Plenty has been written about post truth, fake news, alternative facts et al. And it’s bleak. For good reason: while fake news alone cannot be blamed for the election of crazies and other alarming events, it does debase trust and delegitimise traditional figures of authority (think “experts”). Once citizens begin to believe that “they’re all as bad as each other”, the crazies get to present themselves as peers or respectable alternatives, with all the scary ramifications that carries.

For communications professionals, fake news carries particular challenges. The organisations we represent may become victims of fake news. The thought of a carefully crafted, fact-based storyline, being discredited by a spate of bogus news stories, keeps many talented PR pros awake at night. Moreover, in a world of discredited experts and media, how does one build credibility if no one is credible in the eyes of a disillusioned public?

None of this is helped by the behaviours of members of the so-called elite. Modern day corporate scandals from Enron to VW, journalists behaving unethically, or the murky dealings of sinister media empires, arguably do far more damage than fake news (and allow fake news to be plausible in the first place).

Even the communications profession itself appears to have given up on truth. The UK Vote Leave Campaign was celebrated by PR Week, despite the many absurd inaccuracies it presented as fact last year. Just a month later, a Swedish campaign about the merits of eating organic food, won the top PR gong at Cannes Lions despite using highly questionable data.

BUT while not at all questioning the perils of fake news, might the doom and gloom be overblown? Is the scale of fake new exaggerated a tad, for instance? It involves subject matter on which people have strong opinions. Granted, that covers a lot of ground, and debates around politics, migration, trade, climate change and so forth are likely to be tarnished by fake news. But surely most topics, and channels, remain uncontroversial? Most (not all) of the communications work I advise my clients on is hardly going to make Russia Today or Breitbart’s hit-list in the morning.

And are we exaggerating the gullibility of those exposed to it? While the scale and prominence of fake news has never been so great, it is not a novelty. Think of the doctors sponsored by tobacco companies arguing that Brand X cigarettes were great for digestion through to anti-everything activists peddling pseudo-science today. Each wave has helped to make people’s bullshit gauges more effective. How many people’s views are nowadays truly shifted due to fake news? Is it not arguably consumed more by people who like that it cements their own world view? Is fake news, and people’s ignorance and credulity in relation to it, not just a handy scapegoat?

Which brings us to a potential silver lining. Corporate and media misdeeds are the main root of mistrust; fake news merely reinforces it (read Robert Philips for a longer and better take on this here). Might the threat of fake news – in part – encourage the derided elite to clean up its act? Is the best defence against fake news not to be the sort of organisation that fake news peddlers largely leave alone because they are holier than though? Muck is less likely to stick when thrown at saintly organisations. Activists have for years attacked certain banks, agrichemical and oil companies more than others because they are poor corporate citizens, making their attacks more credible. Genuinely behaving well (not just having slick spokespeople and pretty communications material) is a precious long-term investment, against fake news and much else.

There is also a potential communications upside (again, very spurious and with plenty of caveats). Might the diffusion of fake news represent an opportunity for some organisations to enhance reputations (and even build new revenue streams) by becoming purveyors of high quality information? Many people are appalled by the fake news phenomenon. With BS sensors on high alert, they are less likely to trust little-known news sources, bloggers or citizen journalists. Recognisable and trusted organisations could help fill the information gap through high-quality content provision if they play their hand right (read/listen to more on this phenomenon by the clever chaps at CMI here and here).

Again, there are enormous caveats: in our age of elite mistrust, organisations with less than stellar reputations, a poor record of corporate citizenship, or who patently engage in spin rather than honest and authentic communications, will not succeed. And information needs to be high quality, credible, informative, useful and/or entertaining. But those who tick the many boxes and can become trusted, high-quality sources, may well (perversely?) benefit from the fake new phenomenon.

Know what happens to a marketer whose big programme does not result in a rise in sales? They’re in trouble. They may very well lose their job. What happens if a PA professional’s big programme still results in overwhelming loss in that ultimate of KPIs i.e. the outcome of the regulatory issue it’s trying to affect? Nothing much, in many cases (but not all cases, by any means).

Why the disparity? Because a marketing programme needs to fit into a neat sales funnel that lists all activities ultimately leading to the sale, and each activity is eminently measurable. If something is clogging the funnel, which then results in fewer sales than expected, it’s easy to detect exactly where the fault lies. There’s no PA equivalent of the sales funnel, however.

