Evaluation of communications activity tends to centre on external reach and impact, measuring basics like awareness, and ideally outcome related metrics like shifts in opinion of target audiences as well as genuine impact on communications, policy and business objectives.

A further useful form of evaluation which we often neglect is internal, revolving around questions like:

  • What should we actually be evaluating from an internal perspective?
  • What constitutes best practice (and poor practice?)
  • How are we performing?

The (hopefully visible) table below lists five core components of digital public affairs along with a short description of what constitutes basic, good and great for each, which I’ve used as a benchmark to assess activity.

I’ve arguably been conservative: some public affairs and communications professionals will likely think that some items in good or great should be considered basic in 2016. Perhaps, but I’d argue that given the cultures inherent in most public affairs functions – technical/legalistic and government-relations centric, and operated by policy wonks rather than marketing-communications professionals – I think it’s realistic. Happy to hear thoughts, as ever.

Digital PA grid

There was an embarrassing time a few years back when I’d be invited to meetings with PA folk in Brussels, introduced as a guru or ninja, and be expected to provide an Obama-esque digital strategy that would ensure victory on every lobbying battle around unpronounceable chemical X (or whatever) by the following Tuesday.

The logic was twofold. First, given that online methods could bolster political campaigns by mobilising constituencies who might otherwise have been powerless, this could be translated to public affairs. It ignored the fact that a number of public affairs dossiers in Brussels are technical and uninteresting to the layman, meaning there are limited constituencies to mobilise, or that organisations are often on the wrong side of the public debate. Second, it assumed that access to a whole new set of channels would facilitate message penetration and influence. It would not matter that decision makers were unable to fit yet another meeting in their diary or journalists were unwilling to report on an issue, as we would now be able to circumvent both and reach them via a social network. Magic!

The days of absurd expectations are thankfully long gone, and digital and social media are to some extent better understood and utilised in public affairs across three areas: impact, strategy and execution.

Impact

As implied above, digital and social media are too often seen within the prism of communications outputs i.e. their value in delivering a message (and hopefully imparting influence). Obviously, digital and social media can be useful in this regard, but the excitement clouds what is arguably more critical: their role in making organisations more vulnerable, and the ensuing operational, structural and cultural changes required to mitigate this.

The increased power and zeal of activists, eager and able to drum up public support to defeat legislation, often through digital means, is ever more prevalent. Illustrious examples include ACTA and Fish Fight. In parallel, we face growing mistrust in representatives of the so-called elite, including government and business, amplified through social media.

Result? Eager to convey democratic legitimacy, decision makers follow the tide of public opinion, which can shift fast and unexpectedly. Consequently, public affairs professionals need to operate beyond their previously narrow cocoon and become adept at tracking and ideally shaping the environment in which that opinion is formed, which may involve disciplines that had previously only been the domain of corporate communications, like reputation and crisis management, beyond the geographic domains they are accustomed to.

Broadly speaking, this propels the need for change in three areas in the practice of public affairs:

  1. Improved integration with brand and reputation owners to ensure alignment and joint plans of action, and the ability to act quickly, often by digital means.
  2. Better risk management, including global issue monitoring (mainly online) and more varied scenario planning, looking to circumvent problems arising elsewhere.
  3. Greater transparency, including a willingness to be open and publicly engaged around policy priorities and lobbying activities.

Luckily, many organisations recognise this and are acting accordingly.

Strategy

Strategy in communications need not be complex, but crucially, it needs to explain how to deliver against an objective. Common communications strategies applied to support public affairs ends include: differentiation vs. competition, leveraging an influential supporting constituency, or repositioning vs. a previously held stance.

Amidst the early enthusiasm for digital and social media, outputs too often trumped strategy. “Engaging with stakeholders on social media” or “raising awareness through content marketing” were cited as strategies. They are not: they are methods for delivering information. But information provision is unlikely to drive influence or action if not contained within a strategy that addresses how it is going to do so.

It is not as if digital eradicated strategy in public affairs. We’re traditionally poor at strategy, blinded by the complexity of our issues. This is reflected by the PA professional’s affection for messaging. Countless hours are spent distilling complex issues down to a set of preferred messages, with no inkling of whether they can drive influence or action.

Based on my own experience and what I hear on the grapevine, strategy development based on audience analysis and sensible evaluations of desired vs. likely change is back in vogue. Presumably it has been driven by professionalisation and reduced budgets, meaning PA professionals need to prove the value they bring in € terms more than before. A happy by-product has been the near-extinction of tweeting as strategy.

