Simple lessons from political campaigning: social data & email

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.


Social business by accident

I’ve recently come across organisations – one medium sized and one large – that are embracing social business* by accident. Meaning that they are harnessing the collaborative nature of social media for both external and internal communications ends, in these cases specifically by crowd sourcing stories and a cross border/silo communications pilot run on an enterprise social network. By having no method to the madness, I’d argue two of the cornerstones of social business remain unheeded:

  • In social business by accident, social media is another tool used to help meet a communications objective. Real social business incorporates social in other areas of business (where relevant) e.g. R&D, talent development and risk management, and consequently has greater overall value to a business.
  • Given that real social business invariably involves new business practices, the flattening of silos, new forms of collaboration across all business units, and greater transparency and scrutiny –  a substantial cultural shift is required within any organisation that embarks on it. That shift makes organisations well-placed to succeed in a hyper-connected world. Social business by accident doesn’t.

* Social business, as defined by Altimeter, is “a set of visions, goals, plans and resources that align social media initiatives with business objectives.”

Does media matter?

Of course it does, but in terms of influencing public opinion or the extent to which it dictates decision-making, probably less than we think.

In his book about Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003-04, Joe Trippi recounts how he felt following a car crash interview by Dean on Meet the Press: demoralised and sure their campaign was over. It was the first major political campaign to truly harness online grassroots mobilisation and fundraising, yet at that moment, Trippi, who managed the campaign, was guided by an outmoded paradigm: one in which blowing it on Meet the Press meant you’d get lampooned in every other media outlet and you could no longer possibly win an election.

What actually happened? Dean supporters were enraged: they thought the Republican interviewer had been unduly tough and proceeded to increase activity in support of their candidate. Result? Poll numbers and donations went up the week following the interview. Apparently this was the moment in which Trippi realised beyond any doubt that real people could trump traditional networks of influence.

What’s more, this took place more than 10 years ago, before the advent of social networks or ubiquitous and speedy internet access.

What are, still now, the lessons for communicators or campaigners? Not that we should ignore traditional media, but rather, that:

  • We should be channel agnostic.
  • We should be more meticulous in our study of opinion formation. Influence is infinitely more diluted than it was when everyone followed the lead set by parents or neighbours. What really makes people tick?
  • Obviously, we should re-assess influencers. Network analysis done properly can help us define who really carries clout within a constituency or other community.
  • We should measure impact, not reach. Dean’s Meet the Press interview probably reached far more people than any other single piece of content that week, but its impact on poll numbers was the opposite of what most people would have deducted from mere reach.

Making digital work in Public Affairs: hold off on campaigning, focus on government relations for now

What should the Public Affairs professional seek to do? Two things mainly:

  • Help build solid relationships with policy-makers through the practice we call government relations – and ultimately try to gain their support.
  • Try to shift the pin on issues more broadly i.e. get public opinion on side so that government relations becomes less necessary (in theory, at least).

Usually, digital is seen as part of the toolkit for the latter i.e. “shifting the pin”.  And for good reason: it’s got unlikely candidates elected to political office and it’s made poorly funded activist campaigns take off and beat the big boys. It’s quick, access is mostly free and it’s ubiquitous. It’s a great storytelling medium and it’s the best and most cost-effective mobilisation channel ever devised. It’s TV, radio, telephone, water-cooler and soapbox in one.

What’s not to love? In Public Affairs, especially in Brussels, two things:

  • Plenty of Brussels dossiers are technical and don’t interest that many people, so there’s actually no pin to shift.
  • More importantly, even when there is pin shifting to do, structural issues within organisations get in the way. The Public Affairs function tends to cover government relations and little else and has the people and budget to do just that. Unfortunately, shifting the pin takes a variety of skill-sets (campaigning, creative type stuff etc.) which organisations may have collectively somewhere amongst their marketing and communications people, but not in PA. Plus it costs lots of money: usually far more than PA folk are given.

Is this a long-winded way of saying that digital in PA is obsolete? Not quite. I would argue that without the right people and budgets, there’s no point in trying to shift the pin. But sometimes the right people and budgets are available, and down the line, when we’ll see PA and other marketing and communications functions at the same table, there will be an upsurge in shifting the pin type activities.

