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.
At FH Brussels, we’ve just published our 2nd European Parliament Digital Trends Survey, available in its full glory here, including figures for the findings cited in the title and more.
Why did we repeat the exercise and what’s the bottom line? Here’s how I summarised it in the foreword to the print version:
When we last conducted our survey on the digital habits of Members of the European Parliament in 2009, we were at a watershed moment: digital in politics seemed to have gone mainstream following the French presidential campaign in 2007 and, in particular, Barack Obama’s successful campaign in 2007-08.
Brussels too was picking up on the excitement, with a variety of MEPs engaging online, looking to harness the ability to communicate with the sort of immediacy and candour previously only reserved for traditional canvassing; and increasingly using the instantaneous information available at the click of a mouse to conduct research on policy matters.
Nearly two years on we felt that it was time to reassess: the enthusiasm from across the pond has abated and the European Parliament is no longer in election frenzy; yet the value of the tools remains undiminished and citizens and businesses are increasingly connected. Have MEPs followed the trend or was 2009 a mere blip?
It turns out 2009 was anything but a blip. Our survey shows that, more than ever, MEPs are using digital channels to reach out and to inform themselves on issues of importance. In parallel, the findings also indicate that personal contact and traditional media remain essential, highlighting to anyone engaging in communications that digital is not replacing established modes of communication, but living alongside them.
I’ll be writing a few posts analysing the report in more detail over the coming weeks on Public Affairs 2.0, looking at topics like: why are MEPs blogging less, how does the EU compare to the US, what do the findings mean for the PA profession? I’ll reference here, so watch this (or that) space.
At its very very basest, I’d centre on two arguments:
- 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.)
- 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.
This question was discussed at length in a meeting I attended this week, and no doubt props up all the time elsewhere. The key thing to note is that term X and term Y really weren’t that different. And frankly, who cares? Not the MEPs. One word or another won’t make the difference. As a communicator, it is best to focus on story and substance, and what will resonate with an MEP’s constituents. So instead of terminology, go for the elevator pitch (ick, I hate using the word elevator, but lift pitch doesn’t work does it..?) Think of the 3 key issues and your 3 key responses, and summarise them to perfection in 30 seconds and be prepared to build on them subsequently. Be a salesman, not a poet. Not as sexy? Your loss.
I wrote about the EP Digital Trends survey the other day – a godsend to people like me who often face the inevitable comment “yeah, but MEPs don’t use the web” – as it highlights that they in fact do indeed use it, primarily for search, but even to (shock horror) read blogs. James, whose team published the survey, has written a post describing what the results actually mean to PA practitioners, essentially detailing how they must make sure that they combine their advoacy and media relations with a sound online search and content strategy.
I wholeheartedly agree. I’d also add that beyond ensuring that their content is found, there’s a lot they can do to ensure that the content might actually influence an MEP’s view of an issue. MEPs are accountable to their constituents, so even if your content is top-tier and convincing, you still need to prove to them that voters are on your side (or at least a good portion of them.) To do so I think you need to match content and search strategies with a broader engagement strategy. Here’s a few first thoughts (not all applicable to all issues and organisations, but it’s a start):
- Adopt a portal approach: don’t just showcase your own content but bring in good-quality third-party material that backs up your case and gives you credibility by association. If you really trust your sources, you can automate the process via aggregation.
- Similar sort of thing: make stakeholders your “ambassadors” by showcasing them on your site directly, ideally using video. Bite-sized interviews and preferably basic production standards, and you’ve got something a lot more powerful than a written “key message.”
- Appeal to potential supporters (assuming you have some) by adopting a really personalised approach. Don’t just have good, sober content but also one or more personal blogs or vlogs which show the real you. This then becomes a mechanism for stakeholder dialogue, where people can comment and you can personally engage with them.
- Use multiple channels if you have the resources and feel your audiences are scattered – social networks, Twitter etc. – but stay on message and lead people back to your main site. The latter point is key: always ensure that everything you do is showcased in your main “hub” i.e. via one URL.
