Corporate comms & public affairs: often too rational to win

In a recent post – A business delusion: “non-profits win because they can peddle misinformation” – I implied that corporate communicators tend to underestimate the sophistication of the non-profit’s communications toolkit. Building on that, I’d argue that NGOs often win because corporates approach communications far too rationally.

We’re not rational beings. Think family, friends or political affiliation: do we evaluate each rationally i.e. weigh up pros and cons and then decide whether we like them or not? Of course not. Yet most corporate communicators must think we do. Show people facts, data or science – they claim – or tell them stories repeatedly, and they’ll be won over.

This ignores two factors:

  • Confirmation bias: we invariably seek to confirm our existing beliefs; no matter how credible, opposing proof points are unlikely to change our fundamental views (and may even strengthen them.)
  • NGOs don’t simply present their side of the story; they frame issues as ethical (them) vs. unethical (their opponents). And once you’ve been portrayed as unethical, you can’t fight the label by rationalising.

So what options remain for corporate communicators (including PA professionals)?

  1. Give up on trying to convince everyone. If confirmation bias is at play, beliefs run deep. Ignore and move on to groups whose views are not so set in stone.
  2. Fight an ethical battle; build legitimacy passionately not rationally, and don’t be afraid of getting into a scrap.
  3. Build legitimacy beyond issues; being top-tier (and credible) employers and citizens can have a greater impact than a credible take on day-to-day issues, for instance.
  4. Don’t just rebut your opponent’s position: create an alternative narrative rather than seeking to reframe the prevailing one.
  5. If you do rebut, don’t belittle the recipient: you know where they stand and see their point, but beg to differ.

A business delusion: “non-profits win because they can peddle misinformation”

I’ve heard this statement in various guises over the years. Supposedly, non-profits win over public opinion by duping gullible citizens through emotive, exaggerated if not outright false tales, which compels decision-makers to approve regulation that unfairly and disproportionately damages business.

When corporates think so-called emotive campaigning makes up the entirety of the activist’s toolkit and leave it at that, they’re guilty of malpractice. And I doubt most citizens are quite as dim as they think.

We’ll overlook two pertinent factors:

  1. Corporates do quite often win. Indeed, market power scale (i.e. job creation and investment) has been proven to be a key determinant of decision-making at EU level.
  2. Non-profits don’t always peddle misinformation: they’re often on the right side of the public debate based on hard fact (think CFCs) although I appreciate this is not always the case (think GMOs, where pseudo-science and demonisation largely trump reality).

Instead, let’s look at a few areas where non-profits, especially those that are larger and more professionalised (including foundations) often do better than most (not all) of their corporate counterparts.

  1. Picking the right battles

Public affairs professionals are always oh so busy working on their 20 dossiers. No one can fight, let alone win 20 battles. Non-profits are vocal about some things but not others because they pick their battles well: they select those they think they can win. I appreciate it may be easier said than done, but corporates should be looking at their issues and determining which are most commercially beneficial AND winnable, and focus on those. Also, some companies get hit more than others that make the same products for a similar reason: again, non-profits pick battles they’re more likely to win. They analyse the competition and attack the companies that are worse equipped to retaliate. Methodologies for commercial competitor analysis are well advanced yet in public affairs they’re patently not. Why?

  1. Start early

Public affairs is often reactive, yet in policy-land, the longer one waits, the harder it becomes to win. Corporates need to start reputation building activities early, way before it even looks likely that regulators might strike. As highlighted above, picking the right battles involves identifying vulnerable industries or companies that have failed to build reputational equity; starting early helps to mitigate this (unless the product or service is overtly nasty).

  1. Fund battles properly

One of the great myths of policy-land, which is gladly espoused by NGOs, is that corporates engaging in public affairs are lavishly funded while all non-profits except possibly the foundations trundle along on meagre donations. This is not true. Public affairs is often seen as a mystifying cost centre and tends to actually be underfunded. At the same time, we’ve witnessed significant professionalisation of the NGO sector and new funding mechanisms, coupled with the advent of foundations and the growth of philanthropy. Overall, this has resulted in non-profits often being better funded than corporates.

