How to move the public opinion pin and drive political change: maintain issue momentum through dialogue
December 1, 2010
Here’s something we hear all the time: “Our issue is really important but public awareness of the threat (or opportunity) isn’t great enough. For this reason there isn’t enough pressure on politicians for them to place it high in their agendas. What do we do?”
PA types have traditionally had a media “plus” approach to this sort of conundrum. They’ll make sure they have some sound collateral to demonstrate why the issue is important (facts and figures, reports and the like) and feed this to media and policy types. This approach is fine, but it’s usually not enough to move the public opinion pin because of the nature of media cycles. The issue collateral might be very good and get media pick-up and be big news for a few days if not weeks, but it then flounders again. And when momentum drops, so does the likelihood that the pin will shift, and policy makers invariably lose interest too.
What’s needed to shift the pin? Sustained dialogue and momentum around the issue over a protracted period of time, and this is incredibly difficult to attain with a media plus approach only, given that momentum tends to run in tandem with media cycles.
Enter digital. Creating and fostering a really compelling ongoing narrative around an issue online, and engaging with people in the online space who are interested in the same issue, can be a more effective way of maintaining momentum. And in no way does this approach preclude traditional tactics like government relations or media engagement. In fact, it strengthens both because there is more input to feed into the storyline which is shared with policy-makers and media i.e. the narrative has gone from being about just the collateral i.e. the report, facts and figures (whatever) to being about the conversation and whatever can be gleaned from it, which makes a more compelling story and helps maintain issue momentum (and ultimately shift the pin.)
August 4, 2009
I spent a fair few hours today taking “story-lines” and hooks that have been developed for media work by someone else and seeing if I could build an online approach based on these same ideas.
Result in a nutshell? To some extent yes: what works for journalists can work for online audiences. Makes sense, as journalists are looking to write stories that attract the same people we’re looking to reach online.
There are some differences though:
- What will resonate with online audiences or might go viral is much broader than what could work with the press. Again, makes sense. There’s not that much actual space in traditional media and journalists have editorial guidelines and so on. Online, there’s millions of people out there and the publication space is endless. So whereas with the press you need a certain type of story and quality to get them interested, all sorts of other things will work with a global online audience, from a one-line joke on Twitter, a comment on someone else’s blog, to a video on YouTube etc etc.
- The scope of what you can get your target to do is far broader. With media relations you’re trying to get your target – the journalist – to print a story. What happens after that is a bonus. Online, there’s getting someone to reproduce or forward your story, so the same sort of thing, but on top of that you can get them to do lots of other things, be it vote, comment, mobilise or participate in whatever other way you can dream up.
- At the same time, you need to be a little more careful. Send a journalist a bad pitch and it’s binned. Put something rubbish or inaccurate online and the magic of cut-and-paste and instant publication might mean it does the rounds globally before you get up the next morning.
Most PA and PR professionals have understood that the web is important, which is great. However, they often get very excited about bloggers and then seem to stop there, as if the web had nothing more to offer. This is a mistake. No only do they lose track of the many other online tools at their disposal, but their lack of a “bigger picture” focus also results in them treating blogger relations as nothing more than an extension of media relations.
I’ll be writing about this again in future, but here’s a first few points I’d highlight. Simply treating blogger relations like media relations, and approaching bloggers like you would journalists, is a mistake. Sure, there’s room for building relationships with bloggers just like there is with journalists, but whereas journalists write for a living, bloggers write because they want to. What’s the difference? Journalists have deadlines, and need to satisfy readers and editors, and thus appreciate good pitches. On the other hand, bloggers write about whatever they want to in their own time. Result? While a good, relevant and tailored pitch is likely to interest a journalist, it’ll hardly ever interest a blogger. It might even annoy them, and worse, they could publish your email address on their blog accompanied by a rant about how annoying PR people are.
To entice a blogger you’d need much more time and patience. In short, you’d need to listen and engage in their community i.e. comment on their blog (relevant comments – not “here’s a link to my press release”) and perhaps even have your own blog which taps into and contributes to that same community. Or an alternative would be to seek bloggers’ expertise to enrich your story i.e. involving them, whether by testing your product, completing your experts survey, or whatever. That’s more likely to get them interested than a mere press release. Read my previous post on this for more detail. Or even better, read Brian Solis’ book on blogger relations.
Moving beyond blogger relations, what I think can actually add more value to your communications efforts is the integration piece i.e. how you can use online tools to improve media relations and vice-versa. What could this mean in practice?
You can enrich your press releases: rather than just giving your take on an issue and providing a quote, have a more complete press offering where you have video interviews with stakeholders that you’ve filmed with a basic hand-held camera and uploaded to YouTube, and include hyperlinks to other relavant material.
In addition, you should look more at the “pull factor” i.e. making it easier for the press to receive updates from you automatically rather than simply pushing it to them when they might not even be interested. The standard functionality here is RSS, which is now available on most sites, and allows people to subscribe to updates at the click of their mouse. In future, Twitter is also likely to take off, so journalists can simply choose to receive tweets from PR professionals (and vice versa). To anyone not acquainted with Twitter, it’s a microblogging platform that allows you to issue short entries (140 characters max.) which will automatically be picked up by anyone who “follows” you i.e. who has linked to you on Twitter.
There’s also another element to the “pull factor”. The web empowers individuals and organisations, meaning that they’re less reliant on intermediaries, like say journalists, than ever before to find the content they want. Online, you’re the publisher, so PR and PA people should shift some of their focus from pitching stories to the press to actually making it easier for people to find the story if they actually go looking for it. This first involves producing good quality content that people would want to find, link to, and even spread. Second, you should then bring in a techie who can tell you how to produce content or adapt existing content so that it is optimised for search engines i.e. SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), meaning that your content will appear high in Google and other search engines if a user enters a relevant search item. Many people underestimate the importance of SEO. It sounds dull, it’s techy; surely nothing to do with good PR? No, in truth over 90% of sites accessed online are done so via a search engine, so having a high ranking in Google is invaluable. And a lot of it you can do yourself, by using the right keywords and titles in your content.
As for the other side of the coin, using media relations to improve your online content, at the basest level, this can simply involve showcasing news stories other than your own by hyperlinking to them. But you can also take it a step further. This may be a bit unconventional, but why not get the journalists you have an established relationship with to help improve your content via a comments feature? Or even interview them and put a video snippet on your site? I’ve interviewed journalists for a client, and they tend to really appreciate being on the other side for a change, they have a good take on the issues, are effective communicators, and are often well-respected (depending on the publication they work for).
In the near future, I’ll be writing more detailed posts on what a PR/PA professional can do to a) produce more appealing content online; and b) how to lead people to it.