Result? In some cases, PA professionals can get away with not succeeding because:

  1. Often, the activities they conduct aren’t linked to ultimate success due to the lack of a funnel, so their achievement is often measured in fairly subjective terms, usually based on output. Lobbyist X is great, in just 3 months he/she got us meetings with 12 MEPs and high-level officials, produced 4 position papers which our board thought were great, and hosted an event which 3 journalists came to!”
  2. If a marketer doesn’t sell, there’s nowhere to hide, yet the PA pro has more pretexts: the public fell for the NGO narrative and politicians felt compelled to support their position; the media misrepresented us; we only had 3 months and so only met with 12 MEPs and high-level officials and wrote 4 position papers (as if to say if the bastards had given us 6 months, we’d have had 24 meetings and published 8 position papers: that would have done the trick!)

What’s the solution? Not a PA funnel that’s quite as neat as a sales funnel, because frankly, we PA pros have a valid point regarding the number of variables that affect regulatory outcomes. You can be brilliant and on the right side of an issue and still lose due to any number of factors. A brilliant marketer will usually get it right (assuming the product isn’t a dud).

However, output should never be a measure of success. The fact that it is, helps explain why some PA activity is poor. I see it all the time in digital, for instance. God-awful websites, excruciating videos, social media outreach that reaches no-one other than 12 spammers. And yet the programme is deemed a success because it ticked the website, video and social media boxes.

So step one to bridging the gap to more accountable communications disciplines like marketing is to produce indicative KPIs which connect output to success more cogently:

  • As a result of our meeting, MEP X tabled an amendment that supported our position (which, in truth, most tend to measure already, albeit not as part of a clearly defined measurement dashboard incorporating a number of KPIs).
  • As a result of our social media outreach, we built a coalition in country X and shifted a constituency into our camp, resulting in MEPs supporting our position.
  • As a result of our position paper, we were able to get meetings with 8 perm reps, which subsequently shifted Council’s position in our favour as measured by ABC.

It’s by no means an easy (or entirely scientific) exercise to extend this across far more PA activities (the sample KPIs above, for instance, require plenty of work). Yet I’m sure more specific metrics can be developed, which would ultimately make PA pros and their output more accountable, resulting in less bad PA and presumably more success in terms of affecting regulatory outcomes.

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.

I just re-read my last post and wanted to expand a little on the challenge that is PA and digital in Brussels especially. Using the full array of digital is tricky on a number of levels, of which I’d cite three in particular.

1. Limited “critical mass” on most issues

Digital is always relevant in some way. Even with an audience of 20, the 20 will use Google to access information and will expect an organisation to have good material on their website (or at least relevant and up-to-date material). So content and search are always essential.

However, the true and game-changing value of digital lies in the speed and ease of engagement, and on this front i.e. engaging on issues online, there isn’t much going on. Part of the reason is that on a number of issues, the number of players involved is tiny, and even a successful online micro-community requires at least say 30-50 people who are highly active (ideally far more). Plus the community should include a suitable array of players. On issues, this would be, say, government (national and Brussels), industry and civil society. Yet on many issues which PA professionals work on, at least one significant player will be absent online (i.e. perhaps industry and some national-level civil society are active, but no one on from the government side, or vice versa). Online engagement then becomes like a concert where a headline act has failed to show up: a bit pointless.

Another element has an impact on the limited mass on Brussels issues: the paucity of links between online conversations at national and EU level. I’m not going to get into why it’s the case (language, parochialism, basic lack of knowledge of what others are doing etc.) but the fact of the matter is that if PA issues were seen in a pan-European light, digital might offer a platform for broader conversations and help build up critical mass. As it stands, Brussels issues too often remain Brussels issues, unaffected by activity at national level.

2. The nature of (some) issues

I’ve touched upon this in the paragraph above to some extent: niche regulatory issues discussed in Brussels are often not of interest to larger groups of people, meaning that the critical mass needed for active conversation online is simply non-existent.

The point about the nature of the issues goes a step further though. In many cases, PA professionals don’t want to or simply don’t have the consent to engage on issues “in public” – which the web essentially is even if a conversation is confined to a micro-community. And it’s not because they’re shady operators trying to elude the public, but because there are often complex legal, competitive and political ramifications that need to be resolved before an organisation can go public.

3. The PA professional

I can’t count the number of times a condescending PA pro has implied that digital is irrelevant in Brussels and should be left to the marketers and consumer PR folk, the fallacy being that digital is a mass market medium. It’s not, and anyway, digital is only part of the parcel of how a broader, more integrated approach to PA is increasingly required to ensure success in Brussels (see a previous post on this here.)

However, these developments require an appreciation of and an interest in integrated communications as a discipline: the ability and willingness to analyse a wider set of audiences, to explore and utilise new channels. Too often, the PA professional does not view him or herself as a communicator, but rather, would prefer to be defined as a political scientist, policy counsellor, regulatory expert, or a lawyer even. Undoubtedly, the skills required to be any of these remain key to PA success, but on their own, they’re not enough if the people in question fail to embrace communications more holistically, whether on or offline.

