Diagrams: Brussels PA-Corp Comms channel splits

How do most organisations operating in the Brussels PA-Corp Comms space approach their work? By and large, via channels operating in splendid isolation: lots of focus on advocacy (yes, I’m calling it a channel), a fair bit on media, and a tiny bit on web communication. Lots of it may be very good, but it’s poorly integrated.

How would I like to see them operate? With all channels neatly placed within the same circle, treated as part of the same larger “comms” framework on any given issue.

p.s. the web circle is not bigger than the media and advocacy circles because it’s more important, but because the web acts as the integrator that brings the rest together, beyond its own individual benefits as a channel. Whenever you engage in the media or through advocacy, it should be supported and channelled via the web also.


Online engagement: Brussels audiences’ five standard questions

Here are five questions which I’m invariably asked when organisations are thinking about exploring online engagement but aren’t quite sure what they’re getting themselves into. They’re not the most interesting or strategic questions, but are understandable stumbling blocks which hold organisations back and need to be answered. Here goes.

1. Won’t we get attacked by the other side? What if they say things we really don’t want anyone to hear?

Maybe, but in any case, you can moderate, so if there’s something you really don’t want to expose, you don’t have to (read a recent post about angry commenting trolls here.) Having said that, don’t moderate too much. If you remove everything that isn’t rose-tinted, what’s the point of engaging? View it as an opportunity. There are people out there who dislike you no matter what. There are others who aren’t so sure about you, but if you actually respond to their concerns, you might even win them over.

2. OK so we can moderate, but aren’t we going to get inundated by thousands of hateful attacks every day? So much so that we’ll end up spending all our time moderating?

In my experience, nobody has ever been attacked in this way (don’t flatter yourselves: people have better ways of spending their time!) I’ve heard of instances of automated responses by angry pressure groups, but have never experienced it myself. In any case, these people had your email addresses before: were you “attacked” then?

3. We’re only a small team with a small budget: do we really have the resources to do this properly?

Sure, proper online engagement is time intensive, but so are conf calls, meetings and writing reports no one reads. View it as an opportunity, not something you could do on top of all your – supposedly – far more important tasks. This might actually be the most important thing you do (although this depends on the nature of your sector or organisation.) In any case, if you plan properly, it needn’t take up too much time. Have an editorial plan in place so you organise publication properly, and give yourself a timeslot for the actual work like you would for a regular meeting or whatever else, and you will find it just becomes part of your working day.

4. How do we target people in multiple languages?

The perennial comms nightmare in Europe. It depends on the nature of the organisation in question and what you’re trying to do. If your key target audience is French-speaking but your organisation primarily operates in English, it’d be hard to recommend against trying to communicate in both languages. As a starting point, I’d certainly recommend against overstretching i.e. trying to engage in multiple languages; but to what extent this is the case really depends. Conversations shouldn’t be translated, so I wouldn’t ever translate blog posts, tweets, forum entries and the like; but I would not recommend against a mixed basket approach where a few languages are in use on the same platforms (but not more than three….) For instance, a blog could have posts in different languages, each tagged by the language in question so that a user can select to view all posts written in any given language in one list. Again though, this is complex issue and there’s no right or wrong answer apart from don’t overstretch…!

5. How do we know if engagement works? How do we measure success?

Another perennial question, and one which I’d (controversially) say is relatively easy to answer, even though ROI calculations for engagement (and comms in general) are notoriously contentious. I’m not saying that it’s easy to guarantee success or that it’s easy to define very clear ROI measurements – it’s not at all – but there are so many things you can measure in quantitative terms online, that you can develop a very substantial set of KPIs which you can follow and improve on an ongoing basis. So when the question arises, your response can be: with press releases, you get clippings; online, you get viewing numbers, behavioural and trending figures, you’ll know who said what, when and where; and you’ll know how many of your key targets viewed your content. Plus you’ll have qualitative input which you’d ordinarily have needed polling to assess because you can measure word of mouse (as opposed to traditional word of mouth…) i.e. you’ll know what people think because they may comment about it. The bottom line of the sell is this: my professional opinion is that this will work, but don’t just take my word for it; with you, the client, we’ll develop a very detailed set of KPIs which will be exact indicators of success. Given that they’re so substantial, you’ll know very clearly whether the programme is a success or not; far more clearly that any of the other communications channels you use.

Are people totally won over? No, the novelty of engagement and the “loss of control” it entails is still a big leap; but at this point people tend to be willing to take their first baby steps.

