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.)

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.

hugsLots of clients want an online community, and in some cases I’d agree that it’s a good idea (see previous posts here and here.) Makes sense. A good online community can be the focal point for an organisation’s fans, customers, employees and so on, allowing them to engage with the company/sector/issue in question and as a result grow even more passionate than before and give them a launch pad for bringing others onboard.

However, if you don’t already have a very big, active and passionate offline community, your online community won’t work. Sure, you might get 50 people, and if that’s OK with you, fine, but in most cases it won’t be, especially if you’re trying to prove ROI (hard with social media in any case – impossible with 50 people.)

So what do you do? You build momentum towards community. You first pinpoint stakeholders and potential supporters online and engage with them nice and slow, instead of trying to force a community on them. If your issue is important and you make yourself a well respected thought-leader on it, community may then eventually happen organically, but as the result of human interaction and not of a tool that’s been provided. And please note that community in this case might not even mean an online community, say a Ning. It could just be people connected via Twitter, who engage on one very popular blog, or a Facebook group. Remember, it’s not the tool that is going to make people suddenly want to be in a community, it’s the story around it.

How do you start though? How do you bring people together, engage, create this momentum that will eventually lead to a community of mobilisers for your cause?! Why, you follow the 4-pillar approach to online engagement.

pillarsI think I should start blogging. Twitter looks interesting. Think a Facebook fanpage will work wonders. Videos on YouTube  are just up our alley. And so on. These are the kinds of things going through the minds of plenty of communicators at any sort of organisation in Brussels (and elsewhere for that matter) who work on issues and policy areas in which they want to exert some influence. And for good reason. The tools are cheap and cheerful, they’ve been proven to work, they fit an age of public relations in which engagement and humility are the order of the day, and what’s more, they’re fun.

However, as enticing as the tools may seem and as easy as you may think it will be to just try, test and see, I’d stress that rather than dive in and use the tools from the off, it’s imperative to have a long-term online engagement plan and to take a step-by-step approach that will help maximise the potential of your efforts.

I’ve developed a basic 4-pillar model which can be applied to a lot of organisations seeking to engage online. By no means am I introducing any brand new concepts, but I think the model is handy in that it puts the various elements of engagement in the order in which they should go if an organisation starting anew wants to make the best of the opportunities on offer. Here goes.

1. Making sense of what’s out there: web as hub

This involves two bits: first, the listening piece (one of the prime social media clichés but oh so necessary), and second, making the listening set-up public via aggregation or hyperlinking.

The listening bit simply means that you perform a thorough analysis of what offline stakeholders are up to to online, as well as find online players who might not have an offline profile. You set up a dashboard so you can follow what they are communicating on a daily basis, and once you feel that you have a really good idea of how the issue is unfolding online, who the key content creators and influencers are, you make that knowledge public i.e. you “counter the fragmentation” and become the player that makes sense of the issue online and isn’t afraid of showcasing other stakeholders who might not tow the exact same line.

2. Start communicating: “show me, not trust me”

This is when you actually start communicating yourself in this new space; where you start showcasing action rather than staying quiet and hoping that people will trust you – hence “show me, not trust me”.

By performing step 1, you’ve got a good understanding of who the players are and what’s expected, you have some goodwill, and you’re unlikely to make any dumb mistakes. So you’re well placed to develop a strategy to communicate using social media within this space to showcase yourself, your take on your issue, and your people via, say, blogging or video (choice of tools is secondary, it largely depends on where the activity is, what your sector is etc.) In addition, you should use the space to show your third-party advocates, and remember, always remain respectful and honest.

3. Stakeholder dialogue

Steps 3 and 4 are the organic evolution of steps 1 and 2: they rely largely on the involvement of the online community which you can not control, so it’s about creating the right circumstances for that community to thrive rather than introducing a new set of tools.

By bringing information together and beginning to engage using the tools yourself, you should hopefully have begun a process by which an online conversation has taken off in which you are an important contributor. To get to this next level, where real dialogue is taking place, you need to carry on what you’re doing i.e. communicating a message that resonates and to make sure you are constantly feeding the conversation by replying to people’s questions and comments, and remember to always respond to community concerns and interests rather than spouting key messages.

Assuming you are doing all of this well, you have a fantastic opportunity to be leading and shaping “stakeholder dialogue” and thus take a thought leadership position on your issue.

4. Community and mobilisation

This is the holy grail of online communications. If steps 1-3 are successful, you may have created a community of people who mobilise on your behalf: these are people who support your position and spread your message for you without you actually being involved. In practice, this can involve anything from people simply sending your material to others, urging others to follow you on Twitter or sign a petition, to actively approaching legislators themselves.

As a benchmark on a huge scale for “community and mobilisation” I’d cite the Obama presidential campaign. It wasn’t the millions of Facebook followers who got Obama’s message directly in their Inboxes who were the root of the success, but the core supporters who mobilised on his behalf, whether by sending newsletters, arranging events or knocking on doors and so on.

Sure, Obama is Obama and we’re talking about a US presidential campaign, but on a smaller scale, the model is still relevant. By engaging with people, getting them excited about your issue, and giving them the right tools and content, you too can turn your supporters into ambassadors.

I’ll be following up on this post in the coming weeks to expand a little more on the 4 pillars. Would appreciate feedback.