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.

Message is not strategy

June 14, 2015

Some communicators do this: think of lots of potential “messages” to communicate; have a message workshop/session/get-together/pow-wow to decide which ones they like best; test them on a focus group (sometimes); get back together for another workshop/session etc. to finalise their messages, probably ignoring the focus group findings and reverting to the messages they like best (can’t blame them in truth: most focus groups are iffy); blurt them out with a (metaphorical) megaphone over all their channels ad nauseum; sit back and wait for everyone to like them more because their message nailed it, upon which they win an election, sell more stuff, or have less regulation imposed on them (or whatever).

Except the latter does not happen because A MESSAGE IS NOT A STRATEGY. A strategy is action-oriented: it requires you to do something (or not, but only if that’s your strategy). It starts with words like position, re-position, differentiate or leverage. It is based on a thorough analysis of the convergence of three elements: what you want or need, what an audience wants or needs, and what you can really offer, and delivering on it.

Messages (if there’s even a need for them) stem from the strategy; without it, they’re hollow words.

I developed the digital public affairs wheel a couple of years ago, which does a decent job of summarising how digital can support the three main components of execution in Public Affairs i.e. intelligence gathering, message delivery and relationship/coalition building. What it misses is the background stuff i.e. the unseen work which makes the execution actually work. To this end, I think the following 3 + 3 split works quite nicely i.e. you still have the execution (the “seen”) but in parallel we have the “unseen.”

digital public affairs

Public Affairs and strategy

September 15, 2013

Public Affairs is the communications discipline that most easily gets away with being unstrategic: frequently (not always, clearly) it can be executed without being linked to clear business objectives and a corresponding, measurable plan of execution.

Why?

Detail

The amount of detail often inherent in issues managed by PA pros is far greater than it is in any other communications discipline. Simply being on top of it and understanding which issues and stakeholders matter and doing something about them, however spurious, can be seen as doing enough. Even when there is no way of truly demonstrating outcomes that benefit the organization’s bottom line.

Accountability

PA is often not expected to be as measurable as other disciplines, certainly in terms of true outcomes. This is largely because the ultimate outcome – impact on policy – is governed by so many external factors beyond a PA professional’s control. They are therefore often not held accountable for failure, certainly not compared to say a marketer, who is held entirely accountable if a hike in activity has not resulted in an increase in sales.

Culture

Many PA professionals have little to no experience of strategic communications, and operate in a space in which deep knowledge of policy and relationships are often seen as more important. Granted, both remain essential, but increasingly, influence has to be built up beyond the corridors of power and broadsheet media, and to do so, PA needs to adopt the staples of strategic communications (research, strategic planning, measurement and so forth). However, given that they view themselves as political beasts, not communicators, a number of PA pros are reluctant to do so.

Resourcing

The PA function often remains under-resourced, largely because it is frequently seen as a cost by the people who control the purse strings. Small PA teams thus too often spend their time doing the basics, or fire-fighting, rather than planning for the future.

Every communicator shudders at the mere mention of tactic-centricity. To the seasoned professional, there is no worse sin that deciding on a channel for delivering communications before developing a strategy for it.

I agree wholeheartedly, in principle. Just sometimes, however, it’s ok to go the other way around, especially in the realm of digital. Why? Simply put, people are still uncomfortable with digital because they’re not quite sure what it’s going to look like. If your starting point is: give me time and resources to develop the smartest approach, then once we know, we’ll decide on tactics (or delivery channels), plenty of non-connoisseurs will be uneasy.

Starting the other way around, by saying, look, here’s the channel we’ll most likely use and this is how others have used it before, but give us time before we launch to develop a strategy for how to best utilise it – it becomes an easier sell. So it’s worth sidelining those principles, just once in a while.