Communications in EU Public Affairs: 3 levels of maturity

Brussels is not a particularly mature market for communications. While changing, the media landscape is underdeveloped, and with publics based in member states and traditionally detached from the Brussels machinery, generating and harnessing popular support has tended to play second fiddle to technical policy tinkering.

Perhaps, this makes sense. If one looks at the drivers of influence in public affairs, the quality of technical input remains the key determinant of success. Given that more issues are being handled at expert group level than ever before in Brussels, one might argue that it is more important than ever.

But if we look at the other levers of influence, it becomes clear that different methods are needed to shift the proverbial pin on policy. While public affairs folk bicker over what drives influence, most agree that the following drivers are significant:

  • Being perceived to provide credible solutions to pressing challenges defined as political priorities.
  • Having a high-quality coalition or network with well-regarded actors fighting the same battle. Coalitions and networks need not be large in terms of market size: having many legitimate actors can beat having a few big actors on-side.
  • Proof of economic impact. In PA circles we often hear that ‘jobs and growth’ is so overused and defined so arbitrarily that no one cares. Not so. Good, credible data on jobs and growth is very handy indeed.
  • Proof of popular support. A tad paradoxically, given that EU decision-making has become more technical, it is also more political, with EU policy-makers and regulators eager to cement their democratic legitimacy by siding with popular sentiment.

Clearly, which of these is most relevant depends on the type of issue at hand. Lobbying in support of road safety measures or a highly scrutinised chemical will demand different methods. And timing is crucial. If a vote is imminent or a policy is not yet even on the political agenda, different tactics will be applied. But generally, any organisation looking to influence politics and policy will need to position itself towards policy-makers and their circle of influence by demonstrating solutions, market power, credible allies, or popular support; and often to generate popular support amongst key constituents through external environment shaping. In an age of vicious competition for attention coupled with significant mistrust and apathy, positioning and external environment shaping are very challenging indeed. Both call for first-rate communications.

The 3 levels of maturity

In terms of overriding communications strategy for public affairs, organisations have many options. An organisation (or whole industry) that is considered old-fashioned but is actually highly innovative might try to reposition itself to avoid punitive legislation. A company that is marred by the actions of others in the same category but actually operates differently, could look to differentiate itself. But whatever one’s overriding strategy may be, the tactics at one’s disposal remain the same.

And it is in communications tactics in particular that Brussels players have tended to limit themselves to basic awareness raising measures rather than thinking more broadly across three categories that we outline below: amplification, advocacy, and integration with marketing-communications functions.

Amplification is the most comfortable starting point for public affairs professionals applying the broader communications toolkit. It principally involves targeting policy and political messages at policy-makers and their circle of influence through means other than direct advocacy. Tactically speaking, we are talking media relations targeting publications preferred by policy makers or their circle of influence. Or social media to converse with them. Or paid media to push content directly at them. Or search engine ads or out of home ads shown where they are likely to come across them.

This is 101 stuff, yet essential: there is a finite number of meetings one can have; and moreover, message repetition across multiple channels is a prerequisite for recollection and trust-building in any sphere of communication.

But while most of these tactics may appear ordinary, we would never claim that amplification is easy. There is a lot of competition in communications-land and the vast majority of content is ignored or fast forgotten. Amplification efforts need to be professional, creative and on strategy: they should respond to an audience’s interests, needs or values; and must delight, interest, or be of use. And again, speaking tactically, Brussels needs to evolve. Dull press releases expressing delight should perish, replaced with media relations that might actually result in coverage. Instead of dull talking heads videos or blog posts peddling tired case studies, we might wish to try producing excellent content, and maybe even have a go at experiential content creation using VR and 360° video.

Rather than being a starting point, amplification is often the end-point for many EU public affairs professionals doing communications. Which means hardly any of us conduct ambitious ‘advocacy’.

NB: we apply the US definition of advocacy: identifying and mobilising supportive individuals and organisations, so that they might ‘advocate’ on one’s behalf.

While we have been doing some forms of advocacy in EU public affairs for years but calling it things like key opinion leader mobilisation or grassroots campaigning, we have tended not to do it in a highly targeted manner, nor at scale.

