Replicating the marketing journey in issues communication

In marketing, companies have made the journey from being brand-focused, to now being ever more consumer-centric (didn’t make this up; I heard it as recently as this morning in a podcast with Saacthi CEO Kevin Roberts.) In practice, companies are increasingly looking to create outstanding products and services that are easy to use or that match the most intricate customer needs. By doing so, they can instill in their customers a sense of loyalty which a branding approach alone could not achieve. Consumers are more cynical now; creating a fantastic brand which conjures up abstract images (I too can be the Marlboro Man if I smoke Marlboro reds) won’t work on its own anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. Branding still matters. But people expect the world, and no amount of smart branding can prevent a non-customer-centric company from appearing distant or to fail to meet the “what’s in for me/does it really do everything I could possibly want” tests.

Can we transfer this thinking to the world of issues, where companies and other organisations don’t try to sell directly but are looking to influence the general public and other stakeholders in order to showcase their activities in a positive light?

Certainly. Organisations need to be customer-centric on two fronts now: in terms of the tangible goods and services they produce, as described above, but also by matching customers’ demands for organisations to do good things and for their goods and services to be more sustainable. They reward companies that are doing their bit for their communities or the wider environment; to the expense of companies that aren’t although they might make fancier shoes (or whatever.) What’s more, this trend is accelerating, and customers are also citizens whose whims legislators are responding to at a fast growing rate.

So what should you do to remain customer/citizen-centric on both fronts? For a start, do the right thing, full stop (or start heading in the right direction.) No amount of smart PR (or branding..) will make you seem nice when you”re really not. Modern-day customers are too smart and cynical. Next, communicate on the customer’s turf rather than where you can make a big splash. Go where customers and citizens themselves are, listen to their concerns and respond to them. Meaning that you may need to spend more time looking at iPhone apps, Facebook, Twitter et al than getting into your paper of choice or getting on a billboard at the airport.


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.

Why the Brussels PA bubble isn't embracing the web

gorilla1Smug online consultants in Brussels (and elsewhere no doubt) are constantly saying that traditional communicators are not embracing the web because they just “don’t get it.” What a load of tosh. However, web uptake has been slow, but it’s not because thousands of smart people have suddenly gone dim. Sure, plenty think that the web isn’t important because “MEPs don’t use it” or “surely only lonely teens use Facebook” etc. However, they’re not in the majority.

Instead, I’d split the majority of web naysayers into three groups:

1. The people who generally don’t value campaigning. Those who think all decision-making takes place in cramped offices with key stakeholders while everybody else is happily getting on with their lives with little knowledge or interest in complex matters of politics. These people “don’t get it” more broadly: they think comms plays second fiddle; they split PA professionals and communicators into two different camps and consider the former far more important (and clever no doubt.) Are these people dumb? Generally not. Their model has worked for decades and I’m sure backroom dealing is still the most important tactic out there, especially for issues that haven’t made it into a pressure group’s in-tray.

2. An extension of the first point – let’s be honest, there are people who don’t really need the web. The experts whose job it is to really explain the nitty-gritty of policy to legislators. They still make up the majority of communicators in Brussels and they’re pretty essential.

3. Those who appreciate the value of the web in communications terms but can’t see the ROI (i.e. primarily the agencies). The thinking here is: “I can charge 100K for an event but Twitter is free. It’s a no brainer.” They’ve got a point, and until they’ve got clients that will happily pay for events and see more value in a trade-press article than a blogger relations campaign, they’ll stick to it. And rightly so. They’ve got a business to run, after all.  Two points I’d make though. First, mastering the web is difficult: selling really competent web strategy, putting together the pieces, mapping online conversations and how to react to and shape them (and so on) doesn’ t come cheap. And as for billable hours, sure, setting up a Twitter account is quick and easy, but following conversations, engaging in them, producing content for multiple platforms, engaging with bloggers etc. takes a lot of time! Second, you’ve got the risk of the client one day saying: my competitor is doing really good work online, why aren’t we? What do we do? You want to be proactive now rather than reactive later.

What’s my vision? The scenario is really not a showdown of traditional vs. modern models. They key lies in integration of all tactics in the most suitable manner considering an organisation’s communications objectives. However, I do think any approach should embrace the web, whether its simply the place where information is centralised and made easily obtainable for all stakeholders; or the focal point of an engagement approach in which an organisation seeks to listen and engage in wider debates that can ultimately dictate the pace and nature of regulation (or ideally both…)

The said model has worked for decades and I’m sure backroom dealing is still by far the most important tactic out there, especially for issues that haven’t made it into a pressure group’s in-tray.

Lobbying at its most intriguing

A friend told me a story this week which gives some real insight into how sly lobbyists can be. A few years ago in California, Toyota and the US big 3 (GM, Ford and Chrysler) lobbied hard against stricter regulation governing emissions. This seemed odd at first. Toyota have spent years and billions in developing cars that produce fewer emissions – surely they’d want stricter emissions regulations as this would enable them to exercise their competitive edge?

