There are policy folk on Twitter, I promise

At the risk of sounding like an anorak, I get a kick out of asking PA professionals how many of their “stakeholders” are on Twitter, hearing them say “none” and then asking them for a short list of their most important “stakeholders” i.e. MEPs in relevant committees, commission officials in relevant DGs, relevant people at perm reps, in the media etc.

Shock horror, we then discover that many of them in fact are on Twitter. Some even use it properly. They follow and are followed by lots of their peers in their same sector. They are active every day. They ask and answer questions and provide information (and want some in return).

So once again: if you’re a PA pro, following the right people on Twitter and generally being interesting and/or relevant will provide you with access to lots of people who matter, it may make them like you, and what’s more, it will supply a stream of information that you might only get elsewhere the following day.

I’m proud to say FH gets it, but once I leave the building, I shan’t be holding my breath.

“Digital is for PR, not for PA” – three reasons why it ain’t so

I hear some variation of this all the time: we don’t need digital, this is just a policy issue; digital isn’t relevant, we’re not trying to reach a mass audience. And so forth.

No – digital is always relevant; it’s the degree that changes. In short, here are three reasons why:

  1. Digital isn’t only social media. People often think that being active online always involves 2-way engagement but I’m perfectly happy to admit that in many cases, Brussels issues are such that online engagement isn’t likely to happen, for a number of reasons. However, policy-makers and others who matter, no matter how niche an issue is, still use the web to conduct research. So content and search are always relevant.
  2. Beyond content and search, the engagement piece is increasingly important. On some issues (ICT especially) Twitter advocacy is already fairly mature, and it’s just a question of time before the same becomes the case in other sectors.
  3. Lastly, there’s the fact that the line between PR and PA is blurring: issues are increasingly influenced by players beyond Brussels, meaning that success in PA will depend on a government relations “plus” approach involving more audiences, across Europe, and across channels (including digital).

“Social media is all very well but should we not first make sure our website is up to scratch?”

I’ve heard this uttered a few times now, and to be blunt, I strongly disagree with the premise. Sure, your website should be decent, but ignoring social media because your website is ugly (or whatever else denotes a bad website) represents one of those cardinal communications sins that people are all to eager to forgive in the Internet age: being channel-centric rather than goal and audience-centric.

Off the top of my head, here are two hypotheses:

1. You’re a trade association: your site is ugly AND you’re feeling the pinch on one of your five core issues

  • The issue is making news in Brussels and beyond.
  • You have lots to say on it: your side of the story is excellent; you’ve got plenty of third party support.
  • As a key player on the issue, you know many people in Brussels are going to be interested in your position.

What would you do:

  1. Not have one because your site’s a mess and it’d be too time-consuming to fix?
  2. Add more content on your ugly site in the one section out of five that’s important now?
  3. Have a strategy that includes: a far from ugly blog in which you publish the output from your content strategy and traffic driving tactics to ensure that anyone looking up you or the issue finds it?

2. You’re a company: your site is ugly AND you’ve invented a brilliant energy efficient product that will revolutionise your industry

  • You want to let a variety of government bodies know how much more efficient your product is and get them on your side.
  • However, the government bodies aren’t paying attention because everyone seems fine with the status quo.
  • You figure you need to drum up support and apply pressure from below: you think you can do it with the help of lots of eager product champions within and outside your company.

What would you do:

  1. Not have one because your site’s ugly?
  2. Fix your ugly site and until then try to drum up support without a web presence?
  3. Develop great content featuring your product champions (video, ideally) and have a detailed, attractive page on a social networking platform where you know the vast majority of your audience will be (Facebook?) on which you feature the content and engage with potential or real supporters?

Moral of the story? Don’t get me wrong, in many cases, unless you have something specific to be talking about, it’d be odd to have a really good blog and a dire website if you know your audiences are looking up both. BUT, in terms of channels, there’s no right or wrong order to how you build up your web presence i.e. we must have a nice site, then we can blog, then we can tweet. Do what’s right for you, for your circumstances, and for your audiences, always.

Online engagement: Brussels audiences’ five standard questions

Here are five questions which I’m invariably asked when organisations are thinking about exploring online engagement but aren’t quite sure what they’re getting themselves into. They’re not the most interesting or strategic questions, but are understandable stumbling blocks which hold organisations back and need to be answered. Here goes.

1. Won’t we get attacked by the other side? What if they say things we really don’t want anyone to hear?

Maybe, but in any case, you can moderate, so if there’s something you really don’t want to expose, you don’t have to (read a recent post about angry commenting trolls here.) Having said that, don’t moderate too much. If you remove everything that isn’t rose-tinted, what’s the point of engaging? View it as an opportunity. There are people out there who dislike you no matter what. There are others who aren’t so sure about you, but if you actually respond to their concerns, you might even win them over.

