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!

Stakeholder mapping = online stakeholder mapping

Despite the various “influential bloggers” lists and the like about, what often escapes the otherwise astute PA professional is that the online world is not a different universe, at least in Public Affairs in Brussels. Citizen blogging or tweeting on the majority of issues that PA folk in Brussels care about has not taken off, meaning that the usual array of politicians, officials and journalists that are artfully mapped out in the hallowed stakeholder maps, a staple of PA, just need an extra couple of columns and it’s an online stakeholder map too.

In short, check if the said individuals tweet or blog or otherwise engage (avid engagement in a certain LinkedIn group perhaps?) and add a couple of extra columns, one for whichever channel they use, and another on how they use it (last tweeted 6 months ago, ignore; avid and insightful blogger, don’t ignore.)

A shame somewhat, but still a reality on the majority of issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are influential people here or there outside the regular offline crowd, especially in tech and energy, and there are a few influential generalists, but the issues based influential crowd in Brussels is pretty much the same whether on or offline.

What is negative coverage? Past, present and future

Based on a conversation with a seasoned corporate communicator:

In the mid 80s, when the person in question started their career, any adverse reporting was deemed harmful. Press-clipping syndrome was very prevalent, meaning that anything published that could be deemed critical was taken very seriously indeed. This was an age when NGOs were just starting out and industry-bashing was in its infancy, so the fuss was probably all a little pointless.

In the nineties, and the noughties especially, with the web and social media taking off, the issue of loss of message-control was very prevalent. The fact that Tom, Dick and Harry could say whatever they wanted and gain an audience was seen as an existential threat. Press-clipping syndrome remained somewhat prevalent, and coupled with the might of the NGOs that were supporting Tom, Dick and Harry in their endeavours, critical reporting was deemed very dangerous indeed and increasingly hard to manage given the proliferation of channels.

In 2012, it’s all still pretty frightening, although not ALL stuff that is published and in the public domain is deemed as potentially dangerous. We’ve got better at differentiating: high-influence, high-quality influencers we care about, trolls, less so. This probably stems in part from the fact that industry has got better at using the channels itself and so essentially understands them and the threat that a single event may represent far better than just a few years ago.

In the future? 2012 evolved: adverse coverage will continue, but it will seldom come as a surprise. Organisations will be fully ingrained in the social media space, and numerous people will be entitled to track and respond, not just a couple of spokespeople. Individually, that which is deemed harmful will also develop. For instance, while we now hear of firms not hiring someone because they’ve found pictures of them on an all-night bender, in future, surely, people’s records online will be so comprehensive that we’ll expect nothing less!

Digital and Public Affairs “wheel”


The activities of the Public Affairs professional in Brussels (and most other places, for that matter) can be summed up in three core activities:

  1. Gathering intelligence.
  2. Getting a message to policy-makers and influencers.
  3. Engaging with stakeholders and building relationships and coalitions.

Each of these activities can be supported online, and the purpose of the wheel is to exhibit this. It contains the three core activities at the centre, and moving out, online communications activities, and in the outer circle, the tools and tactics that support these.


  1. These could be placed in an order (1-6) starting with monitoring, through to content production, marketing and ending with community, which would in principle represent the correct way to approach most online endeavours, but it may not always be the case, plus I didn’t want to over-engineer.
  2. Yes, there’s plenty of overlap, hence the arrows. There should probably be more arrows, but again, didn’t want to over-engineer.
  3. Yes, there are far more tools and approaches, but this is specific to PA in Brussels, hardly the most advanced digitally, so this is fine for starters I think.

The wheel is by no means final, so would appreciate scathing criticism or (preferably) constructive suggestions for improvement.

The telephone was once pretty useless too, so what?

I recently heard for the umpteenth time that someone who had signed up to Twitter and didn’t gain a following of a million within a few weeks had given up, claiming it doesn’t work as a channel to raise awareness and engage on policy-related issues because it’s not credible and 140 characters is only enough for a bit of mindless babble.

I doubt it. There are two reasons it wouldn’t have worked (beyond the fact that it always takes a bit more time than you think): either tweets were dull or irrelevant, or, on the given issue, there aren’t enough people interested in it active on Twitter YET i.e. there’s no critical mass. A telephone too was pretty useless when hardly anyone one had one.

So two points:

  • A channel is just a channel: it’s not the nature of it that determines whether it works or not but what you transmit on it. Does an annoying telemarketer trying to sell you something utterly useless make you think the phone is a worthless communications channel?
  •  A channel is just a channel: it’ll work if there’s enough critical mass i.e. lots of people on it, meaning people in your sector/area of interest/issue, actively using it. Fact of the matter is, in most areas, they aren’t all on Twitter yet.

And a third:

  • Enough with the “only 140 characters”: it’s enough for a quick exchange and to drive traffic somewhere else where you have as much space as you like to delve deeper (a blog, for instance.)

Fish and LinkedIn

Short post. My colleague Aaron – who loves fish (policy, not eating it, he’s a devoted vegetarian) – sent a note around this week stating that he had found scores of groups on LinkedIn that discuss fish policy. He heartily recommended that everyone look up their issues on LinkedIn and see what sort of discussions were taking place, and who was involved in them, as it was a great way to follow developments and build relationships with people who matter.

Hear, hear.

I’d take it one step further. If there are no existing groups (or the existing groups are run by dim-wits), set up your own. It requires a fair bit of work to keep it going and to attract lots of likeminded people, but it may very well be worth it.

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