May 17, 2011
The image here is one I frequently use when presenting on how Public Affairs is developing in Brussels (usually in the context of Public Affairs and digital specifically). It’s not a particularly novel or intricate message: campaigners, by which I largely mean pressure groups, have had an impact on regulation for over two decades far beyond what their resources should have permitted, because they have told a better story. They’ve aligned with public opinion – and later driven public opinion – sometimes by pulling at the heart-strings, always using compelling, simple messages, oft-repeated – and plenty of visualisation. In the PA context, industry has famously been hopeless at doing just that: telling a simple story that resonates with people – including policy makers.
There’s usually a fair bit of nodding in the room at this point. Then the inevitable three statements, often expressed in an oh-so-condescending manner:
- Yes, but you see, they can get away telling tales, we can’t.
- Yes, but you see, our customers, directors, etc. expect us to be credible, cerebral, fact-based etc.
- Yes, but you see, we can’t talk openly about our issues, they’re tip-top secret.
What a load of tosh. The suggestion that pressure groups make up tales which gullible folk fall for is utter rubbish. It happens, sure, but you need to give them far more credit – and there is a large middle ground between dull, worthless output, and the headline-grabbing twist on reality. In truth, pressure groups communicate properly, unlike most PA professionals, and do things like analysing audiences, developing storylines based on insights gained from their analyses, testing their messages, delivering them through multiple channels and multiple forms of media.
More importantly, telling a good story doesn’t imply fluffy fairytales. It can simply mean talking about your issues in an everyday context, but doing so openly and honestly, using real people, and language which people understand. It means not speaking down at people, and perhaps showcasing information in – say – an attractive info-graphic rather than a 200 page report. It can mean talking to local community leaders and retirees rather than just policy-makers and the FT, about things which resonate with them. In short, communicate about things people care about, in a language they understand, and be nice doing so.
August 7, 2009
The story goes that NGOs were able to mobilise support and spread their message online over a decade ago, when the corporates they were up against barely had any web presence to speak of. This is cited as one of the reasons for their ascendancy in the political power game.
How are they faring these days? This is by no means a long analytical piece: I haven’t combed through hundreds of NGO sites from which I’ll cite dozens of examples; but in short, my general feeling is that NGOs aren’t as effective online as they used to be. To some extent, it’s probably their fault. Some have amazing stories – especially from the field – but are not using social media as well as they could to tell them. Sometimes they use the tools but not in an integrated manner e.g. offline campaigns aren’t backed up online and vice-versa. Big NGOs are often too split along country or regional lines: rather than sharing material across platforms they’re keeping it separate, which is pointless as well as detrimental. Also, some of these same big-time NGOs have sites that are far too pristine and corporate-looking. Meanwhile, others have crammed too much into their toolkit, meaning that they do a little of everything badly rather than a few things well; and others, especially small-time single issue pressure groups, are not using cheap and cheerful tools nearly as much as they should (although I hasten to add that some do!)
To some extent, their loss of the best practice mantle is not really their doing. With their mammoth budgets, their corporate adversaries have played catch-up very well by developing credible CSR programmes and hiring smart agencies that do great communications online, with plenty of effective social media in the mix and winning the search-ranking battle.
Having said that all that, the spirit of the NGO is alive and well, and their message is stronger than ever. However, it’s not necessarily them that’s delivering it. Firstly, “regular folk” are often more militant than most NGOs nowadays, and they’re very active online in forums, blogs etc. I did a little bit of research last week in response to a report from the Food Standards Agency in the UK which claims that organic is no healthier than regular produce, and was astonished to see how many people (with no affiliation to official groups) were taking a stand against the FSA. And they were pretty angry. Secondly, corporations themselves are making noise about the sort of issues only NGOs seemed interested in until recently.
Conclusion? Having mobilised people to such an extent over the last 10 or 20 years to the point where they have actually radically altered the common man’s sensibilities over a range of issues and leading ultimately to far more responsibility in corporate-land (as well as politico-land of course) is no doubt a great triumph and impressive legacy. It probably might not seem to matter so much that they’re not good with Twitter: that’d be taking a myopic view of the global challenges we still face and which they can contribute to. Still, I think they should brush up a little online.
June 10, 2009
- Big company X spends hundreds of thousands to get an independent report published by a reputable institution.
- Takes months, the report is finally published and the company is happy: the facts support its side of the story (e.g. product Y is not nearly as dangerous as some say) and the report is truly independent, so case closed – or so they think.
- What’s the story? Company X publishes “independent report” which proves so and so? No, that’s not interesting enough. The story becomes company X publishes supposedly independent report but pressure group Z says it can’t be trusted as it’s industry sponsored. The report flops in PR terms.
This is another tale that’s been around the block a few times:
- Pressure group Z doesn’t have any budget but understands PR far better than industry behemoth X.
- It makes a mountain out a molehill by taking a nothing story and relating it to a day-to-day human experience e.g. the equivalent of say “paracetamol will kill you” without mentioning that you would have to take 100 tablets or whatever to do so (to be fair, plenty of NGOs and the like publish material that is much less controversial, but you get the gist.)
- Pressure group Z gets loads more press than Company X got for its crumby report.
- Company X responds to the story with a press release a week later rather than responding to it immediately using online crisis communications tactics that have more impact.
What are the lessons for corporate players in all of this? Each of these points could be a blog post in itself (if not something much longer), but in short:
- Re. the last point, clearly, your crisis communications requires an online element.