  1. Study opinion formation

Corporates often do not know what makes their targets tick: how do they form opinions? And by extension, what can we do to get them onside? I hardly know the workings of all non-profits, but I’ve spoken to a fair few that have applied Values Modes to help develop outreach that targets a broader set constituents, not just “people like me” which tended to be the norm. Similarly, plenty of good academic research looks at the nature and determinants of interest group influence at EU level (some of the best is by Heike Klüver). Is any of this type of stuff ubiquitous in corporate circles? Not as far as I know.

  1. Be campaigners

Most NGO folk I know would gladly be defined as campaigners. A campaign denotes an outcome: I campaign in order to bring about said change. They are often subject matter experts, but also know the campaigner’s toolkit inside out, and are diligent students of both. Corporate public affairs practitioners are often subject matter experts but are uncomfortable with campaigning, or communications in general, which tends to make them knowledge rather than outcome focused, to their detriment.

Get off your high-horse PA folk

I use this image frequently when presenting on how Public Affairs is developing in Brussels (usually in the context of Public Affairs and digital specifically). It’s not a particularly novel or intricate notion: campaigners/pressure groups, have influenced policy making beyond what their resources should have permitted because they have told a better, and simpler, story. They’ve aligned with public opinion – and later driven public opinion – sometimes by pulling at the heart-strings, always using compelling, simple messages, oft-repeated – and plenty of visualisation. In the PA context, industry has famously been poor at doing just that: telling a simple story that resonates with people – including policy makers.

There’s usually a fair bit of nodding in the room at this point followed by one or more of the following inevitable rebuttals:

  • Yes, but you see, they can get away telling tales, we can’t.
  • Yes, but you see, our customers, directors, etc. expect us to be credible, scientific, cerebral, fact-based etc.
  • Yes, but you see, we can’t talk openly about our issues, they’re tip-top secret.

Tosh. The suggestion that pressure groups merely make up tales which gullible folk fall for is overemphasised. It happens, sure, but you need to give them more credit. Pressure groups do their groundwork: analysing audiences, developing storylines based on insights gained from their analyses, testing messages, delivering them through multiple channels and multiple forms of media with a fairly good inkling that they’ll succeed. They don’t do every issue, or attack every opponent: they focus on where they’re most likely to win.

Also, being story driven rather than fact driven need not imply fluff: it can simply mean talking about issues in an everyday context, openly and honestly, using real people, and language which people understand. It implies dropping the condescension and perhaps showcasing information in summary form or visually. It can mean talking to local community leaders and retirees rather than just policy-makers and the FT about things which resonate with them. In short, communicate about things people care about, in a language they understand, and be nice doing so.

Are NGOs still the eCampaign benchmark?

The story goes that NGOs were able to mobilise support and spread their message online over a decade ago, when the corporates they were up against barely had any web presence to speak of. This is cited as one of the reasons for their ascendancy in the political power game.

How are they faring these days? This is by no means a long analytical piece: I haven’t combed through hundreds of NGO sites from which I’ll cite dozens of examples; but in short, my general feeling is that NGOs aren’t as effective online as they used to be. To some extent, it’s probably their fault. Some have amazing stories – especially from the field – but are not using social media as well as they could to tell them. Sometimes they use the tools but not in an integrated manner e.g. offline campaigns aren’t backed up online and vice-versa. Big NGOs are often too split along country or regional lines: rather than sharing material across platforms they’re keeping it separate, which is pointless as well as detrimental. Also, some of these same big-time NGOs have sites that are far too pristine and corporate-looking. Meanwhile, others have crammed too much into their toolkit, meaning that they do a little of everything badly rather than a few things well; and others, especially small-time single issue pressure groups, are not using cheap and cheerful tools nearly as much as they should (although I hasten to add that some do!)

