Questions corporate communicators fail to ask

There are staple questions in corporate communications, such as:

  • What’s the broader business imperative?
  • What’s the communications goal that will support the business imperative?
  • What’s the audience (implicitly meaning, who should we be trying to ultimately reach, or influence in order to gain their support?)

All very well, but we too often fail to flesh out the audience questions; we should also be asking:

  • An audience is never entirely uniform: what are the audience segments?
  • What are the values, traits and habits of each audience segment?
  • Can each audience segment be influenced at all?
  • If so, based on their values, traits and habits, what is likely to influence each segment? 
  • How do they consume information?
  • How will our opponents target the same audiences?

The inadequacy of fact-based argumentation in corporate communications

A lot has been written recently on how political bias defines prevalent viewpoints on two of the most scrutinised issues of the day: climate change and GMOs.

In particular, this question is posed: why do people who define themselves as left of centre believe that climate change is real, citing good science, while being almost universally anti-GMO, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus being that GMOs are safe and beneficial?

Probably because a more dominant component of the traditional left of centre worldview takes over i.e. mistrust of big business. Given that GMOs are seen as a product of big business, and contribute to their profits, the science is overridden.

What’s the communications slant on this?

The GMO case is one of many where companies ignore human nature in favour of rationality. In that industry, and countless others, when looking to defend themselves against attack or, more broadly, to manage their reputations, they argue at the wrong level, basing argumentation on fact, ideally backed by science.

But what’s really under attack is often not the facts themselves, but the legitimacy of a profit-making organisation. So what should companies do? Grossly oversimplified, the following: foster a culture where being nice, honest and engaged trumps all; then communicate that culture through real people, not highly polished corporate speak.

Presentation: Reputation and Public Affairs in Brussels

I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks back that I was slightly unsure of how to approach the presentation on reputation I was due to give at the Public Affairs Action Day.

In short, we all know reputation matters in Public Affairs, but there are multiple potential scenarios at play: some PA professionals struggle with reputational issues yet only have a PA remit, others can do more far-reaching reputation management beyond Brussels, while others have an excellent commercial reputation which they need to “translate” for a Brussels audience. And within each scenario, there are many nuances: trade association vs. company, for instance.

I ended up focusing on principles and ideas applicable across the board, but shied away from real “reputation management” seen as an exercise beyond mere communications. I also presented a few findings from Fleishman-Hillard’s imminent Authenticity Gap study, which compares how industries are expected to perform vs. how they actually do perform across nine drivers of reputation. Any questions, fire away.

Public Affairs and corp comms: making them work in tandem in a policy town

Organisations, including agencies, often have separate public affairs and corporate communications functions in Brussels (not Fleishman-Hillard). It’s a tad peculiar, given that PA is a communications discipline, and that the comms piece is increasingly important: good PA must incorporate more elements of disciplines such as reputation management and branding than before, while the proliferation of channels means there are far more ways to reach policy-makers, and often in more markets. Combined, there’s no doubt that success isn’t easily attained with traditional PA tactics alone.

So why are the functions often still kept separate?

  • Culture. By and large, PA professionals tend to value knowledge (policy-based), while comms people think communications strategy and output (audiences, content, engagement, measurement etc.)
  • Comms people weren’t required back in the day: there were fewer target audiences and channels, even PA people could do it properly! These same PA people still rule the roost and are loath to change their ways.
  • Structurally, the fact that the disciplines were separate means separate silos developed. Hence the Brussels phenomenon where companies have their European HQs out by the airport and a PA office near the Parliament.

So what should organisations looking to assimilate their PA and corporate communications functions in a PA town do? As is often the case in this blog, there’s no definitive answer, but a series of thought starters:

  • The bleedin’ obvious: combine the corp comms and PA teams.
  • Bring in new blood to stir things up, especially senior corp comms talent.
  • Focus on avowed generalists who bridge the PA and corp comms gulf most comfortably.
  • Position the corp comms folk as thought leaders and have them lead a series of first-rate internal training sessions (PA folk are smug and will inherently think they’re more cerebral – this may help!)
  • When possible, make a corp comms specialist head of PA too…
  • Make it about more than corp comms and PA: build bridges with marcomms, even if they’re in a different country.
  • Do the boring stuff to support this: create processes e.g. monthly calls, annual meetings to exchange best practice (based on very clear templates and agendas to ensure relevance).

Brussels policy blogging: don’t bother if…

There’s a real shortage of blogs that deal with a specific policy area, written by experts in that same area operating in Brussels. Given this dearth, given that policy-makers use the web to inform themselves on policy issues, that a blog is a highly flexible medium that allows for anything from a short two-liner to a full-on analysis, that a blog can allow for an ongoing narrative that no other medium could allow for, lots of organisations trying to communicate their views on a variety of issues are losing out by relying only on tried and tested position papers, meetings and the like (I’ve previously written about the reasons for the shortage of policy blogs in Brussels over on Public Affairs 2.0 – if you click through, I recommend that you read the comments too.)