The logic behind advocacy is clear: get a credible 3rd party to make the case for you and the legitimacy of your efforts are enhanced. Standard examples include pharmaceutical companies working with patients, or agri-chemicals companies with farmers, or any organisation mobilising employees and citizens in their communities.

The principle behind advocacy – the need to build and demonstrate public support from key groups – is appreciated in EU circles. Some Brussels-based organisations that represent scrutinised industries are even running ambitious campaigns aimed at shifting hearts and minds. But frequently these are traditional one-way campaigns with no mechanism to get involved and build community. But to have any hope of ‘shifting the narrative’ in 2019, scrutinised organisations should look to build a motivated base of advocates who can be called upon to inform and mobilise their networks, lobby in their own constituencies, lead local campaigns – and even be brought to Brussels to lobby.

Advocacy can be more targeted and impactful than ever before through data and digital, and yet we are choosing not to up our efforts, usually because we do not know how, or think it would not work in the EU because of GDPR. Across the pond, most organisations engaged in policy-shaping are using modern strategies and tools to identify potential advocates in target constituencies, and subsequently engaging and mobilising AT SCALE. And they are winning because of it. This is not a fad. We estimate that in ten years, advocacy budgets will match or surpass those spent on ‘traditional’ public affairs. But adoption amongst corporates in the EU so far remains paltry.

Last but not least, better integration with marketing and communications functions is increasingly key to success. Public affairs should be a fundamental part of the marketing-communications mix. It often is, with some public affairs functions even now reporting to CMOs, and many at least sitting in the same building (if not team) as marketing-communications folk.

But why should this matter? The key area is corporate reputation tied to sustainable development goals. Companies are expected to contribute, and many want to or at least acknowledge the need to. 181 CEOs of members of the US Business Roundtable lobby group recently signed a declaration that ends with the following: “Each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies and our communities.”

While the risk remains that some activity may descend into CSR fluff or at worst greenwashing, many companies choose to go down the path of genuine shared value initiatives, where commercial goals overlap with societal benefits. It is not naïve to note that when the Green Deal was announced recently in Brussels, most companies were genuinely excited about the tight knitting of sustainable development to economic opportunity, which is the hallmark of the programme.

Where does marketing-communications (with PA) fit in? Certainly not to sell a company’s great deeds to an adoring public. Ideally, its role should be far more strategic: to track and gauge public sentiment to help set and realign strategy; and to identify actors with shared goals, build networks, and engage in ongoing, mutually beneficial activities.

This is where the public affairs function can and should really play an essential role. It is the best placed function to understand and engage with non-commercial stakeholders – like policy makers, civil society organisations, and international organisations – that are key actors in the political and social sphere. In other words, public affairs will help to ensure that a company’s efforts respond to real-world needs, and as the key interface vis-à-vis most non-commercial stakeholders, help it become a credible player in the coalitions and networks that will dictate and drive sustainable development.

Many public affairs professionals tend to underestimate the potential that communications has to help organisations meet their policy and political goals, with most stopping at amplification. But given the importance of public sentiment in policymaking, coupled with the complexity of wider problem-solving, in which organisations are expected to participate, most public affairs professionals could step up their efforts in advocacy and integration. They might even have some fun along the way.

Beyond influencer engagement in Brussels

I drafted a post last year on online influencer marketing/engagement, which I’ll build on here. The premise remains that influencer engagement to support public affairs activity in Brussels can be a fairly futile exercise.

Why? Organisations conduct online influencer engagement in order to gain greater visibility and credibility by being ‘endorsed’ by someone influential. But the Brussels bubble is tiny. By extension, the degree of separation between a target and oneself is also tiny. So it’s quite easy to reach a policy-maker. Anyone who has worked in politics nationally always stresses how much easier it is to get a meeting with policy-makers in Brussels than any national capital. The same is true online: visibility is not overly hard. What’s harder is gaining trust and support, so I’d argue that it makes more sense for an organisation to itself be influential by being relevant, useful and interesting online, rather than hoping to amplify its message through others.

