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?

Explaining digital to clients in public affairs

While their efforts to remain in the communications stone age and withstand the onslaught of digital have been valiant – MEPs don’t use the web, they’ve often claimed –  Public Affairs professionals in Brussels are slowly coming around to the fact that digital can work for their clients too. Next up is the clients themselves and convincing them to invest in online activities, which is no mean task. First, although their ability to radiate expertise on topics they’ve first heard about over lunch an hour before a meeting should never be underestimated, with limited experience of digital themselves, PA professionals might struggle to explain its full scope. Second, old-school clients who barely use the web and think no one other than their teenage grandchild does either will really take some convincing.

Here’s a few things that might, combined, win them over.

1. The Internet is a mainstream medium

Old fogies might initially appear hostile to the web because of reasons bordering on: “our target demographics/stakeholders are not male and prepubescent” usually followed by something like “we’d like a website because it seems we have to have one, but that’s all for now thanks very much.” This outlook was pretty prevalent a few years ago, but admittedly much less so today. In any case, to anyone who does need convincing, it’s fair to say that the web is now a mainstream medium. 60% of Europeans are daily users with an even male/female split, broadband adoption is growing by over 10% annually in Europe, and 70% of journalists claim to use online sources to research stories. In short, the vast majority of relevant stakeholders are active online, and if they really are not, the influencers who reach them are.

2. Campaigning is increasingly important

From what I can gather, advocacy at a European level is not what it used to be. Sure,  a combination of expertise on the subject matter and direct contact with relevant legislators is extremely important. However, what influences these legislators has arguably changed following enlargement and societal developments that have altered citizens’ demands of their elected officials. In short, public opinion matters more than it did a few years ago – and what’s more, public opinion has shifted.

On enlargement, it seems (although I might very well be wrong) that having 700+ MEPs from 27 member states has led to fewer concentrated group allegiances within the European Parliament i.e. MEPs are now less likely to follow the group line than do what their constituents demand than they were before. Certainly, on an issue I’ve been working on for a client, there were significant divergences within the major parliamentary groups, which experienced lobbyists claim would not have been the case a few years back.

With regards to public opinion or citizens’ demands, very briefly, I’d say that in general these have changed dramatically because Europeans behave like consumers even when choosing who to vote for and essentially “shop” for their favourite politician based on issues, rather than broadly accepting what the party/politician their family or community traditionally votes for tells them. What’s more, the nature of the “issues” that drive their demands has shifted as well, as people’s concepts of well-being are different. Sophisticated personal quality of life factors such as concerns for the environment, healthy living, a solid work-life balance etc. are these days far more prominent than simply being happy if basic necessities are met and the Soviets don’t invade. This is a gross simplification of pretty complex developments, but what I’m essentially getting at is that citizens are more selfish, demanding and fickle; their notion of well-being has evolved to matters which affect them personally; and legislators are having to take notice.

Does this matter to communicators? Yes, because campaigning directed at citizens is now as important as advocacy if not more! Not convinced? Think of the success NGOs have had on a range of issues and ask yourself once again.

3. Online communications is different

What’s even more important to stress is how eCommunications is different: a) the tools allow for far more intricate means of communicating; b) they allow you to listen and engage; and c) they allow you to measure activity more precisely.

a) The scope of the tools

The mere scope of eCampaigning in terms of what a campaigner can do, or mechanisms to engage a user and spread the message further, are immense. Take for instance as a benchmark an exceptional eCampaign such as The Girl Effect, my current favourite, which incorporates the best of TV advertising in terms of high quality video, audio and copy in its introduction video, but in addition, runs a lot longer than a TV ad can, then immediately allows users to send to a friend, donate, find out more, and engage, all at the click of a button. I myself watched the video on The Girl Effect from start to finish, sent it to a fair few people I know, and nearly donated (which is closer than I usually get). I’m trying to imagine seeing the message in another medium and wonder whether it would grip me in the same way and then make me help it go viral by sending it on to friends. Probably not. A TV or print ad would be too short, and even if it did grip me, I would not immediately be able to act on my interest by sending it on, and knowing me, would forget by the evening.

b) Listening and engaging

I’d say the ability to listen is actually one of the most important changes the web has brought about. It might seem pretty basic, but I do honestly believe that it’s transforming communications no end. Focus groups, polling, surveys etc. existed before but these methods either did not account for many people or were very expensive. Now, companies or organisations can actually sit back and listen to what scores of stakeholders of any sort are thinking and communicating about you or your field, and can react accordingly rather than by second-guessing and hoping for the best.