Still, some blogs do get launched, and in this post, rather than argue for more policy blogs, I’d like to make another point, possibly born out of the frustration at seeing a number of valiant efforts fail. Despite the undoubted value of blogging – if done well – don’t even bother if:

  • You aren’t allowed to talk about anything interesting (or don’t want to, or can’t legally do so.) You work on topical and/or contentious issues and have views, so EXPRESS THEM: that’s what people care about. Blogging about your CEO’s pet CSR initiative and about how useful your product or service is a waste of time. It’s not going to “educate policy-makers and their influencers” – it’s going to make them never ever visit your blog again.
  • No one can really be bothered to write. Blogging sounds like a good idea, you sort of see the value, but you sure as hell aren’t going to write; nor are any of your colleagues. A blog needs to be fed regularly and requires an author (or authors) who are real people and who represent the organisation. Yes it’s an effort; yes it’s a commitment. If you see it as an add-on which your agency can run for you, don’t bother.
  • You’re going to write in a vacuum. A blog offers an opportunity to connect to other people and sources. Whether you just link through to lots of good 3rd party content, or even better, connect to others writing about the same issues in Brussels or (more likely) at national level by linking to their content, you’ll add credibility to your blog, drive traffic and hopefully even build relationships. Just writing about your own stuff is a wasted opportunity.
  • You aren’t going to market it properly. Don’t think people will magically show up. Sure, good content is the clincher, but you need to constantly promote your blog. That can mean anything from advertising to SEO to everyone within the organisation simply just referring to it whenever they can.

How many organisations actually have the will and flexibility to avoid all of the above? Sadly, not that many (unless they’re facing a crisis.)

“All we need is more face-time with MEPs”

Heard this week in Brussels. Perpetrator? A lobbyist for arguably the most hated industry in Europe. When, when, when will PA professionals realise we’re in 2011, not 1981. If you’re universally loathed, many a policy-maker – even those who side with you at heart – will not care what your report says, how many people you employ or what percentage of European GDP will go down the pan if they don’t let you carry on with business as usual. And while they keep chipping away at your business, you carry on trying to get as much face time as possible and your only KPI remains “number of meetings with policy-makers.” What do you think? That they didn’t hear you the first time? That leading a war of attrition will bore them into submission? Have you thought of teaming up with your leadership, business units, corporate comms, marketing and whoever else matters to overhaul your reputation? Probably not. Your loss.

“If only they knew what we were really like they’d be nice to us”

This statement underlies a significant proportion of the comms briefs which agencies receive in Brussels. The thinking is as follows – “Pressure groups are more effective communicators and have shattered our reputation because we’ve never spoken up. Now, after 20 years of keeping quiet, we’re finally allowed to communicate. Excellent. Once we’ve said that our product is safe because the report we funded says so and/or that our industry employs X million people in Europe, we’ll be fine.”

No you won’t. The myth that misinformation amongst the elite drives policy that damages industry is one of Brussels’ biggest crocks of s***.

First, people – including MEPs or whoever – are entitled to a difference in opinion. Your product may be safe/beneficial, but the alternative is so too and is biodegradable to match. Or cheaper. Your industry may employ X million but the alternative industry employs Y million.

Second, believe it or not, public opinion matters. Sending your MEP a report won’t do if his/her constituents loathe you, even if they believe every word of your report. So the far bigger part of the puzzle becomes ensuring that whoever influences said MEP – constituents and whoever else – changes their mind. That calls for far-reaching reputation management programmes and a lot of perseverance. Daunting, but bury your head in the sand at your peril.

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.

PA and corporate communications converging: comparing London and Brussels

One of the running themes of this blog is that PA as we once knew it – the government relations centric model – is being superseded by one where government relations lives side by side with a range of other communications disciplines. An organisation’s reputation, often beyond Brussels, is increasingly important in determining how that organisation is perceived by decision makers, as is the extent to which it is aligned with public opinion on any given issue.

However, when I was asked just last week by a London-based Public Affairs professional to what extent corporate communications and PA are converging in Brussels, my reply was: probably not as much as in London.

That is not to say that I’ve done a volte-face on the statement above. However, the extent to which corporate communications and PA converge is not consistent: it depends on the nature of the issue. The more the issue is in the public domain, the greater the convergence, and the fact of the matter is that fewer issues are in the public domain in Brussels than in London.

In a previous post, I outlined three issue realities and the appropriate digital response, and I think the same separation is pertinent here. The three are, in short, the very technical issue which only a few policy wonks know about, the slightly less technical issue which is being discussed widely in policy circles, and the issue which affects a lot of people and has people talking beyond policy circles.

Arguably, only the latter reality requires highly proactive corporate communications, and the fact of the matter is that more issues fall into that bracket in London than in Brussels.

Why? Generally, because there is less interest in and scrutiny of the legislative process in Brussels than there is in London. Here are a few reasons why that might be:

  • Many of the meatier issues which tend to attract public interest are beyond the EU’s remit (immigration, tax, social security, most foreign policy etc.) Instead, the EU deals with many highly technical and – in the eyes of most people – dull dossiers.
  • MEPs have low profiles nationally and in their constituencies: they don’t necessarily need to prove themselves to their electorates based on issue alignment and so probably make decisions based on facts and figures more so than their MP counterparts, who are perennially busy courting voters.
  • The way legislation is put together in Brussels is based heavily on compromise and attaining the lowest common denominator in a drawn-out process, which is frankly less interesting (slow; fewer dog-fights).
  • A red thread here is the fact that the UK media has little interest in EU affairs, meaning most stuff passes under the radar in any case.
Anything I’ve left out?

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.)

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