Execution

PA professionals’ shiny new object affliction resulted in the set-up of multiple social media channels and the production of monumental amounts of content with no strategy or appropriate resourcing. Net result: zero impact, channels with little to no following, and overworked staff wondering why they’re wasting hours every day on a Twitter feed followed by 10 salesmen, 5 bots and a couple of strippers.

Channels are increasingly seen for what they are: just channels, and there is greater realism about what they can achieve. The same goes for content that feeds the channels. There is no value in producing content for multiple channels if we are not driving impact that ultimately helps generate a desired political outcome.

Instead, the right questions are increasingly being asked, and if the answers to these questions indicate that there is value in communicating, but only then, should a PA professional bother. Smart questions include (in some guise):

  • What is our overall strategy and how (if at all) can each channel (on and offline) potentially support it?
  • Where are our audiences active and how do they like to be reached?
  • What are our audience’s needs or pain points? Can communications somehow address these? If so how?

As a result, we are witnessing more sensible use of online channels in support of PA programmes. Twitter feeds that do not try to be everything to everyone but deliver useful information to a specific group that has demonstrated an interest in receiving said information; longer-form online content that fits a specific strategy (e.g. humanising an unpopular organisation or simplifying the complex for non-expert but key audiences); or engagement when those being engaged might actually respond (some journalists and a few youngish MEPs have shown a propensity for exchanging thoughts on Twitter even with the most fervent lobbyists).

Plenty of time and money is still wasted on pointless activity that is passed off as digital public affairs, but does not deliver value i.e. some level of influence on policy. Meanwhile, it is ignored in areas where it could probably deliver greater benefits, like tracking potential issues online or meeting greater demands for transparency; and discounted by some who were starry-eyed a few years ago but disillusioned once a couple of tweets did not magically win a major lobbying battle. But we are certainly a lot closer to realistic, sensible and impactful digital public affairs than just a few years ago.

Social media poses a threat to to unpopular industries and companies, so the cliché reads. Supposedly, the social media nous of activists, the fast spread of criticism, in parallel with growing popular concerns over corporate conduct and calls for greater transparency, makes companies on the wrong side of the public debate highly vulnerable.

True. Companies have taken a hit after being targeted by campaigns that have spread far and wide in part thanks to social media. Think Shell and Arctic exploration: drilling was abandoned last year. Or Nestle and palm oil. Or Starbucks and tax. These campaigns are amplified by the nature of the modern news cycle. In that there isn’t one: you can’t kill a story that lingers on Google and keeps garnering social shares. No doubt lots of companies have felt compelled to improve business practices to avoid being attacked. Which is a good thing, clearly.

But the cliché is a tad overstated.

It ignores the fact that unpopular industries and companies can themselves use social media, and other online tactics, like data analysis and content marketing, to their benefit. They can use them to identify risks, manage issues and crises, help deliver their side of their story, rebut inaccuracies and showcase transparency and general good-will.

Also, it exaggerates the extent to which people care about good corporate citizenship. Being good matters. Beyond being the right thing to do, it helps attract investment and talent, and will make scrutiny and reproach less likely. But it doesn’t matter that much, right now, all the time. I recently wrote that the notion that corporate behaviour drives consumer-purchasing decisions is overstated and that plenty of unpopular companies do just fine. People will purchase goods and services based on price, habit and ease more than behaviour and reputation. Hence why most campaigns targeting unpopular corporates fail to take off. Certainly, social media poses risks in that a dud product or service will be exposed fast on social media, to great cost. But this is hardly the prerogative of the unpopular, but rather, of the incompetent.

The cliché further overstates the impact of campaigns that actually do take off in terms of numbers reached. The cost of engaging in a campaign is now so low (the proverbial click by a slacktivist) that dozens of campaigns with millions of supporters can run simultaneously on online petition sites while saturating our social media feeds. As a result, campaigns compete with each other and we become immune to them. A campaign has to be truly outrageous to hit a collective nerve. If we loosely define “impact” as a mix of the following – substantial and sustained cross-over to mainstream discourse, and subsequently, negative effects on sales, and/or greater risk of long-term reputational damage, and/or harmful regulation and licence to operate limitations – the number of campaigns with true “impact” is very limited indeed.