Moreover, people who have a substantial following online in Brussels tend to be generalists, while influence on most issues can only be gained by someone with at least a modicum of technical expertise.

I am not dismissing the practice of influencer engagement. While puerile Instagrammers are making influencers less appetising in consumer marketing, it is gaining ground in the more cerebral communications disciplines like public affairs, corporate communications and B2B. Indeed, it is often the most impactful tactic for building online reach and credibility in these disciplines.

But as mentioned, in Brussels, credibility, gaining trust, and standing out from the crowd tend to be the real challenges, not visibility. Therefore, looking to create better content should probably be the focal point online, not seeking the endorsement of influencers.

Having said all that, there is an influencer angle in generating better content: involving experts in content creation. Think pharma companies teaming up with patient groups to co-create content, for instance. I’d argue this is the more impactful approach to ‘influencers’ in a market like Brussels: not treating influencer engagement as an extension of media relations – as a means to get a 3rd party with a big audience to endorse you – but rather, collaborating with people who are influential in a niche in order to enrich your communications output.

3 scenarios for digital public affairs

How can digital means of communications most effectively be used to support a public affairs programme? As with much else, it depends.

A handy starting point is the type of public affairs activity once is conducting: is it technical work on the nitty-gritty of specific legislation; is it building political capital through positioning and relationship-building; or is it public opinion shaping and mobilisation (what our American friends would call grassroots)?

The diagram below (which is a re-design of a previous model) aligns activity with need and key tactics. As ever, comments are very welcome, as I’m not sure I’ve got the model right yet (some people have questioned leaving out social media from the third category, for instance).

Digital public affairs

Wishful thinking in communications: three myths

I’ve heard the following lines in numerous guises over the years.

“We need to avoid the slippery slope”

If opponents are trying to eliminate or seriously hinder your license to operate, they usually try to chip away at it, one step at a time. Think alcohol: opponents may want to ban it, but stepping stones towards a ban include marketing bans and the like. Organisations get this, and term it a “slippery slope”. Their approach is thus to forcefully oppose every step of the “slippery slope”. Which probably seems like the only sensible thing to do. But the truth is, once you’re on a slope, there is no way back UNLESS you reduce the number of people who oppose your right to exist. Fewer foes, more friends. And belligerence aimed at stalling every instalment of a slippery slope will mean more foes and fewer friends, and no return from the slippery slope in the long-run.

“We just need to get our message out”

This might sometimes be the case. But it over-simplifies the environment in which we operate. If you get your message out… Criticism will cease? People will like your more than the competition? People will think you’re truly innovative or sustainable and should get favourable treatment? Investors will come flooding? Perhaps, but unlikely. Focusing purely on message dissemination avoids more pertinent things that need to be thought through first. Why have you not got your way? Why are others more popular? What do they do differently? What do people really think? Who are your friends and foes? Is this really a communications issue or is it systemic? It also diminishes what might be achieved through communications. “Get the message out” implies that people simply need to be made aware. But communications can go deeper than that: it can drive action and advocacy which are far more powerful than a mere message.

“We need to change the narrative”

When the public/media narrative is against you, it makes sense to want to change it. But this implies that it is possible to “change a narrative” through communications. It isn’t, usually. An oft-heard story in Brussels involves a lobbyist for a sugary drinks manufacturer insisting that their industry should seek to shift the narrative from the danger of sugar to the danger of dehydration. Good luck with that. “Changing the narrative” through communications is a fallacy: it implies attention spans are so short, or that people care so little, that they will simply shift between viewpoints having seen a marketing-communications campaign. If the narrative has been determined, trying to shift it without changing behaviour is nigh on impossible. Moreover, attempting it smacks of dishonesty, or avoiding responsibility. Best to address narrative X head-on, however challenging. Only then might the narrative begin to shift, slowly.

Public affairs: learning from marketing

Heard recently in Brussels:

A senior public affairs professional was hoping to convince a bright young graduate to join his agency. She had just completed a round of placements at several communications agencies that were part of the same larger holding company. Being very talented, she had the pick of the bunch. But she was torn between a marketing agency and our friend’s public affairs agency.

