement maps out the steps in a little more detail.)

Thou shalt not speak funny… Instead, write like Bono and you’ll be fine

I met Kattebel at the recent Web2EU event and she remarked on my recent post in which I state that communicators tend to write in an “over-the-top, pompous, formulaic manner.” A real no-go on the web in particular.

She (rightly!) said that I should perhaps have given some pointers on how to best write for the web rather than merely criticise others for being dull. Instead of producing a list I’ll do so by pointing to a post I found amongst long-lost items I have saved on Delicious: click here to read it. It’s a dazzling tribute to how to best write for the web (although it probably wasn’t really written for the web specifically, but never mind.) Love it: personal, from the heart, direct and honest (and by Bono no less.) OK sure, most people would get the boot if they were to adopt his style on their company blogs, but you get the gist.

p.s. Looking through some of my own posts, I found a few in which I touch upon best practice for producing content for the web. Not quite Bono-like but hopefully helpful to someone out there:

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