To some extent, their loss of the best practice mantle is not really their doing. With their mammoth budgets, their corporate adversaries have played catch-up very well by developing credible CSR programmes and hiring smart agencies that do great communications online, with plenty of effective social media in the mix and winning the search-ranking battle.

Having said that all that, the spirit of the NGO is alive and well, and their message is stronger than ever. However, it’s not necessarily them that’s delivering it. Firstly, “regular folk” are often more militant than most NGOs nowadays, and they’re very active online in forums, blogs etc. I did a little bit of research last week in response to a report from the Food Standards Agency in the UK which claims that organic is no healthier than regular produce, and was astonished to see how many people (with no affiliation to official groups) were taking a stand against the FSA. And they were pretty angry. Secondly, corporations themselves are making noise about the sort of issues only NGOs seemed interested in until recently.

Conclusion? Having mobilised people to such an extent over the last 10 or 20 years to the point where they have actually radically altered the common man’s sensibilities over a range of issues and leading ultimately to far more responsibility in corporate-land (as well as politico-land of course) is no doubt a great triumph and impressive legacy. It probably might not seem to matter so much that they’re not good with Twitter: that’d be taking a myopic view of the global challenges we still face and which they can contribute to. Still, I think they should brush up a little online.

Storytelling over big budgets

Title_storytellerA tale heard many times in varying incarnations in Brussels:

  • Big company X spends hundreds of thousands to get an independent report published by a reputable institution.
  • Takes months, the report is finally published and the company is happy: the facts support its side of the story (e.g. product Y is not nearly as dangerous as some say) and the report is truly independent, so case closed – or so they think.
  • What’s the story? Company X publishes “independent report” which proves so and so? No, that’s not interesting enough. The story becomes company X publishes supposedly independent report but pressure group Z says it can’t be trusted as it’s industry sponsored. The report flops in PR terms.

This is another tale that’s been around the block a few times:

  • Pressure group Z doesn’t have any budget but understands PR far better than industry behemoth X.
  • It makes a mountain out a molehill by taking a nothing story and relating it to a day-to-day human experience e.g. the equivalent of say “paracetamol will kill you” without mentioning that you would have to take 100 tablets or whatever to do so (to be fair, plenty of NGOs and the like publish material that is much less controversial, but you get the gist.)
  • Pressure group Z gets loads more press than Company X got for its crumby report.
  • Company X responds to the story with a press release a week later rather than responding to it immediately using online crisis communications tactics that have more impact.

What are the lessons for corporate players in all of this? Each of these points could be a blog post in itself (if not something much longer), but in short:

  • Re. the last point, clearly, your crisis communications requires an online element.
  • Most of all though, don’t get caught up in trying to win hearts and minds through science and fact alone. Nobody cares about science, however spuriously, if their family’s health may be at risk.
  • Don’t let business people, academics, engineers or scientists decide on your story. You need communicators on board.
  • Don’t just make it about defensive communication and proving that you’re not as bad as they say. So your substance isn’t that harmful (or whatever) but is your organisation really doing good deeds in the long run? If not, it should.
  • Treat pressure groups with respect, engage in dialogue, show them that you do good things, and they might even be nice to you. Or at least be less outrageous.
  • And I have to say this considering my line of work… Go online and develop a super web presence to engage directly with the public and explain your story to them without intermediaries. Media relations is important, of course, but the press is likely to side with pressure groups more often than not, no matter what you say or do (and if you’re truly nasty, deservedly so!) Why? Because they’re the nice guys and readers like them more than you.

The might of Greenpeace

Another tale heard this week that’s worth sharing. Greenpeace campaign against overfishing in Europe. Beyond the risk that we’ll actually run out of fish, overfishing is a bad thing as it upsets complex marine ecosystems. However, these same ecosystems actually also rely on fishing to keep numbers of some fish to reasonable levels. If there are too many of a certain species, that also places marine life at risk. So there’s a delicate balance to be maintained.