- Make your online platform a “community” rather than a mere site (you’re already half-way there if you’ve taken some of the steps above.) Not meaning that you recreate Facebook on your €20,000 site; but rather that you make it a place where plenty of people, within your organisation or not, are featured and engage in some way. These people will then be more likely to mobilise on your behalf and help spread your message; a sort of Obama effect in miniature.
And here’s the bonus. If done well, you haven’t just put mechanisms in motion that will help convince MEPs directly if they find your content online. You’ve also got yourself a fully fledged eCampaign that could spread online (again, scope really depends on the issue and organisation in question!) and influence the wider debate. And eventually your MEPs might not just hear about you via you own channels; they might even hear indirectly via their constituents or traditional media that’s picked up the story. It’s come full circle, and that should really be your end-goal.
Fleishman-Hillard published the results of their EP Digital Trends Survey earlier this week, exploring European Parliamentarians’ use of the web from two perspectives: first, their own actual outgoing communications; and second, their use of the web as a research and learning tool.
The figure which most stood out for me is that 93% of MEPs use search engines every day. That many of these then go on to claim they do not read blogs doesn’t really matter. I doubt many would discard a good blog that appears top of the search rankings (maybe they wouldn’t even identify it as a blog..?) Further proof (as if any were needed) that organisations should make good quality online content (and a search strategy) core elements of their communications.
Some observations on other findings in the report:
- “62% of MEPs have either never heard of Twitter or have no plans to use it” – Wonder if any respondents both said they’d never heard of it AND thus wouldn’t dream of using it. Hope not.
- “80% of MEPs believe websites to be either very effective or effective in communicating to voters, making websites as effective as one-on-one meetings” – So 1 in 5 still don’t think websites work? Not surprising, but I had hoped this might have been more like 1 in 20. I’ll always remember the MEP who last year told me that he “didn’t believe in the Internet” but I thought the Obama effect would have changed that sort of attitude to a greater extent.
- “51% of MEPs believe blogging or micro-blogging to be very effective or effective in communicating to voters” – Considering how alien blogging still is to many, this is a good figure. Hope it’ll be more like 90% come 2014. Communicating in you own voice directly to your constituents, for free, whenever you want and wherever you have an Internet connection? What’s not to love?
I’m currently working with an MEP who is looking to launch a blog within the next few months. Here’s a summary of a few of my recommendations.
Define an editorial approach
You may have 20+ years’ experience. You may have your very distinct writing style and feel you have Shakespearean abilities. Perhaps, but you still need to define an editorial approach, write it down and stick to it. This includes type of language you’ll use (colloquial or formal), how often you’ll post (at least once a week), how you’ll address readers, length of posts, and if and how you’ll interact with other bloggers. What’s the point? It’ll help maintain consistency, which you need to keep readers coming back: they’ll grow accustomed to your style and get to know the “real you” more than if you were to serve up a hotchpotch of posts.
Decide on your themes and stick to them
Similar argument here. You don’t want to risk the blog going all over the place, so stick to 4-7 core themes which you know about, you know your readers will be interested in, you can write about well, and then stick to them. In this way you’ll establish yourself as an expert and a resource on certain policy areas, rather than the MEP who writes about scores of topics but does not really believe in any wholeheartedly. By all means, if something out of the ordinary is taking place that doesn’t fit within the themes – the upcoming EP elections, a natural disaster, crisis, etc. – which people would expect you to write about and where you feel you can contribute to the debate, feel free, but then get back to your core themes asap.
Develop an editorial plan
To help stick to your approach and themes, develop an editorial plan which is at all times updated for the upcoming three months. You don’t need to stick to this religiously, but it will help to ensure that you maintain focus and consistency.
Granted, a politician blogging is by nature campaigning you could say, but what I mean here is: don’t make it all about you and your party and how you’re far better suited to govern than the opposition. Blogging is about building relationships with readers over time, so it’s much better to establish yourself as a good writer who provides insights and expertise in his/her chosen subject-matter. If you’re seen to just be campaigning, you’ll only be preaching to the converted rather than utilising your blog to engage in issues and trying to shift the debate towards your views in the long-run. Political blogging tends to be a bit more partisan and cut-throat than average, you might say, but so what, this highlights my point all the more: stand out from the crowd by talking about the issues in depth as you see them, not how your view is inherently superior to the opposition’s. Just two “disclaimers” on this point though: 1) this works if the politician in question is moderate. If he/she could be described as straying fairly far from the centre, like say a Dan Hannan, there’s probably more political capital to be won by being highly opinionated rather than engaging; and 2) with the EP elections coming up it’s fair for MEPs to campaign just a tad bit!
