Digital public affairs, incorporating methods like grassroots mobilisation, use of data to guide bespoke content creation, and advanced use of paid media to narrow-target audiences, is more advanced in the US than it is in Europe.

Some assume this is the case because we are at different stages of maturity. With a few notable exceptions, we probably are, but a few further factors explain why Europeans embrace digital public affairs to a lesser extent than our American cousins.

Technical vs. public interest dossiers

At the EU level especially, a majority of dossiers are technical, with limited public interest or involvement. Influence is more easily attained through the provision of high-quality technical information that facilitates policy making rather than campaigning aimed at affecting the environment in which policy is made. While there is still a place for digital, albeit on a narrow scale – e.g. high-quality online content and some social media if stakeholders are that way inclined – broader campaign methods like grassroots become somewhat obsolete. On most EU dossiers, there are few grassroots to mobilise, frankly.

Scale at national level

Publics may not exist at EU level, but they do at national level. But most European markets are small which makes organisations less inclined to explore new methods. This might seem counter-intuitive given that small markets means smaller budgets, and thus surely more scope for targeted and cost-effective digital tactics. However, small also means smaller teams covering more ground, fewer experts to drive new approaches, less saturated media markets meaning easier reach via traditional methods, and fewer degrees of separation between public affairs professionals and targets, making personal outreach more viable.

Lack of Pan-European issues

Scale would be easy if Pan-European campaigns were feasible. But Europe is too heterogeneous. Beyond obvious barriers like culture and language, campaign strategies would often need to differ even on the same issue. I remember exploring options for a campaign in German and Poland for an energy client a few years back. Seems obvious in retrospect, but local sensibilities to energy are polar opposites, with the environment and energy security the respective dominant concerns. Clearly a one-size-fits all would not work.

Availability of data

European campaigners envy the ability of their US counterparts to utilise all manner of third-party data sources in order to generate, and then target, a very narrow list of key targets. Given our history, it is perhaps unsurprising that Europeans are less comfortable with sharing data: our far stricter data protection and privacy rules preclude pesky campaigners from obtaining data that would facilitate deep segmentation and micro-targeting.

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Public affairs practitioners like politics. Obviously. Hence why clever political campaign tools excite us. Data is one such tool. Current (and potential) uses of data in political campaigning are very impressive indeed. In particular, the ability to use data to identify, then target and mobilise very specific audience segments.

Applied to public affairs, the logic is clear. Improve the likelihood of success on an issue by identifying sympathetic groups, ideally in a target politician’s constituency. Then target them with very specific messaging and perhaps even mobilise them into joining forces and doing the lobbying for you.

The reality is (usually) different. Our work usually involves far fewer stakeholders so we know our “segments” already and don’t need data to identify them. Frankly, in many cases these segments are very small, especially on technical issues, issues on which we’re on the wrong side of the public debate, or on which there is no public debate.

And perhaps most pertinently, on most issues, mobilising potential supporters in constituencies is costly and difficult, and unlikely to yield as much value as effective lobbying.

Which brings us to where data can be valuable. It should be utilised to generate proof points that can improve the likelihood of lobbying success. In other words, rather than harbouring unrealistic expectations about mobilising hoards of supporters, we use data to showcase that X number of people within a certain constituency (e.g. citizens in a certain locale, employees of a certain industry, students, academics etc.) have expressed views in line with our own. In this way we are showcasing public support from a key constituency, which is a determinant of lobbying success, without having to generate that support ourselves.

Communications has traditionally centred on outputs: the press release, the ad, the report, the speech, the conference – and so forth. So naturally, when social media came along, communicators were delighted by the many new outputs it could help them pump out relentlessly deliver.

We now have organisations straddled across dozens if not hundreds of social media accounts, blowing large sums on content strategies and community building that garner “shares” but in many cases fail to improve reputation, change opinion or sell stuff (or whatever).

Meanwhile, many have been blind to two key effects of social media:

  1. Heightened scrutiny and expectations by recipients of communications
  2. The ability to understand audiences better

Heightened scrutiny and expectations

Social media has swelled scrutiny and expectations of organisations. It’s nigh on impossible to sell a dud product or service if it’s being slated on review sites and no one’s buddy is recommending it on social media. Likewise, they can no longer spin their way out of trouble: bad behaviour will be exposed fast.

Two other influences reinforce this. Globalisation means we’re setting the bar for quality and behaviour globally not just locally. Also, the ever-growing need for people to feel warm and fuzzy inside by buying products from companies (or voting for politicians) that display high levels of ethical behaviour means that the naughty are admonished and the good celebrated.

In this respect, social media matters not so much because it enables more communication but because it contributes to forcing organisations to be and do better.

Understanding audiences

People used to have limited options: a dozen local shops, a couple of political parties and a handful of newspapers perhaps? The explosion in choice makes segmenting bloody complex. We can no longer assume that people within a single demographic want the same thing. Neighbours of the same sex, age and socioeconomic status might have different political preferences, listen to different music, prefer different holiday destinations and have entirely different shopping habits.

Increasingly, mapping audience preferences requires drilling down to very small (and sometimes odd) segments based on a single or two predilections (people who vote centre-left and like folk music; people who love Italy and read House and Garden!) Often, preferences are so specific that they are unique to an individual meaning micro-targeting just one person will become the norm. To understand such nuanced preferences, we must learn to analyse data sets properly, many of which will derive from social media.