I hear some variation of this all the time: we don’t need digital, this is just a policy issue; digital isn’t relevant, we’re not trying to reach a mass audience. And so forth.

No – digital is always relevant; it’s the degree that changes. In short, here are three reasons why:

  1. Digital isn’t only social media. People often think that being active online always involves 2-way engagement but I’m perfectly happy to admit that in many cases, Brussels issues are such that online engagement isn’t likely to happen, for a number of reasons. However, policy-makers and others who matter, no matter how niche an issue is, still use the web to conduct research. So content and search are always relevant.
  2. Beyond content and search, the engagement piece is increasingly important. On some issues (ICT especially) Twitter advocacy is already fairly mature, and it’s just a question of time before the same becomes the case in other sectors.
  3. Lastly, there’s the fact that the line between PR and PA is blurring: issues are increasingly influenced by players beyond Brussels, meaning that success in PA will depend on a government relations “plus” approach involving more audiences, across Europe, and across channels (including digital).

I was a panellist last weekend at a workshop held at the party conference of the Dutch Liberal Party (D66), along with MEP Marietje Schaake and Rosa van der Tas, Dutch web politician of the year. The theme of the discussion was “the digital political party of the future” and I was included amongst such a stellar cast for my insights on how political parties could pick up a trick or two from the corporate world.

My key points were as follows (with lots of apologies for the use of ghastly PR jargon):

  • As an aside, it’d be wrong to think that business is always a step ahead: politicians, parties and political movements have forever been driving innovation in communications, from radio addresses to television advertising through to mobilising networks of support and fundraising online.
  • Having said that, in some areas, business is leading the way (although there’ll always be some political entity somewhere that’s just as cutting edge, and every area I mention has already been mastered by some political party or campaign at some point.) For instance, on “content”, business (not all of it, by any means) has learned that, in an age of information overload where users increasingly access information via search engines or through peer recommendations, simply delivering content does not work. Cutting through the clutter and convinving increasingly cynical constituents requires a compelling narrative, developed through what we call (PR jargon #1) “content strategy”. In short, that means identifying and breaking down audiences, and methodically assessing what will make them tick, including what they’d like to hear and what medium they might like to hear it via. So the digital political party of the future should not just regurgitate dry commentary: it should develop a system for determining what its constituents care about, and it should respond to it by delivering a heart-felt, interesting, honest and relevant story, through a variety of channels.
  • As part of that package, the digital political party of the future should also develop its capacity for (PR jargon #2) “community management”. It should not just track and assess audiences so that it can develop a more compelling and relevant narrative through content, but should also do so to nurture and expand its community of supporters. Meaning what? That the party has communicators on board dedicated to identifying and tracking people interested in it and its issues online, engages with them, answers their questions, asks for their input, allays their fears – and importantly, helps connect them to each other, on and offline. This latter point is key. Are there people in a neighbourhood in city X or in village Y of the same political conviction but who do not know each other? The community management element of the party’s programme helps connect them.
  • A frequent conundrum for businesses engaging online is how to manage the brand vs. people balance, given that lots of people will engage with a brand if it articulates a vision they believe in, but others prefer to engage with individuals that represent the brand. Ensuring a good balance will also be key to the digital political party of the future. In practice, this means that elements of content and community management can be centralised via the party, but in addition, the party needs to help to harness the (PR jargon #3) personal brands of those within it i.e. its politicians. So beyond producing content and managing a community on behalf of the collective narrative of the party, it needs to help nurture and promote the “personal brands” of its proponents by acting as a guide to those who have not yet mastered online communication, as well as offering a focal point for their activity by aggregating and promoting their social media activities centrally and helping to redistribute via the community manager role.

As PA professionals, we know our issues. Intelligence is our lifeblood: we understand the multitude of factors which determine how an issue might progress over time, we know who’s who, and so forth. However, we’ve developed a habit over the years of going straight from knowing our stuff to delivering it. We’ve kidded ourselves into thinking we’re not like marketing, corporate communications or consumer PR folk who need to tell a good yarn.

Meaning what? That our output often isn’t adapted to our audiences. We provide a 100 page document when someone wants 10 bullet-points. We talk about clean air when people would rather hear about the economy. We try to get a meeting when our target audience is looking us up on-line.

So what should we do about it? Learn from the marketers, corporate communicators et al: use insights to better analyse our audiences, differentiate the message, develop a gripping and relevant storyline, test the message, vary the output, vary the channel. In short, develop a content strategy which turns your intelligence into a compelling narrative, and then deliver.