Similarly, the cliché implies that amplified criticism invariably damages an industry or company’s standing. It’s not quite that simple. In its Authenticity Gap research, my former employer, FleishmanHillard, stresses that reputation is driven by the difference between expectation and experience across a series of variables. Simplified: if someone expects a company to be highly innovative and it is not, say a tech company, it will take a reputational hit. Likewise, if a company is not expected to be environmentally friendly at all, say an oil and gas giant, but it then exceeds expectations ever so slightly, they’ll actually accrue reputational benefit (perversely, some may think). By no stretch am I implying that companies that are not expected to behave well should not bother, but it does highlight the nuances.

In conclusion, should companies and industries on the wrong side of the public debate stop worrying so much? Of course not: the scrutiny that social media enables is real. This is true for both the popular and the unpopular. And if they are on the wrong side of the public debate because they are truly unpleasant, the good times won’t last. But for those somewhere in the middle, they should probably expend more effort on harnessing the benefits of social media and other online channels and tactics, rather than worrying about the naysayers.

Social media is a bloody big deal if you’re in business. Not because cat videos get 100 million views or some pre-pubescent twit has 50 million Facebook followers. Too many communicators see social media through the prism of the cat video. They pump out endless amounts of stuff, hoping it will “go viral” or whatever. Hence why I’m bored of social media. It’s underused and abused. Social media is bigger than communications. Along with other forces it creates enormous risks and opportunities and what a business chooses to do about it will likely dictate whether it stays in business or not.social business

 

 

Communications has traditionally centred on outputs: the press release, the ad, the report, the speech, the conference – and so forth. So naturally, when social media came along, communicators were delighted by the many new outputs it could help them pump out relentlessly deliver.

We now have organisations straddled across dozens if not hundreds of social media accounts, blowing large sums on content strategies and community building that garner “shares” but in many cases fail to improve reputation, change opinion or sell stuff (or whatever).

Meanwhile, many have been blind to two key effects of social media:

  1. Heightened scrutiny and expectations by recipients of communications
  2. The ability to understand audiences better

Heightened scrutiny and expectations

Social media has swelled scrutiny and expectations of organisations. It’s nigh on impossible to sell a dud product or service if it’s being slated on review sites and no one’s buddy is recommending it on social media. Likewise, they can no longer spin their way out of trouble: bad behaviour will be exposed fast.

Two other influences reinforce this. Globalisation means we’re setting the bar for quality and behaviour globally not just locally. Also, the ever-growing need for people to feel warm and fuzzy inside by buying products from companies (or voting for politicians) that display high levels of ethical behaviour means that the naughty are admonished and the good celebrated.

In this respect, social media matters not so much because it enables more communication but because it contributes to forcing organisations to be and do better.

Understanding audiences

People used to have limited options: a dozen local shops, a couple of political parties and a handful of newspapers perhaps? The explosion in choice makes segmenting bloody complex. We can no longer assume that people within a single demographic want the same thing. Neighbours of the same sex, age and socioeconomic status might have different political preferences, listen to different music, prefer different holiday destinations and have entirely different shopping habits.

Increasingly, mapping audience preferences requires drilling down to very small (and sometimes odd) segments based on a single or two predilections (people who vote centre-left and like folk music; people who love Italy and read House and Garden!) Often, preferences are so specific that they are unique to an individual meaning micro-targeting just one person will become the norm. To understand such nuanced preferences, we must learn to analyse data sets properly, many of which will derive from social media.

What next?

No doubt this requires more than a couple of paragraphs in a blog post, but here are three thoughts:

  1. What both the above factors share is that they are not usually mentioned in a communicator’s job description. Meeting heightened scrutiny and expectations through superior quality and/or behaviour is a leadership decision. Communications is often only responsible for putting a positive spin on whatever direction the leadership has decided i.e. they’re asked to produce lots of communication material (the dreaded outputs). Instead, communications should be higher up the hierarchy. Heads of communications should sit in the C-suite (or the equivalent of it in other organisations). And ideally, leaders should themselves have a significant communications remit.
  2. Communicators probably obsess over outputs because their next promotion, raise or bonus depends on how many outputs they can produce which garner a bit of coverage (media clippings, web traffic, the irritating Like! or whatever). Hence why they tend not to team up with clever analysts who can identify and decipher data that can help them target audiences better. Communicators’ appraisals should be based on stricter, outcome-related criteria, which force them to invest in smarter targeting techniques.
  3. Be sensible and realistic about what social media can achieve. Run fewer shiny newsrooms and have fewer pointless conversations to show brand personality or whatever (I thought only people could have personalities). Use social media mainly to garner insights and provide real value through stuff like good day-to-day customer care and provision of useful information when and where people want it. There’s a place for the shiny, fun and/or whacky in social media sometimes, but not all the bloody time.

