For the communicator whose focus has been applying digital and social to corporate communications, efforts have tended to centre on building foundations:

  • Evangelism – continually proving the value to internal audiences, given the peculiarities of corporate communications (smaller audiences and a – supposedly – more cerebral message)
  • Channel strategy – given the niches, channel strategy has been front of mind as the corporate communicator has tended to be unsure of the value of most channels and usually wants to only be present on one or two
  • Operations – corporate communications teams tend to be small; how can they, operationally, manage online content and engagement given the stress it places on resources
  • Governance – corporate communicators are the guardians of reputation and their remit covers crisis, so clear governance has always been imperative

Although many organisations are still grappling with the foundations, others have got those boxes ticked. So the token digital and social person in the room now frequently needs to address other needs which represent the next phase of digital in corporate communications: doing it bloody well. Most of all, this involves:

  • Planning – the insights and ideas piece. We’re producing content, but so is everyone else. What’s the target audience insight that matters most, and what’s a smart idea for getting their attention and influencing their views?
  • Creative – how can the smart idea best be presented?
  • Subject matter knowledge – whereas knowing the channels and the principles has usually been enough, the person wearing the digital hat is also expected to understand the issue and/or sector in question more than has previously been the case

In effect, in the latter scenario, the digital person in corporate communications is no more. Basic planning, creative and subject matter knowledge don’t stem from knowledge of digital; they’re the hallmarks of a competent communications generalist. Purely “digital” people tend now to be experts in a single element of digital (a single component of social, user experience, listening etc.) As for the generalists, they should be removing “digital” from their job titles.

There are staple questions in corporate communications, such as:

  • What’s the broader business imperative?
  • What’s the communications goal that will support the business imperative?
  • What’s the audience (implicitly meaning, who should we be trying to reach and influence that could potentially support us?)

All very well, but we too often fail to flesh out the audience questions; we should also be asking:

  • An audience is never entirely uniform: what are the audience segments?
  • What are the values, traits and habits of each audience segment?
  • Can each audience segment be influenced at all?
  • If so, based on their values, traits and habits, what is likely to influence each segment? 
  • How do they consume information?
  • How will our opponents target the same audiences?

A lot has been written recently on how political bias defines prevalent viewpoints on two of the most scrutinised issues of the day: climate change and GMOs.

In particular, this question is posed: why do people who define themselves as left of centre believe that climate change is real, citing good science, while being almost universally anti-GMO, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus being that GMOs are safe and beneficial?

Probably because a more dominant component of the traditional left of centre worldview takes over i.e. mistrust of big business. Given that GMOs are seen as a product of big business, and contribute to their profits, the science is overridden.

What’s the communications slant on this?

The GMO case is one of many where companies ignore human nature in favour of rationality. In that industry, and countless others, when looking to defend themselves against attack or, more broadly, to manage their reputations, they argue at the wrong level, basing argumentation on fact, ideally backed by science.

But what’s really under attack is often not the facts themselves, but the legitimacy of a profit-making organisation. So what should companies do? Grossly oversimplified, the following: foster a culture where being nice, honest and engaged trumps all; then communicate that culture through real people, not highly polished corporate speak.

I’ve often heard corporate communicators representing organisations under attack cite one of these three approaches and declare that they’ll turn a corner as long as they aggressively pursue it:

  1. No one understands what we do. “We’ve been too quiet and have not explained exactly what we do – when people understand how we operate, they’ll be supportive.”
  2. Fact vs. fiction. “There are too many falsehoods being perpetuated by critics. We need to rebut these far more actively, ideally using 3rd parties.”
  3. Draw a line the sand. “By being too quiet, we’ve let critics get away with murder. Enough is enough. Let’s send in the artillery and attack the opposition.”

The truth:

  • 3 is unlikely to work: belligerence makes things worse.
  • There’s nothing inherently wrong with 1 and 2, but they don’t work in isolation. If both are practiced simultaneously, and with great skill, they’ll buy some time.

So what does work?

  • If 1 really is true i.e. “no one understands what we do”, a campaign outlining how the organisation operates is not enough. There are probably deeper cultural realities that need addressing: why does no one know what it does? Presumably, they’ve appeared secretive, conceited or combative over the years (possibly all 3). Beyond information provision, a more deep-rooted change in tone and manner is vital: transparency, humility and a willingness to answer questions need to be palpable, with real people at the forefront, not just the polished spokesperson.
  • In there is no truth at all in 1 i.e. if the organisation in question operates in a space in which no amount of cultural change and information provision can improve a damaged reputation, the communicator is fairly powerless. Reputational enhancement can only come about through significant business change i.e. dropping an unpopular product or service, or adapting the operating model or parts of the supply chain. Clearly, these sorts of big decision are C-suite remit and thus (usually) beyond the communicator’s jurisdiction. Unless real change is likely, the communicator is left fighting fires and attempting to stall the inevitable.