2. OK so we can moderate, but aren’t we going to get inundated by thousands of hateful attacks every day? So much so that we’ll end up spending all our time moderating?

In my experience, nobody has ever been attacked in this way (don’t flatter yourselves: people have better ways of spending their time!) I’ve heard of instances of automated responses by angry pressure groups, but have never experienced it myself. In any case, these people had your email addresses before: were you “attacked” then?

3. We’re only a small team with a small budget: do we really have the resources to do this properly?

Sure, proper online engagement is time intensive, but so are conf calls, meetings and writing reports no one reads. View it as an opportunity, not something you could do on top of all your – supposedly – far more important tasks. This might actually be the most important thing you do (although this depends on the nature of your sector or organisation.) In any case, if you plan properly, it needn’t take up too much time. Have an editorial plan in place so you organise publication properly, and give yourself a timeslot for the actual work like you would for a regular meeting or whatever else, and you will find it just becomes part of your working day.

4. How do we target people in multiple languages?

The perennial comms nightmare in Europe. It depends on the nature of the organisation in question and what you’re trying to do. If your key target audience is French-speaking but your organisation primarily operates in English, it’d be hard to recommend against trying to communicate in both languages. As a starting point, I’d certainly recommend against overstretching i.e. trying to engage in multiple languages; but to what extent this is the case really depends. Conversations shouldn’t be translated, so I wouldn’t ever translate blog posts, tweets, forum entries and the like; but I would not recommend against a mixed basket approach where a few languages are in use on the same platforms (but not more than three….) For instance, a blog could have posts in different languages, each tagged by the language in question so that a user can select to view all posts written in any given language in one list. Again though, this is complex issue and there’s no right or wrong answer apart from don’t overstretch…!

5. How do we know if engagement works? How do we measure success?

Another perennial question, and one which I’d (controversially) say is relatively easy to answer, even though ROI calculations for engagement (and comms in general) are notoriously contentious. I’m not saying that it’s easy to guarantee success or that it’s easy to define very clear ROI measurements – it’s not at all – but there are so many things you can measure in quantitative terms online, that you can develop a very substantial set of KPIs which you can follow and improve on an ongoing basis. So when the question arises, your response can be: with press releases, you get clippings; online, you get viewing numbers, behavioural and trending figures, you’ll know who said what, when and where; and you’ll know how many of your key targets viewed your content. Plus you’ll have qualitative input which you’d ordinarily have needed polling to assess because you can measure word of mouse (as opposed to traditional word of mouth…) i.e. you’ll know what people think because they may comment about it. The bottom line of the sell is this: my professional opinion is that this will work, but don’t just take my word for it; with you, the client, we’ll develop a very detailed set of KPIs which will be exact indicators of success. Given that they’re so substantial, you’ll know very clearly whether the programme is a success or not; far more clearly that any of the other communications channels you use.

Are people totally won over? No, the novelty of engagement and the “loss of control” it entails is still a big leap; but at this point people tend to be willing to take their first baby steps.

“I don’t get Twitter”

I hear it all the time, and admittedly, it’s not the easiest thing to provide a clear and tangible response to. There’s scores of reasons why Twitter can be important to organisations: learning from and building relationships with individuals and other organisations with similar interests; tracking issues in real-time, in turn enabling appropriate analysis and response to consumer, constituent or other stakeholder concerns.

However, when explaining it to people who are not communicators or avid web users, and who would no doubt struggle to contextualise, that all sounds a bit bland. What I find works best as an explanation in these cases is contextualising within someone’s own personal interests. Ask them what they’re into and, say, if they cite Italian cinema, ask them to imagine connecting to 1,000 other people from all over the world who are really into Italian cinema in an offline setting. A film festival perhaps.

On Twitter, they can connect to these same 1,000 people. In one place, they’ll be able to track what these 1,000 people are saying and items (articles, reviews, screenings) they are providing. As a follower they have the option to simply observe and learn: a non-stop incoming stream of valuable information they’d otherwise have to read 100 websites and magazines a day to keep up with. If they then fancy engaging further (which they should) they can provide this community with their own input, respond to what others are saying and engage in conversations.

So you’re essentially placing Twitter within a real-world framework. Doing that will make it seem a little bit less like technical mumbo jumbo and more about human interaction, which is what Twitter and social media at large are all about: they’re spaces that allow for people to connect, not the playing fields of techies, teens or social recluses. And that’s really the key message to transmit to the doubters.

Tracing eFluentials and what to do about it

An eFluential is an online influential (or influencer) i.e. someone who matters online, someone people read and respect, and who can drive and influence an issue’s trajectory online.

For obvious reasons, communicators are often eager to identify eFluentials within their sector or issue. That’s all very well. Unfortunately, plenty of  communicators then think it’s OK to pester them, assuming that of course they’ll be willing to spread a story and use their networks to promote anything from a take on an issue to a product launch. Think again. It barely works with traditional media, even less so online.