Letting people other than senior-president-director-chairman So&So represent your company

In my last post I wrote about having experts represent your company. Another thing worth mentioning along those same lines is having lesser mortals represent your company to the outside world. Many a client has recoiled in horror when I’ve suggested that someone other than really senior spokespeople could possibly be the face of the organisation.

I think that’s wrong on a lot of levels.

Sure, if you’re talking about hardcore regulatory stuff you’re embroiled in or apologising for something awful you’ve done, the more senior the better. It shows you care at the highest level of your organisation. But if it’s more fluffy stuff you’re talking about, why on earth not let the people who are responsible, know lots about it, or are really into it write or talk, whatever their position in the organisation? What’ll happen?!

Plus there are tangible benefits:

  • The old social media cliche: it gives a face to the organisation that goes beyond the CEO, and that makes the organisation appear more “real” and likeable – and even trustworthy. Would you trust someone closer to your age who is still making the grade and is telling you something interesting more than a slick spokesperson who has been around the block a thousand times? Quite possibly.
  • It shows the outside world that the company trusts its people. That in itself is a benefit: the organisation trusts its more junior people so much that it’s willing to let them front the company?! Impressive, they must be good.
  • The internal trust issue: show your more junior people that you think they’re important enough to be a face of the organisation and you’ll more likely keep them happy, motivated and loyal.

Reaching a legislator before and now


A few months ago, I posted a simple diagram to highlight that organisations should not overlook the importance of being able to communicate directly to their audiences. I’ve taken that diagram a little further to show how tactics to reach legislators have developed  in the age of the Internet.

The two key elements that are different now are: 1) being able to reach legislators via content and search i.e. organisation X publishes on its website, blogs, posts a release on an eWire etc. and a legislator picks it up via Google; and 2) the main indirect influencer i.e. the press via media relations has now expanded to include all sorts of other influencers e.g. bloggers, while far more people can become engaged in political activism that might influence legislators (online advocacy via communities, ePetitions and so on.)

Any thoughts? Have I missed anything?

Political wonks vs. communicators in Brussels

A point raised in a recent client meeting by a head of communications: it’s hard to find people who both get the issue and are real communicators; it tends to be either one or the other.

I haven’t been at it for that long in Brussels but my inkling is that this is true and that the balance is heavily skewed in favour of policy wonks. Most comms professionals have a background in politics, policy, regulation etc. How many have PR, marketing, advertising, branding, corporate communucations or media backgrounds? Hardly any.

Makes sense. Clients and members need people in Brussels who get the stuff and can open the right doors (and know what to say). They also however need people who can build ambitious communications programmes that help shape the regulatory landscape in the long-term. Does the current Brussels balance address this? Probably not, given how archaic most communications activity I’ve seen is, but I’m open to challenges.

Getting you story out: the FT alone won't do

At least once a month, we hear a Brussels-based communicator state that their goal is to get their organisation’s story into the Financial Times. I get it, and I agree to the extent that if I had to choose to have my best story appear in just one place, it’d be the FT. Please don’t think “mission accomplished” if your story gets coverage in FT though, or any top-tier publication for that matter. It’s simply not enough; people – and this includes legislators – need more: individuals view 8 sources of media per day and on average need to hear a story 3-5 times to believe it (Richard Edelman.)

So what do you do about it?

  • You open your eyes and acknowledge that the list of credible news sources has grown exponentially, and it’ll often include people you’ve never heard of. Edelman speaks of dispersion of authority, meaning that figures of authority aren’t just main stream media and the like anymore, but also other experts or aficionados in any given sector or issue who might not reach 100,000s of readers like the FT, but will reach everyone who matters within their niche.
  • You extend your monitoring so that it refelects this shift to niche content providers, whether online (usually) or offline.
  • Extend the scope of your editorial work so that you’re present in all the spaces that matter. Whether that means responding to blog comments on someone else’s blog or writing your own tweets doesn’t matter. What does matter is that your editorial plan reflects “dispersion of authority” and the shift to niche.
  • People don’t find information by having it sent to them or by picking up a paper. They look it up on Google, so you really need to have a search strategy in place. It’s the dullest part of the job but arguably the most important (remember: +90% of MEPs use search daily!) Get an SEO agency in to help you, and produce content that will mean people find you online when they look for information on whatever issue you’re working on. Tip: publish far more press releases on your site and on eWires only than you do at present as it’ll mean you provide more good value content and improve your search engine ranking without bothering journalists. For more on this, I’d recommend David Meerman Scott‘s eBook, New Rules of PR.