As well as the ability to listen is the ability to interact. Old-schoolers adopting the web have often made the mistake of treating it like another medium to harness in addition to radio, print, direct mail etc. i.e. where you simply post your message and hope someone picks it up. Yet this is wasting an opportunity because the web allows for two-way engagement. Whether it’s via a comments feature, email, discussing something on a forum, reference in the blogosphere, the fact of the matter is that you’re now able to engage in a conversation.

So what’s different, or why does it matter? Well it’s a great opportunity for one. Honest and transparent engagement, done well, will make a company/organisation/person appear more credible, and frankly, more genuine than if all their outgoing communications simply consists of highly vetted messaging.

More importantly, and we’re seeing this phenomenon really striking gold in the Obama campaign in the US, engagement can result in mobilisation. The web is a phenomenal mobilisation tool – in fact, it’s far better at mobilising existing supporters than reaching or persuading new ones, because it’s easier for people to pick and choose online than it is in other media. I’ve often called this the “town hall effect” based on the age old tradition of town hall meetings where candidates and voters would discuss issues face to face. This had died out but is being revitalised in a different, and possibly more effective format, on the web. In practice, online mobilisation largely involves putting supporters in touch with a candidate/organisation/association/company etc. and with each other, then facilitating their ability to spread the word, on or offline, via their own networks and in their own communities, through events, calls, letters, emails, fliers etc.

In addition, not engaging can be a lot worse. I’ve done work for companies operating in highly unpopular industries, and for decades they’ve tried to limit communications or at least rigidly control it. They can not do that anymore, because the growth of the web means that, more than ever: 1) secrecy is frowned upon; and 2) you’ll be slated without actually being out there defending yourself. And this matters more when it’s happening in a place that’s accessible by anyone and can at worst go viral, than from atop a soapbox – “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” (Mark Twain).

c) Measuring

While you can listen to people, you can also track their activity. Everything online can be measured, from the number of people visiting a webpage; how they get to the webpage (directly, via an ad, via another site); to the number of times they return to the same page, time spent on it, what they click through to; to where they are located geographically; and in some cases, who they work for. This allows you to grasp whether your campaigns or other web activities are reaching your target audience and whether they are responding as you’d hope they would (by visiting numerous pages, staying online for a long time, downloading material, donating, forwarding to friends etc.), and to constantly improve according to what you can tell users want. Again, this could be done before via, say, a phone survey, but it’s far easier now and the level of detail you can acquire is quite astonishing.

4. Using the web to improve working practices

The web does not just have to be sold as a campaign tool or a way to interact with stakeholders. There are countless ways to use online tools to improve and streamline internal working practices e.g. an internal team blog by the engineers explaining what they do (which, say, the marketers had no idea about); collaborative authoring in a wiki rather than umpteen emails and version numbers; a podcast by the CEO rather than a conf call no one listens to; eLearning or conferences via webinars instead of flying people places; or social bookmarking to collect useful learnings available online in one place.

Sure, this does not fall into the realm of public affairs, but frankly, so what. One, it’s an easy way of winning people over. If they’re not convinced that they need an eCampaign or need to be engaging in social media, tell them to try some simple tools internally before moving onto the bigger projects, and you might win them over. Second, it really serves a purpose, namely of connecting various elements of a company or organisation, or “breaking down silos”, and making it more efficient.

5. It’s (potentially) a lot cheaper

I don’t like this rationale, but if all fails, expense is always a winner. Web projects can potentially be enormous and very costly. On the other hand, communicating online can also be done well at a very low cost, as it’s largely about communicating in the right channels and in the right way, rather than buying media that might reach the correct demographic.

6. The web as a direct (nearly) advocacy tool

If people still need convincing, the web can also be sold as a tool to be used in direct support of advocacy. If key target MPs or MEPs have been identified in an advocacy campaign, as any good lobbyist would do – say all M(E)Ps in the most relevant parliamentary committee – web tools can be used to directly target that M(E)P’s constituency and exert pressure on his/her constituents. How? It would involve targeting online advertising within the correct geographic location e.g. a Google AdWords advertising in the region of the target’s constituency only, with keywords carefully devised to suit its constituents’ prime concerns, or advertising being placed on media that is especially popular in that region, or as a last resort, purchasing an email list for that given region and linking through to dedicated areas on an M(E)P’s website which deals with issues pertinent to the constituents’ needs and fears.

And if your client still needs convincing, I’d say you have yourself a lost cause.