Realistic expectations in issues communications

Corporate issues communicators often have unrealistic expectations.

A typical exchange:

  • Our programme isn’t working
  • What are you trying to do?
  • Change people’s opinion of us. We want them to understand that we’re good, not bad. They just need to hear our story. But we’re drowned out. We have less than 1% share of voice on the issue although we keep pumping out our message across multiple channels.
  • Who are you targeting?
  • Everyone.
  • Where?
  • Globally.
  • Do you localise?
  • No, it’s all in English.
  • Any idea about what might make people change their minds?
  • Not really.
  • How many people have you got?
  • Two, including a consultant on a tiny retainer.

At the risk of stating the obvious:

  1. Affecting influence and/or a change in opinion requires a fairly hefty investment (budget and people).
  2. Changing opinion is very difficult; you’re better off targeting people with no opinion!
  3. In either case, influence/change requires a deep understanding of what could affect a shift and an apposite strategy, not just publishing lots of “stuff”.
  4. The other side (i.e. activists) are better funded and approach campaigns strategically. They’re targeting you because they know they can win.
  5. Global campaigns are usually pointless. Always focus on markets in which influence/change is most realistic.

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.

Three angles favoured by corporate communicators (which don’t work)

I’ve often heard corporate communicators representing organisations under attack cite one of these three approaches and declare that they’ll turn a corner as long as they aggressively pursue it:

  1. No one understands what we do. “We’ve been too quiet and have not explained exactly what we do – when people understand how we operate, they’ll be supportive.”
  2. Fact vs. fiction. “There are too many falsehoods being perpetuated by critics. We need to rebut these far more actively, ideally using 3rd parties.”
  3. Draw a line the sand. “By being too quiet, we’ve let critics get away with murder. Enough is enough. Let’s send in the artillery and attack the opposition.”

The truth:

  • 3 is unlikely to work: belligerence makes things worse.
  • There’s nothing inherently wrong with 1 and 2, but they don’t work in isolation. If both are practiced simultaneously, and with great skill, they’ll buy some time.

So what does work?

  • If 1 really is true i.e. “no one understands what we do”, a campaign outlining how the organisation operates is not enough. There are probably deeper cultural realities that need addressing: why does no one know what it does? Presumably, they’ve appeared secretive, conceited or combative over the years (possibly all 3). Beyond information provision, a more deep-rooted change in tone and manner is vital: transparency, humility and a willingness to answer questions need to be palpable, with real people at the forefront, not just the polished spokesperson.
  • If there is no truth at all in 1 i.e. if the organisation in question operates in a space in which no amount of cultural change and information provision can improve a damaged reputation, the communicator is fairly powerless. Reputational enhancement can only come about through significant business change i.e. dropping an unpopular product or service, or adapting the operating model or parts of the supply chain. Clearly, these sorts of big decision are C-suite remit and thus (usually) beyond the communicator’s jurisdiction. Unless real change is likely, the communicator is left fighting fires and attempting to stall the inevitable.

In one visual: online support for an issues management programme

If you’re working on an issue in which you represent one side of the debate, you’ll need to present that view online. Why? We’ve been over this before, but in short, people who matter will be looking you up online and if you’re nowhere, they’ll read up on the competition, not you.

So you’ll need to have an online presence, it will need to be fed with content, you’ll need to promote it via online marketing and other tactics, and you’ll need to engage on other platforms where your audiences may be active (social media in particular.) Neatly summarised in this visual (I hope!)

How to move the public opinion pin and drive political change: maintain issue momentum through dialogue

Here’s something we hear all the time: “Our issue is really important but public awareness of the threat (or opportunity) isn’t great enough. For this reason there isn’t enough pressure on politicians for them to place it high in their agendas. What do we do?”

PA types have traditionally had a media “plus” approach to this sort of conundrum. They’ll make sure they have some sound collateral to demonstrate why the issue is important (facts and figures, reports and the like) and feed this to media and policy types. This approach is fine, but it’s usually not enough to move the public opinion pin because of the nature of media cycles. The issue collateral might be very good and get media pick-up and be big news for a few days if not weeks, but it then flounders again. And when momentum drops, so does the likelihood that the pin will shift, and policy makers invariably lose interest too.

What’s needed to shift the pin? Sustained dialogue and momentum around the issue over a protracted period of time, and this is incredibly difficult to attain with a media plus approach only, given that momentum tends to run in tandem with media cycles.

Enter digital. Creating and fostering a really compelling ongoing narrative around an issue online, and engaging with people in the online space who are interested in the same issue, can be a more effective way of maintaining momentum. And in no way does this approach preclude traditional tactics like government relations or media engagement. In fact, it strengthens both because there is more input to feed into the storyline which is shared with policy-makers and media i.e. the narrative has gone from being about just the collateral i.e. the report, facts and figures (whatever) to being about the conversation and whatever can be gleaned from it, which makes a more compelling story and helps maintain issue momentum (and ultimately shift the pin.)

The importance of keeping your issue off the left-right axis

One of the worst things that can happen to your issue is that it becomes politicised i.e. one political side decides to take a stand on it and the other side takes the opposite position in response.

Plenty of issues don’t actually neatly fit the right-left divide. Frankly, they’re too complex to be easily compartmentalised (I’ve had a rant about this before here) and as such political parties or groups don’t have a clear position on them. But that doesn’t matter to cheeky politicians: when they’ve decided that they can score a win with their constituents, they’ll take a stand on an issue. They may then carry the rest of their party with them and make it very hard for you as a campaigner to get your point across, no matter how solid your arguments may be, because positions have been entrenched on the left-right axis. You’ve lost control: your issue may now fall prey to the whims of political skirmishes rather than develop through a process governed by reality and logic.