Social purists claim that one-way corporate communications and message control are a relic of a bygone era; dinosaurs (in grey suits, no doubt) rigidly hold on to them because they know no better, or because they’re cynically defending their grip on power from the onslaught of democratised communication. In the purists’ mind, communicators should embrace open dialogue – “the conversation” – and complete transparency in all fora. By doing so, people (employees, customers, regulators – whoever!) will supposedly be happier and outcomes (product or service quality, product/service development, political momentum – whatever!) will be exponentially superior.

I do agree with the premise: embrace social or wither (at some point but probably not tomorrow). The global market place, universally accessible channels of communications, and a (gradual) shift towards warm and fuzzy values mean two things for businesses: amplified expectations of quality, service and ethics; and greater scrutiny, both internally and externally.

In practice:

  • They now compete globally with instant benchmarking just a click away, so products and services have to be excellent to in order to sell
  • Companies that demonstrate sustainable practices (themselves and their supply chain) do better than those that don’t
  • Talented employees need to be coddled or they’ll be snapped up by competitors on LinkedIn
  • Regulators will bite unless organisations are on the right side of the public debate and can prove it.

To handle this complexity and the change it entails, enhanced understanding across a variety of internal and external functions is required. Leadership, product development, talent retention, customer care, sales and marketing, public affairs, supply chain management and the actual supply chain itself are suddenly intertwined. It’s clearly a big deal and communications needs to play a central role.

This is the point at which I take issue issue with the social purists and the utter sanctity of “the conversation” as an end in itself, largely for two reasons.

It reduces social to engagement on social networks, which is not doing it justice. Yes, collaboration and/or dialogue on social networks can improve functions ranging from product development through to customer care and marketing, sometimes drastically. But the buck does not stop there: social represents more than actual dialogue. Social data can provide a mammoth, global and local, real-time market research and intelligence tool (not 1 but 3 PR buzzwords in one sentence). It can drive strategy and/or innovation more than conversation: think Apple, who don’t openly converse, but still no doubt harness social to measure reach and impact, gauge market conditions, manage risk, benchmark the competition and what-not. Moreover, digitising processes through social can improve efficiencies, reducing cost and frustration in equal measure, while potentially improving real business stuff like production, distribution and speed to market. Again, this does not entail people actually chatting, but executing run-of-the-mill activities using social channels e.g. delivering basic information and sharing knowledge through to managing the supply chain more efficiently day-to-day. It may not be as sexy as crowdsourcing, but might be more likely to improve the bottom-line.

It belies human nature. As odd as hyper-connected digiratis might find it, most people do not feel comfortable with engagement. Indeed, most people use social channels to be informed, not to share and engage (over 90% some claim -hence why content marketing is now arguably more prevalent than community management). People with certain character-traits can dominate online conversation, resulting in in people being left out, most probably the inexperienced, people on either extreme of the age gap (youngest and oldest), introverts or those from more intrinsically hierarchical cultures. If the spirit of social embraces democratisation, obsessing about open dialogue is not the only way to go about it: social should be more of a mind-set than a set of channels; it should embrace openness, transparency and freedom to opine in whatever medium a person is comfortable with, perhaps even (shudder) face-to-face conversation.

In corporate communications and public affairs, we often look at clever political campaigns and admire their ability to utilise the web to build support from the ground up and – sometimes – drive public opinion.

One mistake we often make at this point however is to gush at the ability of these campaigns to build communities of support on social networks, assuming this represents the silver bullet.

Providing material and engaging on social networks, if done well, can no doubt help position a person or entity, galvanise existing supporters and reach new ones.

But in top-tier political campaigning, social media is more powerful not for its role in community building, but as a source of data. Using social data to scrutinise audiences can allow political campaigns to micro-target based on very specific touch-points shared by small segments of people. The online outreach tool of choice at this stage is then often email, as it is a 1-on-1 channel and can be entirely tailored, unlike social networks, which still ultimately rely on “spray and pray” of single broader messages, with the added bonus of dialogue.

Communicators looking to segment and micro-target to this extent face challenges: micro-targeting is complex and expensive and thus beyond the means of most, years of neglect and data protection laws mean we often have poor email lists, and moreover, it’s difficult to match email addresses and social data – it is frequently a manual and inaccurate exercise.

But the lessons remain evident: email is still very useful, an email database can be a very valuable asset, and social should be harnessed as a source of data as well for building community.