May 16, 2013
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 a bit 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?)
May 8, 2013
Mildly pretentious and righteous mini-rant coming up.
Scores of PA professionals are creative now, it appears, given that they film talking heads or ask a designer to decipher some data and represent it in visual format.
There’s a discrepancy between creativity and publishing in content formats that traditional audiences aren’t accustomed to, however.
By all means, experiment with new content formats, but creativity doesn’t lie in format, but rather, in developing a smart, relevant, snappy, memorable, thought-provoking and possibly funny (depending on the subject matter) creative concept. If it’s good, it can be translated into whatever format you want, whether in written, spoken or visual form.
In short, the creative process is not deciding on a content format, but rather, developing a creative concept, and it will likely be a lengthy, arduous and frustrating process.
March 19, 2013
Even just a couple of years ago, a fair few people in the Brussels bubble were getting excited about the prospect of online grassroots campaigning.
Their logic was as follows:
- Regulation increasingly reflects public sentiment
- Public sentiment lives beyond the bubble
- Being able to showcase public support in member states is thus key to success
- However, building, showcasing and/or somehow aggregating support is very difficult
- The web is by nature cross-border and quick: a silver bullet for mobilisation, surely
The concept is no longer in vogue, given that, clearly, it was highly unrealistic in the first place: the assumption amongst a fair few PA pros was that there are people out there willing to be mobilised on any issue overnight as long as you looked hard enough.
This ignores the following:
- Many organizations are either too unpopular or too obscure to rack up support overnight
- Many regulatory issues are highly technical, making it difficult to create a “narrative” that makes mobilisation realistic
- What’s more, even with suitable issues, many decisions will likely be based on consensus rather than who has most friends, especially if the Commission is the key player, making the whole premise pointless in the first place
BUT (and it’s a large BUT) that’s not to say there aren’t instances where it can be very valuable to showcase support or that it can’t ever work:
- It can if the issue has a very clear public interest angle and the EP is a key player e.g. see the recent fish discards campaigns
- Clearly, if an organization is popular, it’d be easier to drum up support
- And in some cases, mobilisation can even work for an unpopular or obscure organization if it goes about it sensibly i.e. keeping expectations realistic and giving it time; and usually focusing on a single key constituency, rather than “general public”
As a side-note, personally, I’m pleased people aren’t seeing it as a silver bullet any longer. On one level, it shows we’re moving from hype to maturity. On another, it means investments in digital PA are being funneled into areas where it is more likely to provide a real benefit, such as analytics, content strategy and search.
December 31, 2012
To anyone who hasn’t seen (or indeed heard of) Borgen, you’re missing out. Think The West Wing but better: the characters are utterly compelling yet not all exactly the same in all but appearance like on TWW (where everyone is bright and fast-talking yet quirky, high-strung and useless at personal relationships). Plus it lacks the syrupy ick moments featured frequently on TWW.
Its unbridled excellence got me thinking: what could Public Affairs practitioners in Brussels learn from Birgitte, Kasper, Bent et al?
Reflect public sentiment
Duh. PM Nygaard succeeds when her views are somewhat reflective of prevailing public sentiment. However many times they fail, some Public Affairs practitioners still believe in wars of attrition: say it enough times and you’ll wear them out and win. Doesn’t work that way: you need to show your world-view is the prevailing one – or at least that you’re moving towards it – not just repeat insular clap-trap a thousand times.
Put yourself about
Whenever our heroes need to win an argument, they raise the noise levels and put themselves about, usually starting with a feature interview on the fictitious TV1. Public Affairs folk take note: don’t hide in case you put a foot wrong, or think everything is decided face-to-face. Get out there.
In Public Affairs, things are often put off, even when the legislative calendar makes it pretty clear when stuff should happen: “we need to consult everyone before we decide on anything: we’ll do so at the next meeting” (in 3 months’ time). In Borgen, Birgitte and her band of merry men and women meet at any time, day or night, and put a plan into action there and then.
