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.
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.
A lot of digital issues comms may appear good at first glance, but does not tick enough Cs to succeed, the three being: content, community and campaign.
Here’s a hypothesis representing pretty much any organisation that conducts online communication:
- Organisation X has a clear story to tell and knows it needs to do so through a variety of content delivery channels (content).
- It has to speak to a spectrum of people in a variety of contexts in a number channels in order to rebut falsehoods, try to convince the unconvinced, ensure that supporters are informed and motivated, and generally have a clear voice (community).
- It knows there is lots of competition in the overcrowded communications space, so it needs to have a clear and compelling goal and identity, single core message which people remember, and it needs be splashed everywhere through a variety of channels, and often include advertising (campaign).
To their detriment, organisations will often do one or two of the three. They’ll produce really good content, but they won’t engage with naysayers or supporters in social channels, allowing the other side to dominate the space. Or they’ll engage in social channels but not have convincing content to drive people to. Or they’ll produce content and engage but their programme is not treated as a campaign, meaning it is not as visible as the other side and doesn’t get the pulse racing. Or it’s treated as a campaign and lots of people take note, and then once they dig deeper, they see there’s no convincing story because the content’s poor and there’s a backlash. And so forth.
There’ll be instances where organisations won’t need to focus that much on one of the three Cs. On a niche issue, conversations in social may not be that rife, for instance (this is often the case in digital PA). However, in most cases, organisations are strongly encouraged to tick off all three, or the one or two they do invest in won’t have enough traction to make the programme a success.
April 20, 2012
Two staples of the PA comms suite in Brussels are policy focused websites and position papers. They’re usually chockerblock with useful stuff, but in most cases, fall prey of being too detailed. A majority of your audience will not be experts, although some will, so a range of knowledge levels must always be respected. As my colleague Aaron frequently says: most MEPs are lawyers – not scientists, engineers or economists.
Hardly rocket science, but these two triangles illustrate what I mean in a tad more detail.
On websites, a site visitor should first be presented with easy access to basic information, and if he or she wants more detailed information, or even highly advanced information aimed at experts, they’ll find it by clicking further. Some sites do this, but most don’t: they’ll either not cover all levels of detail, or they’ll be overly detailed from the off.
Position papers are always detailed by nature, albeit to varying degrees. That’s fine, but the issue is that they’re frequently left unread because of it. What’s missing is that the position paper is never broken down into smaller bits. There are real opportunities here, given that a position paper represents an organisation’s detailed and virtually complete vision of an issue, so the building blocks are all there. Meaning what? Take the information and do one or more of the following:
- Create an alternative version in 10 bullet points or structured like an FAQ
- Create an executive summary in visual form (infographic)
- Feature the author(s) in a video, podcast (or series of) describing its contents
- Create a series of online news items, blog posts or whatever, each highlighting one section of the position paper
- Publish a series of tweets highlighting the key points and a link through to the detailed paper
- … And market each item heavily
February 13, 2012
I frequently speak to fellow Public Affairs professionals who tacitly agree that we’re all a little dull (not personally, but the PA function within our organisations). This is problematic because the evolving nature of the PA function demands that we become more interesting. Gone are they days when we speak to a miniscule audience of fellow experts. Increasingly, we need to be winning over hearts and minds that may not know that much about the subject matter, in a market where they are exposed to far more information than ever before. This in turn obliges us to be more thought-provoking, amusing and, god forbid, emotional.
No, PA is not too cerebral to be any of the above: enough of the endless data, position papers no one reads and press releases no paper picks up; instead, bring on smart summaries of issues, layman’s terms and information presented in forms other than small print.
Easier said than done though: how does the PA function, which traditionally has focussed on subject-matter expertise alone rather than how to communicate it effectively, suddenly become thought-provoking, amusing and emotional by embracing creative content production?
There’s no right or wrong answer, but here are a few thought starters.
How isolated is the PA function within the organisation in question? If it’s very isolated, it’s unlikely to have been in contact with more creative elements it could probably pick up a few tricks from (usually the ones involved more closely in targeting customers). And by the way, the old “we’re traditional, there’s no one creative in the whole company” claim doesn’t fly: creative doesn’t mean comic books and trapeze artists, it can just mean smart, strategic thinking done with a twist. Talk to the brand, marketing, corporate communications teams, even if they’re somewhere else, and even if you’re a bank or produce unpronounceable chemicals.
