Online listening and government relations

In government relations, online listening is often only used to conduct traditional media monitoring. I’d argue there are other ways of using online listening platforms that are more directly related to GR activities, such as:

Pin-point research

For instance, when looking to carry clout with MEP X, assess the issue, company or sector’s saliency in their constituency by carrying out searches specific to that constituency only. Who is talking about it? What’s trending? What’s the prevailing sentiment? The insights can be used to target more narrowly.

Tracking a select group of online stakeholders vs. key issues

“We only care about max 100 people,” GR professionals will spout: a small hotchpotch of politicians, officials, media, analysts etc. In addition, they only care about the 100’s view on the few issue(s) that matter to the organisation in question. Given this, online listening is deemed too broad to be of interest. In this case, set up alerts to be notified only when any of the 100 mention the organization or any of the issues of interest. It’ll probably only be a few times per day if that, but will allow you to cut through the clutter and pick up highly relevant material only.

Identifying new influencers

Maybe it’s not just 100, but 101? But the 1 you’ve never heard of because they’re a new online influencer based beyond the usual sphere of interest, and yet they’re communicating around your issues and appear to be increasingly influential. Listening platforms will allow you identify them.

Assessing the impact of own activities

By aggregating mentions of terms, online listening platforms can help determine trends over time: people spoke about company X & issue Y this much in June, but less so in July. And so forth. If you’re trying to convince Brussels and a couple of national capitals of something or other through GR, you can track the impact you’re having by measuring trend development even among a highly select group. For instance, you’re spreading “message x” in Brussels and 3 national capitals. Use your platform to track the diffusion of “message x” in Brussels and the 3 national capitals week by week, and only among the select group of stakeholders you care about. And in contrast, track the rise/fall of your opponent’s “message y”.

NB: listening platforms can do lots more, but the thoughts I list relate strictly to supporting the government relations function. 


“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.

Campaigning to achieve PA goals: pay heed to the constituent-consumer

PA professionals are increasingly having to look beyond their government relations comfort zone. Campaigning more widely around their issues, and the practice of informing, engaging and building a wider support base than previously required – whether via on or offline channels – is ever more important.

Why? In short, because the mechanics that dictate the political process have become far more complex. Until a few decades ago, the process was determined by a minority largely comprising politicians and big business. Joe Public was not especially bothered, because he was usually not opinionated about things taking place far beyond his backyard. His reality was structured according to a number of inevitabilities: the same which structured his parents’ and peers’ lives, say the Church everyone went to, or the party everyone in town voted for.

And now? A number of factors have ensured that this, rather static, reality has been radically transformed. Mobility has meant people move around and mix, exposing them to more outlooks and isolating them from the conformity which made everyone think and act the same, while ideology and religion are increasingly irrelevant in determining people’s beliefs and values.

Instead, a different set of values is taking hold, often based around issues like personal freedom, fairness, health, equality or the environment. In parallel, independence and the growing trend towards a strong sense of personal expression and rights, has emboldened people: they are now more demanding in asking “what’s in it for me?”

This is reflected in how they approach politics, and hence the term “constituent-consumer”. Citizens are less likely to select politicians based on age-old affiliations, but rather, they act like consumers: they shop around, and either look for matching values (Politician X thinks we should save the whales, just like me) or someone who is likely to lead to personal gain (Politician Y is more likely to cut stamp duty on my new house – or Politician Z is anti-business and thus more pro-Joe Public like me.)

As a result, politicians are having to pay heed to the constituent-consumer. And concurrently, PA professionals on a number of high-profile issues increasingly need to look at how they can win over the same constituent-consumer, knowing that no matter who they have on speed dial or how good their body of intelligence, they’ll be fighting a losing battle if they are on the wrong side of wider opinion. Which means engaging in reputation management and building sizeable coalitions far from the government relations comfort zone.

Mildly paranoid note/get out of jail card: I think my reference to the constituent-consumer in this context is my own, and a quick Google search has not revealed that scores of people have been using it for years. If it turns out I picked it up somewhere and am not referencing it, I promise, I’m not trying to pass something off as my own that’s clearly not. If indeed this term is someone else’s, please let me know and I will amend. Thanks.

Digital in PA: why?

At its very very basest, I’d centre on two arguments:

  1. 93%. In Fleishman-Hillard’s survey of the online habits of MEPs last year we found that they pretty much all use web search every day to conduct research on policy issues (the aforementioned 93%). That in itself is immensely important; and presumably, figures for other politicians, key officials at EU or national level and members of the press are equally unambiguous. Organisations conducting Public Affairs thus need to have a presence online if they want their views to be seen, which in practice requires strategies covering: a) content; and b) visibility to target audiences (especially search, and in most cases, engagement.)
  2. The growing convergence of government relations and bigger world issues and reputation, as represented by this basic visual. Meaning what? That issues that affect public opinion and consequently an industry or organisation’s reputation must be addressed in a government relations context more so than has been the case in the past. Put simply, convincing policy-makers is not enough anymore; you need to persuade numerous stakeholders, and then consequently prove you’ve done so to the policy-makers. In practice, this is far broader than just digital: it involves employing the whole communications toolkit to listen to, reach and engage a far wider set of stakeholders than before. To conclude: mastering policy minutiae and the policy-making process are essential, but PA professionals need to pick a leaf out of the NGO handbook and think like campaigners, on and offline.

“We do government relations, we don’t need digital”

To people in PA hubs like Brussels who understand the value of communicating on issues (fewer than you’d think, given the status of traditional government relations), digital is no longer treated with suspicion. Although there is plenty of confusion around what digital actually entails and an annoying propensity to approach it tactically rather than strategically (i.e. “let’s do Twitter” rather than “who do we need to talk to and what do we need to say”), it’s generally regarded as an important part of the toolbox.

And yet “we do government relations, we don’t need digital” is still frequently heard around Brussels. Why? In actual fact, it’s got anything to with digital per se: the people who say it used to claim, “we do government relations, we don’t need communications.” In an environment where that just won’t stick anymore, given that the need for integration of government relations/advocacy and wider communications can not be disputed in polite company, the naysayers have found something new to dismiss: digital. They like the comfort zone they’ve developed over the years. One where long-term client reputation matters little compared to the ability to get a half-hour sit-down with the right official or MEP.

Wake up and smell the coffee. The sit-down will not matter if you haven’t got a credible storyline to back it up. The storyline needs to respond to real-world matters, and should be delivered to the right audiences via the right channels – including digital.

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