Express emotion not “messages”
God I’m tired of “messaging”. Birgitte doesn’t always need it, why should we? She often wins by talking from her gut and showing emotion.
Hire smart communications people
Kasper, the brilliant sidekick, is a comms guy. He gets policy inside out but his job is to package it. In Public Affairs, comms is frequently treated like an afterthought or left to the most junior person in the room (if they even get into the room in the first place). Big mistake.
Leave the Bubble
In an early episode, Birgitte visits Greenland, and only then truly understands the issues facing it. Who says Public Affairs folk can’t leave Brussels once in a while and visit local communities, factories, trade unions, churches, farms etc. and get a sense of real world issues?
Work with opponents
Our crafty protagonists will often work out deals with parties or individuals that in no way share their world-view in order to get things done. In Public Affairs, we often refuse outright to even acknowledge the other side, let alone work with them on compromise measures. More of it please.
December 30, 2012
The starting point for digital in Public Affairs, and other disciplines no doubt, will often be very tentative: “we’d like a little bit of digital please.” In practice, it may mean no clear strategy, a single channel, one junior person within an organisation given part-time responsibility for it, limited or no input from experienced practitioners and no measurement. Essentially, experimenting to see how it works.
In theory, I agree in taking baby steps and seeing how it works as it’s a good way of getting people started when they might otherwise never do so, but the fact of the matter is, doing it small means it probably won’t work.
Set up Twitter but tweet infrequently, set up a LinkedIn Group and expect external members to do all the work, have a new site but don’t promote it, have a new site but don’t update it, produce one great piece of content but don’t follow up, do one channel when your audience is on three, monitor social media but don’t respond? These are all examples of doing it small.
Would you get an intern to write a position paper in a day? Organise an event but not get good speakers? Build a coalition but never meet? Monitor political developments but ignore one of the institutions? Probably not.
Doing digital with no clear strategy – i.e. no reason other than “we should be doing this” – and no real resource commitment is essentially the same thing as any of the examples above, and thus a waste of time if not a ticking time-bomb.
Having said all that, I’d still recommend it as a means of at least getting people started, but insisting strongly on the following: “this is just a start, don’t expect the world, to reap the rewards you should be doing more.”
December 14, 2012
Interesting thought emanating from a recent conversation: Public Affairs is probably the communications discipline that more than any other is tactic-centric. Meaning that in PA, you can propose all manner of tactics without much research or strategy, and people might not notice.
This may sound trite, but it’s probably because Public Affairs can sound clever even when overly tactical, while in other disciplines, that’s not so much the case. If you’re selling cereal and you state “let’s set up a Facebook page” without having done your homework other than knowing your target demographic is on Facebook, you’ll rightly be told off.
However, if you’re trying to defend a cereal manufacturer’s ingredient from regulation and you know the institutions’ calendar inside out and who sits in the relevant committees, simply putting together a set of meetings sounds more clever than “let’s do Facebook” although it really isn’t.
Clearly, I’m over-simplifying to prove a point – Public Affairs servicing is usually involves far more than a meeting programme – but you get the gist.
November 23, 2012
Although it can be extremely effective in driving traffic and raising awareness of one’s activity, we often scoff at advertising in Public Affairs, usually for one of more of these reasons:
- We know our audiences so why advertise?
- Advertising is not targeted enough
- Advertising is too expensive and we can’t control what we spend
- Advertising can sell detergent but our clever audiences would never fall for advertising
Each is tosh:
- We hardly ever know everyone in our target audience anymore: as the scope of Public Affairs becomes increasingly broad, so does the set of people we need to reach and convince.
- As uncomfortable as it may make some people, advertising can be very targeted. In particular, online advertising, which allows one to target via variables such as where people live or what sector they work in, as long as they themselves have provided the information (e.g. Facebook or LinkedIn ads) or what they look up online (e.g. Google AdWords).