So as a communicator, what should you do? First, do identify these people. That’s not a crime. How? The basic tools work: look up keywords (brand, issue, legislation, organisation etc.) on Twitter search and Google blog search. Don’t forget blogrolls: finding bloggers via other bloggers works well. You can be even more sly. Look up your keywords on delicious, flickr, digg, reddit and check out if someone is tagging lots of good quality material. Google their names and see if they write blogs or where else they turn up (LinkedIn perhaps?)

OK so what do you now? DO NOT spam these people. Follow them, see what they have to say, learn from them, use them to gain an understanding of what’s driving your issue online. Then, if you’re really keen to build relationships with them, start engaging in their space  e.g. go on Twitter or start blogging (or rather, advise your client to do so) and provide interesting and insightful material that they too will be interested in – and only then try to hook up with them. If they share your interests and you build a mutually beneficial relationship, they might, just might, refer to you at some point, follow you on Twitter or put you in their blogroll (but only because they really want to.) If at any point, however, it becomes clear that you’re trying to plug a product or promote a position, you’ll lose all credibility and you’ll need to start from scratch. Be warned.

As a side-note, I’d highlight that eInfluentials are not necessarily the people with most followers on Twitter or whose blogs are most read in your sector: “pitching social media creators who are influential but who are not really customer evangelists for a brand are the wrong people to target” (from a post by John Cass.) This is relevant for issues as well. If you’re engaging in online advocacy and want to, say, build relationships with bloggers in the hope that they might help you spread the word, focus on those who really share your interests and are most likely to join forces with you: if they have a huge following but only ever write about certain elements of your sector/issue which don’t involve you, that’ll remain the case no matter how many scoops you throw at them. Remember, online isn’t like traditional media. Getting an article in the FT will always be more valuable than getting a far better one into a small trade publication. Online, that’s not always the case. Via search, people can find anything that is relevant, while good quality content even on a low-profile site or blog can spread like wildfire if it captures the imagination.

A model: four pillars of online engagement

pillarsI think I should start blogging. Twitter looks interesting. Think a Facebook fanpage will work wonders. Videos on YouTube  are just up our alley. And so on. These are the kinds of things going through the minds of plenty of communicators at any sort of organisation in Brussels (and elsewhere for that matter) who work on issues and policy areas in which they want to exert some influence. And for good reason. The tools are cheap and cheerful, they’ve been proven to work, they fit an age of public relations in which engagement and humility are the order of the day, and what’s more, they’re fun.

However, as enticing as the tools may seem and as easy as you may think it will be to just try, test and see, I’d stress that rather than dive in and use the tools from the off, it’s imperative to have a long-term online engagement plan and to take a step-by-step approach that will help maximise the potential of your efforts.

I’ve developed a basic 4-pillar model which can be applied to a lot of organisations seeking to engage online. By no means am I introducing any brand new concepts, but I think the model is handy in that it puts the various elements of engagement in the order in which they should go if an organisation starting anew wants to make the best of the opportunities on offer. Here goes.

1. Making sense of what’s out there: web as hub

This involves two bits: first, the listening piece (one of the prime social media clichés but oh so necessary), and second, making the listening set-up public via aggregation or hyperlinking.

The listening bit simply means that you perform a thorough analysis of what offline stakeholders are up to to online, as well as find online players who might not have an offline profile. You set up a dashboard so you can follow what they are communicating on a daily basis, and once you feel that you have a really good idea of how the issue is unfolding online, who the key content creators and influencers are, you make that knowledge public i.e. you “counter the fragmentation” and become the player that makes sense of the issue online and isn’t afraid of showcasing other stakeholders who might not tow the exact same line.

2. Start communicating: “show me, not trust me”

This is when you actually start communicating yourself in this new space; where you start showcasing action rather than staying quiet and hoping that people will trust you – hence “show me, not trust me”.

By performing step 1, you’ve got a good understanding of who the players are and what’s expected, you have some goodwill, and you’re unlikely to make any dumb mistakes. So you’re well placed to develop a strategy to communicate using social media within this space to showcase yourself, your take on your issue, and your people via, say, blogging or video (choice of tools is secondary, it largely depends on where the activity is, what your sector is etc.) In addition, you should use the space to show your third-party advocates, and remember, always remain respectful and honest.

3. Stakeholder dialogue

Steps 3 and 4 are the organic evolution of steps 1 and 2: they rely largely on the involvement of the online community which you can not control, so it’s about creating the right circumstances for that community to thrive rather than introducing a new set of tools.

By bringing information together and beginning to engage using the tools yourself, you should hopefully have begun a process by which an online conversation has taken off in which you are an important contributor. To get to this next level, where real dialogue is taking place, you need to carry on what you’re doing i.e. communicating a message that resonates and to make sure you are constantly feeding the conversation by replying to people’s questions and comments, and remember to always respond to community concerns and interests rather than spouting key messages.