So what do you do? Hope for the best (!) and monitor very carefully so you know when and how politicisation might happen before it actually does. And make sure you have a contingency plan.

Plus don’t accelerate the process yourself. If you’re a key player on your issue, don’t tick off one side or the other if you can avoid it. How? Approach your issue from both liberal (in the American sense of the word) and conservative angles; gratify the values of both your centre-right and centre-left audiences. Sounds odd, but it actually works on a wide range of issues e.g. your manufacturing process might both be great for profit margins and will employ people in a marginalised community; your new product might have been invented by an entrepreneur who benefited from a tax break and have a low carbon footprint.

And if your issue still becomes politicised? Then the contingency plan mentioned above may become easier to implement because your relatively neutral position so far may ensure more balanced treatment than you might otherwise expect.

Stupid and illogical left-right splits

Population growth and 10% economic growth in fast-developing countries will result in billions more people consuming at the rate of rich-world baby-boomers within a few decades. We’ll have to change our eating habits in the long-run, but until then, how on earth are we going to produce enough food to feed a billion middle class Indians and Chinese who have suddenly developed a taste for hamburger? Meanwhile, a complex concoction of trade regimes, population growth, urbanisation and increasing temperatures mean that food security is an ever growing threat in Africa; but in this case not because the new middle classes are demanding hamburger, but because hunger is still real (more on all of this at Citizen Renaissance here.) So what can we do about it? We can further develop smart methods of farming to increase yields perhaps. And yet if you’re a left-winger, you’ll think GMOs or other farming technologies are Satan’s spawn. That doesn’t make sense. Surely if you’re a left-winger, you want to feed people in developing countries.

If the worst predictions come true, we’ll experience a 5-6ºC temperature increase by the end of the century, putting vast swaths of the world under water and destroying ecosystems and possibly the nature pyramid to god knows what effect. But climate-change scepticism has become a standard bearing right-wing issue: if you’re right-wing, you’ll claim it’s all a load of tosh. That doesn’t make sense. Surely if you’re right-wing you should be just as worried as a left-winger if there’s even a slight possibility that even the most rosy scenario regarding climate change may come true.

Immigration rates in Europe aren’t really out of control as the populist press tend to claim. Three other trends are however. Declining birth rates, people reaching retirement age and Europe’s pathetic economic competitiveness. Right-wingers claim to be pro-business, pro-growth and pro-wealth. And yet right-wingers tend to be, if not always hostile, at least very wary of immigration. Again, that doesn’t make sense. Who is going to buy and build things? Where is the next generation of innovators going to come from if half our population is retired?

I’m fully aware that all three issues – and many others like them – are spuriously ideological in some way i.e. a right-winger will make a political argument for why they are anti-immigrant or a climate-change sceptic; while a left-winger can just as easily frame their hostility towards GMOs in genuinely left-wing terms.

The point I’m trying to make is that most issues are far too important and complex to fit neat political demarcations. And yet politicians and the media who support them are all too ready to politicise them to score an easy win. They’re taking advantage of the age-old human instinct whereby people are comforted by thinking that everything can be defined by us or them / right or wrong; so if the opposition has taken a stand on an issue, the response is to take the opposite view, rather than debating or perhaps even – shock, horror – agreeing with it.

It’s not all bad though. At European level, the strongly consensus-based political model makes complete polarisation difficult. Meanwhile, year after year, voters throughout Europe are increasingly struggling to tell the difference between parties (which I happen to think is a good thing) while age-old political affiliations based purely on family or geography are dying out. But given that the left-right divide can still characterise epoch-defining issues like food security, immigration and climate change, we still have some way to go.

The demise of copy (and what it might mean)

scribeIn Ogilvy on Advertising, which I’ve just finished reading and which I refer to in my last post (it clearly left its mark,) David Ogilvy, who began his career in the advertising business as a copywriter, describes what makes good copy.

Amongst other things, he states that long copy works far better than short copy in print i.e. it sells better; and goes on to show some campaigns which look like double-page newspaper articles which sold products exceptionally well, sometimes for decades. And he’s not just saying it: he’s got the figures to prove it. His explanation? That people like to be  informed; that they don’t appreciate over-stylised advertising but instead want honest and cerebral material that might help them make up their minds.

Compare that to the present day and it’s safe to say that long copy is not king anymore, largely due to how most people consume media. They don’t read their one favourite paper and magazine, but instead skim dozens of sources across all sorts of media. No doubt people are exposed to far more content than ever before, but at the same time, the level of detail most acquire has been dramatically reduced.

What might this thirst for quick and snappy copy (and other types of content, like video) mean in the wider scheme of things? No doubt I think it’s representative of a dramatic fall in the level of depth which most people expect from the communication material they absorb; and I don’t think it’s especially healthy. On some of the issues I work on, I represent sectors or organisations that sell useful and safe products and services and have the experts to prove it. However, they’re losing the battle for the hearts (not minds) of the general public and in turn getting nailed by legislators because a smart NGO campaign based on soundbites has done the rounds. This soundbite then gets picked up by readers who take a sensationalist headline at face value but aren’t going to read the whole article let alone wonder what the other side has to say.

So what now? An exciting time for Brussels-based communicators: the challenge is not simply to create sound content based on fact or to create big splash campaigns, but to skillfully combine the two.

p.s. I’m not a super-libertarian NGO-bashing demagogue. Quite the contrary in fact. I just don’t believe in dishonest communication which preys on people’s unwillingness to investigate issues in depth, whichever side it emanates from.

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