- No, it’s not necessarily expensive. Many people’s advertising paradigm is TV, which obviously is very expensive. But delivering a thousand clicks to a website via a social network can be dirt cheap. And you need only pay per click and can cap spending.
- “Our clever audiences never fall for advertising.” Again, this is the TV paradigm. In online advertising, as well as much offline advertising, you’re not trying to drip-feed your brand to unknowing consumers who will soon worship it: you’re only trying to drive someone somewhere else, where yes, perhaps you may try to convince them of something or other.
November 12, 2012
My colleague from Fleishman-Hillard in Washington DC, Bill Black, was in Brussels a couple of weeks ago to host an event on the use of digital in the US presidential campaign. Good thing that Obama was triumphant, given that the presentation centred on extolling the phenomenal development of the digital element of his campaign since the last election. It’s getting less air-time given that it’s so 2008, but certainly, the campaign’s use of data in particular is truly ground-breaking.
I was asked to round off the presentation with a couple of brief insights on how the principles of the campaign could be applied to Brussels. Slightly tricky given the considerable differences in scale, critical mass, funding and the fact that we had people with drastically different communications needs in the room (political parties through to embassies and perm reps through to corporates).
Nonetheless, there were 3 points in Bill’s presentation which are unquestionably applicable to Brussels, which I summarised as follows:
Data can also extremely valuable to a Brussels crowd, albeit usually for a different reason. In the US campaign, as with most large campaigns, the prime purpose of mining data is to understand audiences so as to better target them. In Brussels, in most instances, we know our audiences pretty well, or they’re so small that we can find out about them using more cost effective means (a survey or even just asking them directly). However, exploring and breaking down data can pay great dividends in another way, namely building stronger argumentation.
In short, if you represent the interests of an organisation, country, party, region etc. you can use data collected through various means online to understand the views of people in relevant constituencies, and where relevant, align your position so that it reflects these same views, thus strengthening your case significantly. Too often in Brussels, argumentation is based on assumption, or what you’d like people to hear, or it’s too basic to actually matter. In the private sector, how many organisation, for instance, prattle on about the number of people they employ or the percentage of European GDP they account for?
Instead, imagine you’ve used data to determine – hypothetically – that there are 3,000 people in constituency X who have voiced support for you or are likely to support your position, proven through data indicating what these people have said, published, read and shared. I’m sure some people concerned with privacy will shudder, but there’s sure no better argument winner. In addition, analysing a broader set of stakeholders through data can help identify influencers beyond traditional stakeholder groups.
Smarter about content
Old news no doubt but still worth emphasising: with the mass of information being published, being more personal, conversational and publishing material in a variety of attractive, relevant and concise content types is essential if you wish to break through the clutter. This as ever remains a message worth repeating in Brussels, where we remain enthralled by the highly cerebral, overly detailed report or paper as the sole publication type worth thinking about.
Getting senior people involved in social
Again, hardly rocket science, but an interesting insight from the election. The likes of Axelrod were far more involved in social media this time around than in 2008, and this resulted in more stuff being shared and spread. To be frank, although social media lowers the barrier to entry to communications, often allowing people who are smart and interesting yet not high in the food chain to gain an audience, the fact remains that high-profile people usually carry more immediate clout when engaged in communications. This is a valuable lesson to the organisations in Brussels, both public and private, who farm off social media to the intern or even a 3rd party, when ideally, the figureheads of an organisation should at least be somewhat involved.
September 24, 2012
I start off a number of presentations on digital PA with this image, slyly trying to pre-empt the inevitable i.e. PA professionals who have made one (if not both) the following assumptions:
- Digital is a mass-market, spray and pray medium
- Knowing your audience makes it easy to reach them
In truth, digital is not a spray and pray medium, by any stretch: it can be highly targeted. Think targeted social advertising leading to content specific to a niche audience. And having every audience member’s email address or phone number won’t help if they’re Googling you rather than picking up the phone or reading your emails.