You can try to change things from within but the people onboard have “traditional” PA profiles? That’s fine, but next time you hire someone, maybe look beyond the person with a political science degree, experience in government or similar sectoral experience in a different setting. Hire someone who has a proven track record in communications outside a policy town. Clearly they should understand PA, but it shouldn’t be their bread and butter. This sort of profile will also usually be better at grasping PA within a business and reputation context, which is getting ever more essential as we veer towards a model where Public Affairs becomes less about government relations alone.
“Hire someone creative” may be a bit of a push, not least because the barriers to creativity often stem from internal hurdles placed by traditionalists within the PA function in an organisation. How can they be won over? Start with two simple things which we for some reason often overlook in Public Affairs although they are staples in other areas of communication: benchmarking and polling. Yes, benchmark other organisations, other industries, even other functions within your own organisation. I suspect many of them will have produced smart and effective material that isn’t in Times New Roman font size 8. By polling I don’t just mean professional polling (although clearly if you can, do so). Ever asked friendly members of your target audience (officials, assistants, press) what they really want from you? In many cases, it won’t be another position paper.
If you work with agencies, as yourself a couple of questions. First, is your agency the right one? You need policy expertise but you may also need really good communications nous. Does your agency provide both? If not, maybe look beyond it. Second, do you use an agency that is part of a larger network? If so, make sure your agency thinks of other parts of its network when servicing you. They may have a design magician in Paris and a former journalist come story-teller par excellence in Berlin who could be really useful to you, but neither is being called on because “they don’t do PA”.
Anything I’ve forgotten?
December 6, 2011
Online content matters. Why? Your target audience may come across it e.g. think the oft-quoted 93% of MEPs use Google daily to learn about policy-related issues.
But content needs to tick the following boxes:
- It needs to be relevant
- It needs to be interesting
- It needs to be clear and ideally concise
- It needs to be published in channels audiences are likely to use
- It needs to be marketed so that audiences actually find it
Unfortunately, too much PA-related output in Brussels does not tick these boxes, largely because far too little thought is out into producing it: no it’s not a case of stick something up and the hoards will come.
Outlined below are a couple of checklists, the first showing a smart process, the second showing the prevalent non-process (use it at your peril.)
September 3, 2011
- Greater audience fragmentation (i.e. audiences get their information from more channels than before)
- More “competition” to get message to target audience i.e. far more material available from a variety of sources
- Audiences are arguably better informed than before
- More content production required
- Publication on multiple channels required
- Greater differentiation of output (content complexity and length, channel type, style, tone) required
- Mass marketing / spray & pray doesn’t work
- Harder to stay “on message”
- More people have a voice thus more people “matter” e.g. think Wikipedia edits, not just pesky bloggers
- Greater need to respond to challenges, comments, questions etc. = time, effort + risk
- Less prep time for responding
- Responses required in different fora, in different tones, and the communicator needs to sound like a real person (shock, horror)
- More complex to monitor noise
- More complex to measure
- Different media training required
(Perhaps it’s not surprising that some PA professionals stick their head in the sand and refuse to admit digital is relevant.)
July 13, 2011
I just re-read my last post and wanted to expand a little on the challenge that is PA and digital in Brussels especially. Using the full array of digital is tricky on a number of levels, of which I’d cite three in particular.
1. Limited “critical mass” on most issues
Digital is always relevant in some way. Even with an audience of 20, the 20 will use Google to access information and will expect an organisation to have good material on their website (or at least relevant and up-to-date material). So content and search are always essential.
However, the true and game-changing value of digital lies in the speed and ease of engagement, and on this front i.e. engaging on issues online, there isn’t much going on. Part of the reason is that on a number of issues, the number of players involved is tiny, and even a successful online micro-community requires at least say 30-50 people who are highly active (ideally far more). Plus the community should include a suitable array of players. On issues, this would be, say, government (national and Brussels), industry and civil society. Yet on many issues which PA professionals work on, at least one significant player will be absent online (i.e. perhaps industry and some national-level civil society are active, but no one on from the government side, or vice versa). Online engagement then becomes like a concert where a headline act has failed to show up: a bit pointless.