He gave her a call to seek to persuade her. “Name your dream client”, he asked. “P&G”, she replied. Makes sense: big budgets, iconic brands. At which point he asked her: “what would you rather do for P&G: sell detergent, or defend their right to exist?”

Now clearly, Mr Public Affairs was selling his discipline and agency, so the bravado (or breath-taking arrogance) should be seen within that context. He is bright enough to know that not all public affairs is quite so existential as defending a license to operate. And that marketing is about building markets, without which there is no business. Henc a tad bigger than “selling detergent” implies.

Nonetheless, his question does reflect where some public affairs practitioners believe they sit in the hierarchy of communications disciplines. Which is a shame, as they are less likely to think that they can learn from others, like marketers.

So what do marketers tend* to do better than public affairs practitioners?

* we’re generalising here: there are plenty of poor marketers and impeccable public affairs practitioners.

Focus narrowly

Ask a public affairs professional what their objective is and they’ll invariably give you ten. No one can meet ten objectives. Their output will reflect those ten objectives. Diluted and confusing, it is less likely to work. Marketers are taught to narrow down on a single-minded proposition: the one most important characteristic of their product or service, and to build their communications around it. Many marketers ignore this tenet, while others have a poor SMP, but generally, they’re better at it than public affairs folk.

Follow a rule-book (roughly)

The practice of marketing is more codified than public affairs. There is a rough rule-book of best practice which people follow, just about. Sure, some follow it badly, and others follow an outdated rule-book, but by and large there is some method to the madness, be it: following a process from market analysis through to execution; defined roles and responsibilities; measurement tied to ROI. Most public affairs professionals, however talented and successful, will have their own definition of public affairs and take on how it should be done. Which means there is no general acceptance of what best practice is. Cue: unnecessary disagreement on process, and poor practitioners getting away with delivering bad work because the bar has not been set high enough.

Outcomes over outputs

Marketers who fail to help sell their product will be out of a job. Most public affairs practitioners will keep their jobs even if they fail to meet the public policy objectives they have been set because their ‘outputs’ are in themselves quite challenging. Te following can quite easily be sold as results in themselves: developing relationships with important policy-makers; building coalitions with organisations who are not necessarily friendly; staying on top of complex policy developments and ‘translating’ these for the business; producing meaty positions. Might some public affairs professionals be more successful if they were more accountable for a genuine end-goal, like (most) most marketers are? Probably.

Seek to understand target audiences

Public affairs professionals spend too little time figuring out what their audiences really want or need from them. How many  inspect VoteWatch.eu? Or simply ask: “what would make you support us” OR “what can we do to make your life easier?” Or leverage public sentiment by conducting polling? As far as I can gather, not enough. Market/customer research is compulsory in marketing. It’s no doubt done badly in many instances, but no marketer would ever ignore it entirely.

Differentiate output depending on audiences

Following on from the previous point: some public affairs professionals fail to adapt their message to their audience. Whether speaking to a Finn or a Greek, or a left or right-wing politician, or officials with different portfolios (enterprise vs. environment, say), their message remains the same. Marketers will vary their pitch depending on where a person is in the customer journey i.e. someone who has never heard of you vs. a recent customer vs. a loyal customer will be treated differently, in terms of tone and ask. Again, plenty of marketers get it wrong no doubt, but the principle is at least pretty ubiquitous.

p.s. the clever graduate joined the marketing agency.

You don’t need a digital strategy, you need a communications strategy

It could be argued that ‘digital strategy’ is a misnomer in communications. Why? Because digital strategy should stem from an overall strategy. And strategy – defined simply as HOW to deliver against an objective – is inherently bigger than just one channel.

Common strategies in communications for public affairs ends (and beyond) might be: positioning your organisation based on a certain trait; focusing very narrowly on a specific locale or audience segment; distinguishing yourself from the competition based on something you do differently; or leveraging a certain person (e.g. a leader) or group of people (e.g. employees or an influential 3rd party constituency).

None of these strategies can succeed if delivered on a single channel.

