Making digital work in Public Affairs: hold off on campaigning, focus on government relations for now

What should the Public Affairs professional seek to do? Two things mainly:

  • Help build solid relationships with policy-makers through the practice we call government relations – and ultimately try to gain their support.
  • Try to shift the pin on issues more broadly i.e. get public opinion on side so that government relations becomes less necessary (in theory, at least).

Usually, digital is seen as part of the toolkit for the latter i.e. “shifting the pin”.  And for good reason: it’s got unlikely candidates elected to political office and it’s made poorly funded activist campaigns take off and beat the big boys. It’s quick, access is mostly free and it’s ubiquitous. It’s a great storytelling medium and it’s the best and most cost-effective mobilisation channel ever devised. It’s TV, radio, telephone, water-cooler and soapbox in one.

What’s not to love? In Public Affairs, especially in Brussels, two things:

  • Plenty of Brussels dossiers are technical and don’t interest that many people, so there’s actually no pin to shift.
  • More importantly, even when there is pin shifting to do, structural issues within organisations get in the way. The Public Affairs function tends to cover government relations and little else and has the people and budget to do just that. Unfortunately, shifting the pin takes a variety of skill-sets (campaigning, creative type stuff etc.) which organisations may have collectively somewhere amongst their marketing and communications people, but not in PA. Plus it costs lots of money: usually far more than PA folk are given.

Is this a long-winded way of saying that digital in PA is obsolete? Not quite. I would argue that without the right people and budgets, there’s no point in trying to shift the pin. But sometimes the right people and budgets are available, and down the line, when we’ll see PA and other marketing and communications functions at the same table, there will be an upsurge in shifting the pin type activities.

While we patiently wait, I’d focus on where digital can support government relations. It doesn’t have to be big and flashy, but it can help drive an agenda. How? I’d centre on three things in particular:

  • Highly targeted content which mirrors what the government relations team is saying and doing. We’re not talking fluffy content stating that organisation X is saving penguins 5,000 miles off, but rather, exactly the same storyline recited to decision-makers but told through an alternative channel. Then ensure it reaches the intended audience through highly targeted paid media i.e. search engine and social advertising.
  • Social media (Twitter mainly, but possibly also LinkedIn and at some point Facebook, depending on the issue) but only when used as an alternative channel to engage with main targets. If they i.e. policy-makers and key influencers aren’t active, don’t bother: social networking for GR purposes is useless if no one you care about is at it, clearly. And get people who build offline relationships to replicate online i.e. don’t hand it off to the intern.
  • Use a listening platform to do three things: learn more about your targets’ constituents, track stakeholder activity so you know you’re picking up the vital exchanges for social media engagement, and track uptake of your GR activities (see my previous post for further details on this.)

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. 

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