Another element has an impact on the limited mass on Brussels issues: the paucity of links between online conversations at national and EU level. I’m not going to get into why it’s the case (language, parochialism, basic lack of knowledge of what others are doing etc.) but the fact of the matter is that if PA issues were seen in a pan-European light, digital might offer a platform for broader conversations and help build up critical mass. As it stands, Brussels issues too often remain Brussels issues, unaffected by activity at national level.
2. The nature of (some) issues
I’ve touched upon this in the paragraph above to some extent: niche regulatory issues discussed in Brussels are often not of interest to larger groups of people, meaning that the critical mass needed for active conversation online is simply non-existent.
The point about the nature of the issues goes a step further though. In many cases, PA professionals don’t want to or simply don’t have the consent to engage on issues “in public” – which the web essentially is even if a conversation is confined to a micro-community. And it’s not because they’re shady operators trying to elude the public, but because there are often complex legal, competitive and political ramifications that need to be resolved before an organisation can go public.
3. The PA professional
I can’t count the number of times a condescending PA pro has implied that digital is irrelevant in Brussels and should be left to the marketers and consumer PR folk, the fallacy being that digital is a mass market medium. It’s not, and anyway, digital is only part of the parcel of how a broader, more integrated approach to PA is increasingly required to ensure success in Brussels (see a previous post on this here.)
However, these developments require an appreciation of and an interest in integrated communications as a discipline: the ability and willingness to analyse a wider set of audiences, to explore and utilise new channels. Too often, the PA professional does not view him or herself as a communicator, but rather, would prefer to be defined as a political scientist, policy counsellor, regulatory expert, or a lawyer even. Undoubtedly, the skills required to be any of these remain key to PA success, but on their own, they’re not enough if the people in question fail to embrace communications more holistically, whether on or offline.
May 31, 2011
I was a panellist last weekend at a workshop held at the party conference of the Dutch Liberal Party (D66), along with MEP Marietje Schaake and Rosa van der Tas, Dutch web politician of the year. The theme of the discussion was “the digital political party of the future” and I was included amongst such a stellar cast for my insights on how political parties could pick up a trick or two from the corporate world.
My key points were as follows (with lots of apologies for the use of ghastly PR jargon):
- As an aside, it’d be wrong to think that business is always a step ahead: politicians, parties and political movements have forever been driving innovation in communications, from radio addresses to television advertising through to mobilising networks of support and fundraising online.
- Having said that, in some areas, business is leading the way (although there’ll always be some political entity somewhere that’s just as cutting edge, and every area I mention has already been mastered by some political party or campaign at some point.) For instance, on “content”, business (not all of it, by any means) has learned that, in an age of information overload where users increasingly access information via search engines or through peer recommendations, simply delivering content does not work. Cutting through the clutter and convinving increasingly cynical constituents requires a compelling narrative, developed through what we call (PR jargon #1) “content strategy”. In short, that means identifying and breaking down audiences, and methodically assessing what will make them tick, including what they’d like to hear and what medium they might like to hear it via. So the digital political party of the future should not just regurgitate dry commentary: it should develop a system for determining what its constituents care about, and it should respond to it by delivering a heart-felt, interesting, honest and relevant story, through a variety of channels.
- As part of that package, the digital political party of the future should also develop its capacity for (PR jargon #2) “community management”. It should not just track and assess audiences so that it can develop a more compelling and relevant narrative through content, but should also do so to nurture and expand its community of supporters. Meaning what? That the party has communicators on board dedicated to identifying and tracking people interested in it and its issues online, engages with them, answers their questions, asks for their input, allays their fears – and importantly, helps connect them to each other, on and offline. This latter point is key. Are there people in a neighbourhood in city X or in village Y of the same political conviction but who do not know each other? The community management element of the party’s programme helps connect them.
- A frequent conundrum for businesses engaging online is how to manage the brand vs. people balance, given that lots of people will engage with a brand if it articulates a vision they believe in, but others prefer to engage with individuals that represent the brand. Ensuring a good balance will also be key to the digital political party of the future. In practice, this means that elements of content and community management can be centralised via the party, but in addition, the party needs to help to harness the (PR jargon #3) personal brands of those within it i.e. its politicians. So beyond producing content and managing a community on behalf of the collective narrative of the party, it needs to help nurture and promote the “personal brands” of its proponents by acting as a guide to those who have not yet mastered online communication, as well as offering a focal point for their activity by aggregating and promoting their social media activities centrally and helping to redistribute via the community manager role.