Don’t stray from blogging too soon
If you like blogging and get into it, hang on a moment before you jump on the Twitter bandwagon, set up a Facebook group, a YouTube channel and so on. It’s tempting to spread your tentacles far and thin, like Swedish MEP Åsa Westlund has done, but I think it’s important to get the blog just right first before starting to worry about when next to tweet or post a video. By all means, all tools can play a part, but none more so than a high-quality blog.
As everyone in Brussels and the UK by now certainly must be aware, a YouTube video of Dan Hannan MEP slating/skewing/roasting/panning Gordon Brown, who was present at the time and simply had to sit, listen and endure, has become an internet phenomenon, with over two million views to date.
A little late to be writing about this perhaps, seeing as the event in question took place a couple of weeks ago. However, I’ve just read yet another post or article by a political commentator claiming that the success of the video must imply that common folk, greatly perturbed by the current state of affairs in the UK, have watched the video in droves because it sums up their anger and frustration with the current administration, and that the mainstream media has not reported on it because they are out of touch with what people are feeling at this time.
I disagree somewhat. I’m sure lots of people think Hannan is right. And I’m sure lots of people are angry. That does not explain 2 million hits though! What does? In my view, mainly people’s thirst for sensationalism and the nature of viral. An extremely articulate young man laying into the PM for three minutes as he just sits there makes truly awesome and unique viewing. The manner in which it was delivered had something Hollywood’esque about it: it seemed almost too scripted to be true. And that’s why most people wanted to share the link, I’m sure: it’s a sensational story which does what a good tabloid does i.e. it entertains, surprises and opines.
Maybe I’m wrong, but do you think most people’s thinking when they sent the link to friends was (something along the lines of): “gosh I’m fuming, Brown and his cronies have really sent us down s*** creak without a paddle, I’m sure Rob and Jane will agree wholeheartedly so I’m sending this link to them.” I think it’s more likely their thinking was: “look at Gordon squirm as the posh young whippersnapper lays into him! Ha that’s great viewing! I’m going to send it to Rob and Jane, I’m sure they’ll think it’s fun.”
As for serious media not reporting on it: well why should they? To them, the story is “politician lays into Brown” which happens hundreds of times every day. So what? To do their job properly they should report on the content of a number of Hannan’s fine speeches, as well as the scores of other bright young politicians expressing a view on either side of the political divide. Simply feeding the public’s hunger for sensationalism by reporting on Hannan’s speech and little else should be left to the Daily Mails of this world. And although I’m sure Hannan’s pleased with the exposure this has given him, I’m sure he is also concerned that he might become “typecast” as the politician who slated Brown, while the numerous very well articulated views on other matters expressed in his blog and elsewhere take second fiddle.
As for the nature of viral, I think it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge what makes things go viral i.e. what makes people decide to forward links to people they know. Frankly, not much. It’s not as if it’s an arduous process: see something interesting or fun, hey presto, and you’ve sent it to a hundred friends. It does not mean that you wholeheartedly endorse it or think it’s earth-shatteringly interesting. Hence the 10 million plus views of dancing hamsters and the like and why 2 million hits doesn’t mean you’ve got 2 million people who think Hannan should be made PM while Brown should be lynched.
By no means am I denying that 2 million hits shows Hannan has hit a raw nerve; that some people have watched the speech and agreed wholeheartedly with it. However, at the same time I think it’s important to not over-emphasise the two million hits or what it siginifies in the broader political debate. Instead why not praise Hannan for writing thought-provoking posts showcasing real expertise, strong views and a fair share of brilliance every day in his blog (although I agree with about 0.1% of what he says?) That’s what shifts opinions and mobilises people in the long-run, not a one-off viral sensation.