And that’s where the interesting element of Greenpeace’s policy comes into play. Although they campaign against overfishing in Europe, they deliberately tend not mention any particular species. They’ve gathered that they have so much of an impact on European consumer habits that were they to declare that any particular species were at risk, the demand for it could drop so dramatically that fishermen would stop fishing for it. Result? A swing the other way –  and a marine ecosystem at risk because of too many of a particular species just a few years after an outcry over too few.

An interesting story, which highlights:

  • The might of Greenpeace. What they say and do really does have an impact.
  • How long the aftermath of a scare-story can linger. Once numbers have levelled off again, Greenpeace could easily say “it’s OK, you can start eating it again.” But that story isn’t nearly as interesting and wouldn’t gain any coverage compared to “fish X at risk; stop or else”. As a result, the latter would linger on for far longer than needed.

Industry still doesn't get it

I recently attended an industry-sponsored debate on a very pertinent issue that broadly sits within “chemicals”, where I watched a mad Green MEP and an awkward young NGO campaigner with a twitch and a penchant for talking to himself walk all over the representatives of the industry in question: a CEO and a prominent stakeholder. Frankly, industry has the edge on this issue. The scientists agree, as do academics, as would the most of the general public if they know the facts. The argumentation used by the Green MEP and the NGO campaigner was aggressive and emotional, lumping all industry together as the devil incarnate, be it tobacco or consumer electronics (over CFC), but it was poor in terms of real substance.

Nonetheless, it appears they’re going to win this battle, and it makes you wonder why some elements of industry in times of crises still spend fortunes on aggressive advocacy and financing events and impact studies full of facts and figures that supposedly support their case, rather than communicating in ways that resonate with people in a more gradual manner before the proverbial s*** hits the fan. By appearing aggressive, industry shoots itself in the foot. Furthermore, the “science” is no longer that important! People are put off by it, and yet industry remains prone to state that science is in its corner and somehow expect the whole thing to go away.

So what should they do about it? Go down the road many players in the energy and automotive industries are taking, from Exxon to Shell to Toyota. They are some of the biggest polluters in the world, but by turning the corner and communicating more proactively, appearing more honest and compassionate, trying to be part of the solution, talking to pressure groups, and coming to the table offering something, they’ve greatly enhanced their appeal – and as a result have far more leeway with legislators.

Plus I think they should be focusing a lot of their attention on communicating on the web, for the reasons described in my previous post, and for the following two in particular. First, the nature of the medium suits the honest and compassionate angle because it’s so easy to give a face to a supposedly faceless industry, and personalise communications, via say a blog or video interviews. Second, it’s the easiest place to give up or at least share control of the message with those who might disagree with you – which is imperative seeing as industry is chastised for not listening to concerned citizens. What better way of countering this than providing a platform for airing concerns that gives equal access to all?

Good campaign on show in Brussels

I saw this poster strung to a lamp-post near the European Parliament last weekend, and pretty much every other lamp-post in the vicinity, urging MEPs to insert more stringent measures in a CO2 reduction bill doing the rounds at the moment.

Its message is simple and to the point, pulls the heart-strings and guilt-trips naysayers, it uses familiar imagery, AND is visible to the right audience at the right time. Quintessential, well-executed, NGO fare.

The site the poster refers to is OK too. Again, simple, provides further information but does not overwhelm users, and makes decent use of YouTube to present the issues. What I don’t like though is the call to action: a pre-written letter to post or email to an MEP. These are annoying and disingenuous. I think it’s much better to provide links to contact details for relevant MEPs and a few pointers on what to write, but most importantly, insist that the letter be personal, as I’m sure that ten personalised letters from concerned citizens carry more weight than a hundred of the same.

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