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

Heard recently: “how would we target a digital audience?”

Although there’s far more overlap these days, most communications specialisms still focus on an explicit audience: public affairs on stakeholders who impact policy-making, brand marketing on end-consumers, and so forth.

But there’s no such thing as a “digital audience.” Digital is horizontal, straddling every communications discipline, and should therefore be ingrained in each.

The fact that the question is still asked, however, helps to explain why some communications professionals still feel comfortable omitting digital from their toolkit: if a “digital audience” is something entirely different, it’s for someone else to worry about.

A thought raised by a colleague in a meeting earlier this week: “why only show our own case studies? Let’s also showcase the work we wish we’d done.”

I like this. Sure, it’s someone else’s work, but you exhibit the following by showcasing it:

  1. You’re curious enough to look beyond your own backyard
  2. You’re humble enough to admit others might have done it better
  3. You know where to set the bar for excellence (and presumably, it’s the bar for where you want to go)

What’s the work I wish I’d done?

Here’s a start:

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 government relations, online listening is often only used to conduct traditional media monitoring. I’d argue there are other ways of using online listening platforms that are more directly related to GR activities, such as:

Pin-point research

For instance, when looking to carry clout with MEP X, assess the issue, company or sector’s saliency in their constituency by carrying out searches specific to that constituency only. Who is talking about it? What’s trending? What’s the prevailing sentiment? The insights can be used to target more narrowly.

Tracking a select group of online stakeholders vs. key issues

“We only care about max 100 people,” GR professionals will spout: a small hotchpotch of politicians, officials, media, analysts etc. In addition, they only care about the 100’s view on the few issue(s) that matter to the organisation in question. Given this, online listening is deemed too broad to be of interest. In this case, set up alerts to be notified only when any of the 100 mention the organization or any of the issues of interest. It’ll probably only be a few times per day if that, but will allow you to cut through the clutter and pick up highly relevant material only.

Identifying new influencers

Maybe it’s not just 100, but 101? But the 1 you’ve never heard of because they’re a new online influencer based beyond the usual sphere of interest, and yet they’re communicating around your issues and appear to be increasingly influential. Listening platforms will allow you identify them.

Assessing the impact of own activities

By aggregating mentions of terms, online listening platforms can help determine trends over time: people spoke about company X & issue Y this much in June, but less so in July. And so forth. If you’re trying to convince Brussels and a couple of national capitals of something or other through GR, you can track the impact you’re having by measuring trend development even among a highly select group. For instance, you’re spreading “message x” in Brussels and 3 national capitals. Use your platform to track the diffusion of “message x” in Brussels and the 3 national capitals week by week, and only among the select group of stakeholders you care about. And in contrast, track the rise/fall of your opponent’s “message y”.

NB: listening platforms can do lots more, but the thoughts I list relate strictly to supporting the government relations function. 


Last year, I produced the digital PA wheel, which, building from three core components of traditional public affairs (intelligence gathering, information provision, relationship building), showed how each can be supported by a variety of digital and social channels, tools and methods.

While I still think the wheel is valid, I think it’s missing a few things, and will be developing the visual on the left further, resulting in an updated digital PA wheel (or matrix perhaps.)

What’s different now?

Management and skills

All organizations are affected by the speed and ubiquity of social media. All functions within them, including public affairs, will require new skills and processes, and sometimes updated technology and resourcing, in order to manage. Although not strictly a communications discipline, a competent digital public affairs professional should be able to advise on how the PA function should adapt. In the commercial world, the term social business is usually applied to describe this area of digital and social competence.


In PR and corporate communication, digital often owns creative. Not sure whether it’s because creative output channels are frequently digital, or perhaps digital types tend to be more comfortable with creative simply because they have embraced a medium that is manic and unkempt, much like the creative process. Or perhaps no one else wanted it.

Creative has tended to be imbedded in content, and although I think content is its closest ally in the mix, I think it deserves a separate category. Developing a creative concept, whether for a single visual or catch-phrase, or a full-on campaign, should not be an afterthought, even in PA. For starters, the process should involve multiple iterations, concepts should be underpinned by data, and they should be tested. And although process can’t produce creativity, organizations should have a method, from how they structure a creative team through to how they brainstorm, plan and implement.

Intelligence beyond monitoring

Although not detailed in the visual above, intelligence in PA should go beyond monitoring, which has tended to be the core of the offering. Granted, it remains key, but the multiple new tools and methods we have at our disposal to collect and break down data can provide ammunition for the PA professional, from influencer identification through to identifying data that will enable tailoring of message almost per single audience member (e.g. data specific to a decision-maker’s constituency?)


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