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Is this a long-winded way of saying that digital in PA is obsolete?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.)

Paid media (advertising) in Public Affairs

Although it can be extremely effective at driving traffic and raising awareness of one’s activity, we often scoff at advertising in Public Affairs, usually for one of more of these reasons:

  • We know our audiences so why advertise?
  • Advertising is not targeted enough
  • Advertising is too expensive and we can’t control what we spend
  • Advertising can sell detergent but our clever audiences would never fall for advertising

Each is tosh:

  • We hardly ever know everyone in our target audience anymore:  as the scope of Public Affairs becomes increasingly broad, so does the set of people we need to reach and convince.
  • As uncomfortable as it may make some people, advertising can be very targeted. In particular, online advertising, which allows one to target via variables such as where people live or what sector they work in, as long as they themselves have provided the information (e.g. Facebook or LinkedIn ads) or what they look up online (e.g. Google AdWords).
  • No, it’s not necessarily expensive. Many people’s advertising paradigm is TV, which obviously is very expensive. But delivering a thousand clicks to a website via a social network can be dirt cheap. And you need only pay per click and can cap spending.
  • “Our clever audiences never fall for advertising.” Again, this is the TV paradigm. In online advertising, as well as much offline advertising, you’re not trying to drip-feed your brand to unknowing consumers who will soon worship it: you’re only trying to drive someone somewhere else, where yes, perhaps you may try to convince them of something or other.
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