What next?

No doubt this requires more than a couple of paragraphs in a blog post, but here are three thoughts:

  1. What both the above factors share is that they are not usually mentioned in a communicator’s job description. Meeting heightened scrutiny and expectations through superior quality and/or behaviour is a leadership decision. Communications is often only responsible for putting a positive spin on whatever direction the leadership has decided i.e. they’re asked to produce lots of communication material (the dreaded outputs). Instead, communications should be higher up the hierarchy. Heads of communications should sit in the C-suite (or the equivalent of it in other organisations). And ideally, leaders should themselves have a significant communications remit.
  2. Communicators probably obsess over outputs because their next promotion, raise or bonus depends on how many outputs they can produce which garner a bit of coverage (media clippings, web traffic, the irritating Like! or whatever). Hence why they tend not to team up with clever analysts who can identify and decipher data that can help them target audiences better. Communicators’ appraisals should be based on stricter, outcome-related criteria, which force them to invest in smarter targeting techniques.
  3. Be sensible and realistic about what social media can achieve. Run fewer shiny newsrooms and have fewer pointless conversations to show brand personality or whatever (I thought only people could have personalities). Use social media mainly to garner insights and provide real value through stuff like good day-to-day customer care and provision of useful information when and where people want it. There’s a place for the shiny, fun and/or whacky in social media sometimes, but not all the bloody time.

In corporate communications and public affairs, we often look at clever political campaigns and admire their ability to utilise the web to build support from the ground up and – sometimes – drive public opinion.

One mistake we often make at this point however is to gush at the ability of these campaigns to build communities of support on social networks, assuming this represents the silver bullet.

Providing material and engaging on social networks, if done well, can no doubt help position a person or entity, galvanise existing supporters and reach new ones.

But in top-tier political campaigning, social media is more powerful not for its role in community building, but as a source of data. Using social data to scrutinise audiences can allow political campaigns to micro-target based on very specific touch-points shared by small segments of people. The online outreach tool of choice at this stage is then often email, as it is a 1-on-1 channel and can be entirely tailored, unlike social networks, which still ultimately rely on “spray and pray” of single broader messages, with the added bonus of dialogue.

Communicators looking to segment and micro-target to this extent face challenges: micro-targeting is complex and expensive and thus beyond the means of most, years of neglect and data protection laws mean we often have poor email lists, and moreover, it’s difficult to match email addresses and social data – it is frequently a manual and inaccurate exercise.

But the lessons remain evident: email is still very useful, an email database can be a very valuable asset, and social should be harnessed as a source of data as well for building community.

Some corporate communicators and public affairs practitioners still focus too much on the message, and not enough on the target: audiences are defined as broadly as ”media” or “policy-makers” and even the meaningless “general public”.

As top-tier marketers and political campaigners have known forever, target audiences need to be narrowed down enormously: a communicator should ideally break down their target list all the way to single individuals within each audience segment, be it real individuals when audience numbers are small or budgets are huge, or more likely, fictional but highly representative personas.

This will in turn enable the communicator to: a) more easily determine what that person wants or needs thorough research and testing (possibly involving some scrutiny of social data); b) based on that, understand whether there is any overlap between their wants and needs and what the communicator can offer; and c) if so, communicate accordingly.

Again, too often, corporate communicators bypass these steps, and develop 2 or 3 broad-based messages that in theory should reach and influence all “media” or “policy-makers” or whatnot. What is far more likely to work is closer inspection of audiences, then targeting multiple segments applying tweaked storylines based on what’s most likely to affect each one. In essence, what political campaigners call micro-targeting.

Why is this not the norm? Why do we invest in “messaging sessions” without first knowing much about whom we are trying to influence? A mix of reasons no doubt, but first and foremost, it’s a legacy of old-school PR largely based on hunches and relationships, and communicators not being accountable enough for their output.

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.

Forrester’s Social Technographics Profile Tool is superb; take a look if you haven’t previously. In short, it breaks down social users into different categories, ranging from inactives (don’t use social) to creators (produce and publish stuff). The figures can be broken down further by demographic variables (age, sex and location) which makes it useful reading for marketers and communicators. Looking to reach German men in their 30s? Focus on content more than engagement, given that they read lots but don’t like to share and interact. Italians? Go for engagement and even user generated material, cos they love the stuff.

What if we applied a similar model to Brussels, with the following variables:

  • Sex
  • Age
  • Nationality
  • Sector/area of expertise (health, financial services, tech, environment, trade etc.)
  • Organisation (Commission, Parliament, Council, Perm Rep, in-house, NGO, agency, trade association etc.)

What would we likely learn? No doubt there’s extremes: a southern European male, aged 45-55, specialised in financial services and working in the institutions would likely be an inactive (although there’ll certainly be exceptions). Meanwhile, a young Swede working at an agency on tech issues would probably be at the other end of the spectrum.

But what about the less obvious middle ground? A 40 year old Hungarian working on trade issues at their perm rep? OK the critical mass of data to get that specific would probably be lacking, but as a basic indicator, I think it’d be fascinating nonetheless.