There are of course considerations that relate to digital when developing strategy. One’s choice of strategy may involve a heavier dose of digital if a programme goal is more likely to be achieved through online means e.g. think many grassroots or public rebuttal programmes.

There are also specific decisions that need to be made around digital delivery, which can be deemed strategic considerations, such as: channel selection; tone of voice; who communicates on behalf of the organisation; or the extent to which to engage publicly.

But the bottom line is: actual communications strategy, and the steps that lead to it (especially audience and environment analysis, and alignment of business/organisational goals and communications goals) should ALWAYS be channel agnostic.

“Digital strategy” leads to communication strategy

Having said all that, we should not scoff entirely at the notion of digital communications strategy, for a few reasons.

  • As alluded to above, digital can affect one’s choice of strategy, so communications strategy needs to be developed by individuals with a decent understating of the medium.
  • As also alluded to above, there are numerous strategic considerations to ponder in relation to how a communications strategy should be delivered online.
  • Most interestingly perhaps, digital strategy development often drives better overall communications strategy. Why? Because ‘traditional’ communications programmes often get away with ignoring essential initial planning phases (audience and environment analyses etc.) Digital is often (but not always) scrutinised more, meaning it requires more pre-planning and ‘proof’ that it reflects real-world needs. And in my experience, this planning often makes up for the lack of it in developing many ‘traditional’ programmes.

The ‘conversion’ dilemma: smart yet simple measurement principles in digital public affairs

Plenty of public affairs practitioners who use online channels to communicate are still perfectly happy to “get their message out” without much thought paid to whether they are actually driving any influence or change.

Thankfully, others appreciate that spending time and money on drafting drivel and being followed by a few bots from Vladivostok Is a complete waste of time.

People in the latter group are increasingly asking the question: how do we actually know whether our online communications efforts are having the desired effect?

It’s an important question, and difficult in public affairs, especially if we seek to measure the effect of online communications on the ultimate public affairs goal, namely policy impact.

Marketers are usually able to attribute a conversion (e.g. a sale) to preceding steps in the marketing funnel, especially if they all take place online. For instance: a prospective customer becomes aware by clicking on an online ad, then proceeds to ‘interest’ and ‘consideration’ by clicking beyond a landing page or subscribing to email updates, and ultimately makes a purchase online.

But the ultimate public affairs ‘conversion’ – i.e. policy impact – is harder to put at the end of a funnel. The steps preceding it are less linear, and decision-makers can shift from awareness to interest to total disinterest back to total conviction due to innumerable outside influences, like pressure from parties, constituents, or activists.

It is therefore unrealistic to create a direct line between a decision-maker’s online activity and a political decision.

Having said all that, while we may not be able to create a neat digital public affairs funnel, we can still be smart about how we track impact.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Do not over-elaborate. Set KPIs tied to fairly basic objectives that are achievable through online means e.g. building a community of relevant supporters or attracting positive interest from previously disinterested targets.
  • Similarly, set conversions that are perhaps less ambitious than ‘policy impact’ but make sure they are genuine ‘actions’ e.g. a key target subscribes for information by email, signs up to an event, or downloads a key position/publication.
  • Integrate on and offline metrics. I’ve never quite understood why most organisations insist on tracking and reporting separately given the obvious overlaps. Most simply: don’t ignore anecdotal stuff e.g. a key person (decision maker, influencer) cited your content in a meeting. A step beyond: interview people or run polls and insert questions about the reach and effects of your online efforts.
  • Stop attributing value to vanity metrics such as likes, shares or traffic. I’m not as militant as some in my profession in that I still think they’re worth tracking, for three reasons: it’s quite fun, people will invariably ask, and if numbers drop or rise dramatically it is good to try to figure out why. But in terms of effects on influence or change, they are negligible. Why? There are two main problems with vanity metrics: even if you have a simple short-term objective such as ‘building an audience of supporters’ a share or like is too weak an action to genuinely denote interest; while many vanity metrics do not allow you to identify exactly who you are reaching/engaging, meaning you have no idea whether you are actually reaching/engaging your target audiences or our aforementioned friend in Vladivostok.