Not quite. As ever, Toyota are a forward-thinking company (see my previous post):

  1. They understood that they have a competitive edge over the big 3 globally because they produce cars that are more environmentally friendly.
  2. They understood that the prospect of losing out on a huge market like California might finally move the big 3 to start investing more in hybrid technology and other less petrol-guzzling alternatives.
  3. Conclusion? They prefer having to compete with the big 3’s SUVs in California than have them invest in R&D which might in a few years make them viable competitors in the global hybrid car sector.

That’s clever. What I’d be curious to know is:  Toyota and the big 3 presumably sat down and co-ordinated their efforts at some point. Did the big 3 know they were being duped? And could the Toyota execs and lobbyists keep the smirks off their faces?

Digital PR/PA: it's not all different

A running theme of this blog is that online communications need not be something entirely removed from that which PR and PA professionals have been doing for years. Although social media et al has changed the communications landscape and a new approach is required to make the most of it, the web can also help strengthen, but not necessarily change, age-old activities, such as basic content production.

In this post (including video interview), Sally Falkow explains this concept a little better than I’ve done i.e. that PR practitioners should still be producing content, because that’s where their expertise lies, but that what’s different is that they now need to be thinking of more formats and different distribution channels.

Adapting media relations to the Internet age: more to it than bloggers

Most PA and PR professionals have understood that the web is important, which is great. However, they often get very excited about bloggers and then seem to stop there, as if the web had nothing more to offer. This is a mistake. No only do they lose track of the many other online tools at their disposal, but their lack of a “bigger picture” focus also results in them treating blogger relations as nothing more than an extension of media relations.

I’ll be writing about this again in future, but here’s a first few points I’d highlight. Simply treating blogger relations like media relations, and approaching bloggers like you would journalists, is a mistake. Sure, there’s room for building relationships with bloggers just like there is with journalists, but whereas journalists write for a living, bloggers write because they want to. What’s the difference? Journalists have deadlines, and need to satisfy readers and editors, and thus appreciate good pitches. On the other hand, bloggers write about whatever they want to in their own time. Result? While a good, relevant and tailored pitch is likely to interest a journalist, it’ll hardly ever interest a blogger. It might even annoy them, and worse, they could publish your email address on their blog accompanied by a rant about how annoying PR people are.

To entice a blogger you’d need much more time and patience. In short, you’d need to listen and engage in their community i.e. comment on their blog (relevant comments – not “here’s a link to my press release”) and perhaps even have your own blog which taps into and contributes to that same community. Or an alternative would be to seek bloggers’ expertise to enrich your story i.e. involving them, whether by testing your product, completing your experts survey, or whatever. That’s more likely to get them interested than a mere press release. Read my previous post on this for more detail. Or even better, read Brian Solis’ book on blogger relations.

Moving beyond blogger relations, what I think can actually add more value to your communications efforts is the integration piece i.e. how you can use online tools to improve media relations and vice-versa. What could this mean in practice?

You can enrich your press releases: rather than just giving your take on an issue and providing a quote, have a more complete press offering where you have video interviews with stakeholders that you’ve filmed with a basic hand-held camera and uploaded to YouTube, and include hyperlinks to other relavant material.

In addition, you should look more at the “pull factor” i.e. making it easier for the press to receive updates from you automatically rather than simply pushing it to them when they might not even be interested. The standard functionality here is RSS, which is now available on most sites, and allows people to subscribe to updates at the click of their mouse. In future, Twitter is also likely to take off, so journalists can simply choose to receive tweets from PR professionals (and vice versa). To anyone not acquainted with Twitter, it’s a microblogging platform that allows you to issue short entries (140 characters max.) which will automatically be picked up by anyone who “follows” you i.e. who has linked to you on Twitter.

There’s also another element to the “pull factor”. The web empowers individuals and organisations, meaning that they’re less reliant on intermediaries, like say journalists, than ever before to find the content they want. Online, you’re the publisher, so PR and PA people should shift some of their focus from pitching stories to the press to actually making it easier for people to find the story if they actually go looking for it. This first involves producing good quality content that people would want to find, link to, and even spread. Second, you should then bring in a techie who can tell you how to produce content or adapt existing content so that it is optimised for search engines i.e. SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), meaning that your content will appear high in Google and other search engines if a user enters a relevant search item. Many people underestimate the importance of SEO. It sounds dull, it’s techy; surely nothing to do with good PR? No, in truth over 90% of sites accessed online are done so via a search engine, so having a high ranking in Google is invaluable. And a lot of it you can do yourself, by using the right keywords and titles in your content.

As for the other side of the coin, using media relations to improve your online content, at the basest level, this can simply involve showcasing news stories other than your own by hyperlinking to them. But you can also take it a step further. This may be a bit unconventional, but why not get the journalists you have an established relationship with to help improve your content via a comments feature? Or even interview them and put a video snippet on your site? I’ve interviewed journalists for a client, and they tend to really appreciate being on the other side for a change, they have a good take on the issues, are effective communicators, and are often well-respected (depending on the publication they work for).