Assuming you are doing all of this well, you have a fantastic opportunity to be leading and shaping “stakeholder dialogue” and thus take a thought leadership position on your issue.

4. Community and mobilisation

This is the holy grail of online communications. If steps 1-3 are successful, you may have created a community of people who mobilise on your behalf: these are people who support your position and spread your message for you without you actually being involved. In practice, this can involve anything from people simply sending your material to others, urging others to follow you on Twitter or sign a petition, to actively approaching legislators themselves.

As a benchmark on a huge scale for “community and mobilisation” I’d cite the Obama presidential campaign. It wasn’t the millions of Facebook followers who got Obama’s message directly in their Inboxes who were the root of the success, but the core supporters who mobilised on his behalf, whether by sending newsletters, arranging events or knocking on doors and so on.

Sure, Obama is Obama and we’re talking about a US presidential campaign, but on a smaller scale, the model is still relevant. By engaging with people, getting them excited about your issue, and giving them the right tools and content, you too can turn your supporters into ambassadors.

I’ll be following up on this post in the coming weeks to expand a little more on the 4 pillars. Would appreciate feedback.


Digital adoption by Brussels agencies

From a post on the “Behind the Spin” blog:

PR agencies currently fall into three distinct camps: consultancies that are embracing and actively creating the digital PR future by retooling their businesses; consultancies that believe digital calls for traditional techniques to be transposed to bloggers and via networks such as Twitter; and those that are standing still.

The post refers mainly to PR agencies in London, but I wonder if the same is true for PA/PR agencies operating in the Brussels bubble? I work for an agency that operates online and have never been at a traditional agency, so this is speculation on my part, but I’d say it sounds about right.

I suspect the “standing still” camp may be a little bigger in Brussels than London however, due to the nature of PA more than anything else. Most PA professionals have political backgrounds and are sector experts, not communicators. I’m not saying it’s a problem per se, except that their expertise is often not aligned with that of communicators, as some agencies don’t integrate especially well to the extent that they maintain a PA and comms hierarchy where the two disciplines are actually kept quite distinct rather than being two fully integrated parts of the same communications toolkit.

In addition, for Brussels (perhaps London as well) I’d add one more group to the three above: consultancies that want to embrace the web, understand its importance and what it can do, are tip-toeing, but are not fully committed because they struggle with how they would adapt their business model (I’ve heard this a few times.)

Like I said, this is largely speculation on my part. I might be wide off the mark, so I’d be curious to hear what other agency people have to say about this.

Obama: not losing the online momentum

white-house-site4 Yet another Obama and the web post. Zzzzzzz. Many apologies, but the subject matter is too good to let go.

Much has been said about the positioning of the blog on the White House website. It’s right there, in first place in the first submenu (see image). It’s nothing more than a symbolic gesture however as the blog only informs and does not do what a “real” blog does (engagement via comments or trackbacks, references to other blogs etc.) And I understand that: their blog is for information purposes only; the White House can’t suddenly start blogging as if they were a political commentator, it’d be ridiculous, inappropriate, totally out of their remit, time-consuming and bound to get out of hand.

No, what really shows that the Obama administration gets the web is what’s still going on on barackobama.com. In addition to an exceptional candidate, the success of the campaign for the Presidency was based on two factors which were both web-enabled: 1) mammoth donations; and 2) mobilisation of supporters.

The latter is still taking place via the site, as people can meet likeminded supporters, organise events, find events near them, all via the site. That’s what makes it special: it’s not the fancy web gimmicks, it’s the grassroots mobilisation on the ground that’s being enabled simply by making the logistics easier. Seems basic, but it’s pretty revolutionary in a sense: everyone had assumed that people were too busy and politically apathetic to engage in participatory politics, but that was plain wrong – all they needed was a leader to rally around and the organisational aspect taken care of somewhat.

What’s more, the Democrats are now being far-sighted enough to build on the momentum from the campaign by keeping it going rather than resting on their laurels. Good for them.

On multiple online platforms? Try Friendfeed

A post by US blogger par excellence Robert Scoble made me finally have a look at Friendfeed. It’s been fairly big across the pond for a while now, but no one seems to be talking about it in Europe. What it is is one aggregator that allows you to publish updates from all social media and social networking websites you’re active on in reverse chronological order via RSS.

I can see real value in Friendfeed for companies and other organisations in Brussels once they begin to become active in social media (I have high hopes for 2009). Say an organisation has a blog, publishes video interviews on YouTube, and pictures from events on Flickr, these can all be relayed via Friendfeed so people don’t have to go from place to place to see the content. Anyone interested can subscribe to the single feed rather than three, and a feed can be made available on the organisation’s website. Result? More people will find, view, and comment on your content.