Replicating the marketing journey in issues communication

In marketing, companies have made the journey from being brand-focused, to now being ever more consumer-centric (didn’t make this up; I heard it as recently as this morning in a podcast with Saacthi CEO Kevin Roberts.) In practice, companies are increasingly looking to create outstanding products and services that are easy to use or that match the most intricate customer needs. By doing so, they can instill in their customers a sense of loyalty which a branding approach alone could not achieve. Consumers are more cynical now; creating a fantastic brand which conjures up abstract images (I too can be the Marlboro Man if I smoke Marlboro reds) won’t work on its own anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. Branding still matters. But people expect the world, and no amount of smart branding can prevent a non-customer-centric company from appearing distant or to fail to meet the “what’s in for me/does it really do everything I could possibly want” tests.

Can we transfer this thinking to the world of issues, where companies and other organisations don’t try to sell directly but are looking to influence the general public and other stakeholders in order to showcase their activities in a positive light?

Certainly. Organisations need to be customer-centric on two fronts now: in terms of the tangible goods and services they produce, as described above, but also by matching customers’ demands for organisations to do good things and for their goods and services to be more sustainable. They reward companies that are doing their bit for their communities or the wider environment; to the expense of companies that aren’t although they might make fancier shoes (or whatever.) What’s more, this trend is accelerating, and customers are also citizens whose whims legislators are responding to at a fast growing rate.

So what should you do to remain customer/citizen-centric on both fronts? For a start, do the right thing, full stop (or start heading in the right direction.) No amount of smart PR (or branding..) will make you seem nice when you”re really not. Modern-day customers are too smart and cynical. Next, communicate on the customer’s turf rather than where you can make a big splash. Go where customers and citizens themselves are, listen to their concerns and respond to them. Meaning that you may need to spend more time looking at iPhone apps, Facebook, Twitter et al than getting into your paper of choice or getting on a billboard at the airport.

Why don't organisations encourage their employees to communicate?

I’m a little baffled by companies and other organisations that invest heavily in finding, hiring and keeping really talented people, but then won’t let them communicate to the outside world as representatives of their organisation. It’s a real loss, as happy and clever employees are potentially an organisation’s best ambassadors, especially at a time when: a)  people trust communication from “someone like me” a lot more than anything else, in particular the communications which these same organisations invest heavily in (brochures, website content, TV ads, press releases et al); and b) online tools are widely available for people to create content themselves easily, quickly and for free.

What’s the excuse? Usually something about complex approval processes, concerns over the type of content that might be produced, and a fear of backlash. In truth I think what it’s really about is resistance to change and getting your head around the fact that communication can be effective even if it’s not pristine and checked by 22 departments.

Things are changing though: companies like Sun Microsystems and IBM are showcasing their employees’ blogs with pride, and more are hopping on the bandwagon every day.

Industry still doesn't get it

I recently attended an industry-sponsored debate on a very pertinent issue that broadly sits within “chemicals”, where I watched a mad Green MEP and an awkward young NGO campaigner with a twitch and a penchant for talking to himself walk all over the representatives of the industry in question: a CEO and a prominent stakeholder. Frankly, industry has the edge on this issue. The scientists agree, as do academics, as would the most of the general public if they know the facts. The argumentation used by the Green MEP and the NGO campaigner was aggressive and emotional, lumping all industry together as the devil incarnate, be it tobacco or consumer electronics (over CFC), but it was poor in terms of real substance.

Nonetheless, it appears they’re going to win this battle, and it makes you wonder why some elements of industry in times of crises still spend fortunes on aggressive advocacy and financing events and impact studies full of facts and figures that supposedly support their case, rather than communicating in ways that resonate with people in a more gradual manner before the proverbial s*** hits the fan. By appearing aggressive, industry shoots itself in the foot. Furthermore, the “science” is no longer that important! People are put off by it, and yet industry remains prone to state that science is in its corner and somehow expect the whole thing to go away.

So what should they do about it? Go down the road many players in the energy and automotive industries are taking, from Exxon to Shell to Toyota. They are some of the biggest polluters in the world, but by turning the corner and communicating more proactively, appearing more honest and compassionate, trying to be part of the solution, talking to pressure groups, and coming to the table offering something, they’ve greatly enhanced their appeal – and as a result have far more leeway with legislators.

Plus I think they should be focusing a lot of their attention on communicating on the web, for the reasons described in my previous post, and for the following two in particular. First, the nature of the medium suits the honest and compassionate angle because it’s so easy to give a face to a supposedly faceless industry, and personalise communications, via say a blog or video interviews. Second, it’s the easiest place to give up or at least share control of the message with those who might disagree with you – which is imperative seeing as industry is chastised for not listening to concerned citizens. What better way of countering this than providing a platform for airing concerns that gives equal access to all?

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