In the near future, I’ll be writing more detailed posts on what a PR/PA professional can do to a) produce more appealing content online; and b) how to lead people to it.

Trade associations should make more of their websites

Trade associations mainly serve their members by: 1. keeping them informed of developments in Brussels; and 2. lobbying and communicating on their behalf. Both these functions could be developed considerably through the smart use of online tools, even by the most cash-strapped association.

If you look at pretty much any Brussels-based trade association’s website, it’s immediately apparent that they’re not making the most of the tools at their disposal. I picked about 15 associations from Euractiv’s list of Euractors and looked at their sites, and apart from a few exceptions, they all use their sites to: present their mission statement, structure, board and secretariat staff; describe their industry/sector and activities; publish press releases; and promote their events and publications.

This is really a wasted opportunity. Here are three areas within which I think they should be adopting more web tools (measured against an association’s priorities and activities of course):

Publications Sites tend to have a list of publications and an order form, but more should be done to make the content accessible. If the publications are intended to be read by as many people as possible, but the association is not that interested in making money off them, all should be made available as eBooks that are easy to download and easy to forward. If the publications are meant to make money, I think they should be published on Google Books, where users can read but not download, allowing them to verify that the content and quality matches their expectations. This would not deter purchases: nobody would read a whole book online, and most buyers want these type of books for reference, available from a nearby book-shelf at their whim.

Events Most associations host events and yet their sites only tend to promote them and nothing much else. Where’s the integration? Following events, a lot more material should be made available and promoted (podcasts or videos of attendee interviews, presentations), and it should be really easy to spread. Getting this material isn’t difficult. A simple dictaphone or basic handheld camera is enough. Editing can be done for free (Audacity for audio only; Window Movie Maker for video), and hosting can be done on free web platforms like YouTube. What’s the point? It extends the lifespan of an event; it improves outreach and gives attendees a record of what they saw.

Plus seeing as associations place such value on events, I’m guessing they’d like to host more of them but can’t afford to. Why not move them online? One big annual conference and four smaller online events, with all the functionalities of a “real” event other than the coffee breaks (presentations, Q/A?). This is not expensive or difficult to set up, and could potentially attract more attendees than live events (no travel).

News Presumably, most associations have a newsletter, email updates, maybe some activity in members only areas that we can not see. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure they’d want to be doing more. I’m guessing many members feel daunted by anything emanating from Brussels, and the trade association’s role as a knowledgeable gatekeeper of news and other information is vital. What could they do? Very few trade associations use a blog to update members or anyone else who might be interested with material that is in the public domain, it seems. I think near-instant updates via a blog could be invaluable, much better than email updates, which get lost in cluttered inboxes, or newsletters, which require a certain number of articles. The advantage of blogging in this respect is that you can report just one story at a time, whenever you want, and all stories are stored in one place. And the blog can be short – “check out this really important document” (publicly available only of course); or longer – “we attended a hearing at the Parliament this afternoon. Points X, Y and Z were raised. We’ll be doing A and B”. And if members really want the news in their inboxes, they can subscribe to blog updates via email.

As for news aimed at the press, associations’ press rooms are usually very dull, containing little more than basic info and press releases. Far more could be done at little cost to both spruce up the content and improve reach. Like what? For starters, linking to other relevant stories on the web (a site should be a source for more relevant content than that which you write yourself), short video clips, easy bookmarking to make it easier for people to spread and find material, and RSS, so that users can request updates in a reader or via email. Some of these things, like enabling bookmarking and RSS, take minutes to set up and are free.


Of course, online communications goes a lot further than this. There’s online monitoring, social media engagement, pay-per-click advertising, eCampaigning and so on. These tactics would probably be a step too far for most trade associations given their scope and resources, but they have no excuse for not taking advantage of a number of cheap and cheerful web tools that could really add value to their work and delight their members.

Selling social media

I just came across a good post from a few months back by Chris Brogan on selling social media internally. It’s marketing-focused but very relevant to all comms crowds – and I assume some people will find it interesting as I see from my site stats that my posts on selling digital to clients in PA are quite popular.

Two points stand out for me as particularly relevant as selling points to a PA crowd that is uncomfortable with social media:

  1. Internally, social media tools can be used to help with status information, training, project collaboration.
  2. Building an online social media component to most marketing and PR efforts ensures a better reach for the media created.

The point about using social media tools as an internal tool can, as Chris states, be helpful for a variety of processes. Even more importantly, it’s a lot less daunting and thus an easier sell when you say: “let’s try out this really basic tool internally (a blog perhaps?) and if we’re all comfortable with it after a few months, we can try it out on a relevant client project.” The second point is a great sell as well because it allows you to focus on regular media relations, which traditionalists of course value and feel comfortable with. So what you’re doing is not selling social media as something new and different, but as a set of tools that can add value to your traditional media relations by improving reach and quality e.g. a good 30 second YouTube interview with the person quoted in your press release .

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