While we patiently wait, I’d focus on where digital can support government relations. It doesn’t have to be big and flashy, but it can help drive an agenda. How? I’d centre on three things in particular:

  • Highly targeted content which mirrors what the government relations team is saying and doing. We’re not talking fluffy content stating that organisation X is saving penguins 5,000 miles off, but rather, exactly the same storyline recited to decision-makers but told through an alternative channel. Then ensure it reaches the intended audience through highly targeted paid media i.e. search engine and social advertising.
  • Social media (Twitter mainly, but possibly also LinkedIn and at some point Facebook, depending on the issue) but only when used as an alternative channel to engage with main targets. If they i.e. policy-makers and key influencers aren’t active, don’t bother: social networking for GR purposes is useless if no one you care about is at it, clearly. And get people who build offline relationships to replicate online i.e. don’t hand it off to the intern.
  • Use a listening platform to do three things: learn more about your targets’ constituents, track stakeholder activity so you know you’re picking up the vital exchanges for social media engagement, and track uptake of your GR activities (see my previous post for further details on this.)

In one visual: online support for an issues management programme

If you’re working on an issue in which you represent one side of the debate, you’ll need to present that view online. Why? We’ve been over this before, but in short, people who matter will be looking you up online and if you’re nowhere, they’ll read up on the competition, not you.

So you’ll need to have an online presence, it will need to be fed with content, you’ll need to promote it via online marketing and other tactics, and you’ll need to engage on other platforms where your audiences may be active (social media in particular.) Neatly summarised in this visual (I hope!)

Social media fatigue in Brussels

Not long ago, Brussels was wildly excited about the potential of social media, from two perspectives:

  1. Social media = EU saviour: proponents of the EU construct believed that social media could help bridge the divide between member states and Brussels, connect citizens and the institutions, and generally make the EU more visible, democratic and transparent.
  2. Social media = Public Affairs tool extraordinaire: organisations operating in policy-land believed they had a wealth of new options at their disposal, whether they were looking to reach out to policy-makers, build coalitions, or generally raise visibility and momentum around issues that mattered to them.

In both respects, we’re experiencing social media fatigue, as even the most ardent enthusiasts are appreciating that social media is no silver bullet without the right building blocks. Meaning what?

Social media ≠ EU saviour

The EU is dull: it remains uninteresting to many because it’s distant and deals with issues that most people don’t care about. Tax, education and healthcare are more interesting than REACH and fish.

The constitution debacle and now Eurozone has dealt a massive reputational blow: the fact that EU enthusiasts often seem to not care much invariably fuels accusations of it being elitist and undemocratic.

Leadership and communications: many leaders and others responsible for communicating Brussels to the world frequently struggle to articulate its significance without coming across as – again – elitist, pompous and/or uninteresting (some, not all!)

The piñata effect: given that the EU leadership and those responsible for communications don’t articulate their activities and raison d’etre especially well, they’re an easy target for national level politicians, media and others wanting to pin the blame for everything – rightly or wrongly – on Brussels.

Language: last but not least, we may now have channels that allow for instant, barrier-free communications, but we don’t all understand each other.

Conclusion in short: the building blocks aren’t right i.e. if we don’t have the right people saying interesting and relevant things, to the right people, at the right time, in the right tone, who cares if we have shiny social media channels at our disposal?

NB: Mathew has written about EU communication and social media in far more detail and quality than I have here – have a look at his blog if you’re interested in this topic (although he’s stopped blogging for now).  

Social media ≠ Public Affairs tool extraordinaire

Organisations often aren’t allowed to say anything interesting: when talking to policy audiences, or audiences that are affected by policy, it helps to be permitted to talk about policy. Sometimes the lawyers, or company and/or industry culture won’t allow it.

Public affairs functions within organisations often have no strategic communications capability: they operate in a policy silo, blissfully unaware of the fact that communications (on or offline) can actually be pretty effective when done well. Net result: limited use of data, analysis and measurement, and thus poorly targeted and ineffective output.

Structure and resources: linked to the previous point, organisations may think communications is fab but simply don’t have the right organisational structure, people or outside support to conduct it well.

Organisations sometimes really don’t have anything interesting to say: sometimes there’s a lull when no particular dossiers affect an organisation and they have nothing remotely interesting to say that would interest policy audiences (NB: this is only the case with utterly uncontroversial industries, of which there are only a few e.g. if the Financial Services industry had nothing on going at the moment – utterly hypothetical of course – they’d still have lots to do to mend their reputation and thus to communicate).

Conclusion in short: again, although some digital PA is very good, the building blocks often aren’t right  i.e. as above, if we don’t have the right people saying interesting and relevant things, to the right people, at the right time, in the right tone, who cares if we have shiny social media channels at our disposal?

Digital public affairs latest presentation

I gave a presentation to a number of smart and lively communications professionals last week as part of the “EU Federation Knowledge Programme”, organised by EurActiv for their trade association / federation partners. The theme was my usual: applying digital and social media to Public Affairs activities in Brussels. Warning: if you don’t like orange, avoid!