- Most of all though, don’t get caught up in trying to win hearts and minds through science and fact alone. Nobody cares about science, however spuriously, if their family’s health may be at risk.
- Don’t let business people, academics, engineers or scientists decide on your story. You need communicators on board.
- Don’t just make it about defensive communication and proving that you’re not as bad as they say. So your substance isn’t that harmful (or whatever) but is your organisation really doing good deeds in the long run? If not, it should.
- Treat pressure groups with respect, engage in dialogue, show them that you do good things, and they might even be nice to you. Or at least be less outrageous.
- And I have to say this considering my line of work… Go online and develop a super web presence to engage directly with the public and explain your story to them without intermediaries. Media relations is important, of course, but the press is likely to side with pressure groups more often than not, no matter what you say or do (and if you’re truly nasty, deservedly so!) Why? Because they’re the nice guys and readers like them more than you.
March 3, 2009
The latest issue of the Scientific Alliance newsletter reports on a number of environmentalists who have shifted from being vehemently opposed to nuclear energy, as you’d expect, to supporting its development, largely because they have come to believe that the alternatives to nuclear have proved to be worse for climate change.
A couple of observations:
- Maybe it’s just me but I didn’t see the revival of nuclear’s fortunes coming. With this story, which was reported widely in the UK press, and the current campaign in Belgium (I recently blogged about this) it would appear that it’s a trend. I guess the relative failures of sustainable energies over the years coupled with the general sense generated by the the financial crisis that we need to compromise on a number of issues has lead to this i.e. a point where industry can attempt to lead a dialogue and activists can say it may not be so bad without either fearing a lynching.
- Again on the compromise issue: I’ve often written about the need for activists and/or pressure groups to act responsibly and weigh up pros and cons rather than pursue issues blindly. This appears to have happened in this case and I hope there’s more to come. Not because I dislike or disrespect the activities of pressure groups in principal. On the contrary, it’s because I think they have such a leading role to play in providing checks and balances that I don’t want to see them lose legitimacy by being too hard-line or unscientific in their assertions.
January 30, 2009
Another tale heard this week that’s worth sharing. Greenpeace campaign against overfishing in Europe. Beyond the risk that we’ll actually run out of fish, overfishing is a bad thing as it upsets complex marine ecosystems. However, these same ecosystems actually also rely on fishing to keep numbers of some fish to reasonable levels. If there are too many of a certain species, that also places marine life at risk. So there’s a delicate balance to be maintained.
And that’s where the interesting element of Greenpeace’s policy comes into play. Although they campaign against overfishing in Europe, they deliberately tend not mention any particular species. They’ve gathered that they have so much of an impact on European consumer habits that were they to declare that any particular species were at risk, the demand for it could drop so dramatically that fishermen would stop fishing for it. Result? A swing the other way - and a marine ecosystem at risk because of too many of a particular species just a few years after an outcry over too few.
An interesting story, which highlights:
- The might of Greenpeace. What they say and do really does have an impact.
- How long the aftermath of a scare-story can linger. Once numbers have levelled off again, Greenpeace could easily say “it’s OK, you can start eating it again.” But that story isn’t nearly as interesting and wouldn’t gain any coverage compared to “fish X at risk; stop or else”. As a result, the latter would linger on for far longer than needed.
December 18, 2008
I learned today that Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, left the organisation in 1986 because he believed it was eschewing sound science in favour of a sensationalised political agenda. Here’s a quote from an article entitled Why I left Greenpeace which Mr Moore wrote for the Wall Street Journal earlier this year:
Ultimately, a trend toward abandoning scientific objectivity in favor of political agendas forced me to leave Greenpeace in 1986. The breaking point was a Greenpeace decision to support a world-wide ban on chlorine. Science shows that adding chlorine to drinking water was the biggest advance in the history of public health, virtually eradicating water-borne diseases such as cholera.
This struck a chord because there are a number of issues I’ve been working on where NGOs are an important player. Often, they’re actually the player that more than any other drives the public debate, and in turn, the legislative agenda. Why? Clearly, the various environmental, health, and social issues they support resonate with the public (to some extent because of years of good campaigning by NGOs, for which I think we should be very grateful). What’s more, legislators’ positions increasingly reflect public opinion. Although plenty of cynics remain convinced that politicians decide everything behind closed doors in cahoots with shady businessmen, this really isn’t the case. What the public thinks matters more than ever, and so being able to drive public opinion through clever communications, as NGOs have done for the past three decades, is priceless.
Having said all that, I’ve been less than impressed by a number of NGO tactics I’ve encountered, much in line with what Patrick Moore remarks about, from shoddy scientific “evidence” to tabloid-style stories that aim to frighten the public but don’t reflect realistic dangers by any stretch. Although NGO campaigners probably do it in good faith, I’d say it’s a risk to their legitimacy in the long run (although I admit there’s no sign of it yet!)
A reason for their success is that people trust them. Edelman reports in its Trust Barometer that the European public has more faith in the good intentions of NGOs than government, business or the media, often by some margin. If they become associated with misleading sensationalist gimmicks, they’d compromise that trust, and in turn their effectiveness. As NGOs are an important player in the political process and are partly responsible for the various high standards of protection we take for granted in Europe, that’d be a real shame.
October 24, 2008
I recently attended an industry-sponsored debate on a very pertinent issue that broadly sits within “chemicals”, where I watched a mad Green MEP and an awkward young NGO campaigner with a twitch and a penchant for talking to himself walk all over the representatives of the industry in question: a CEO and a prominent stakeholder. Frankly, industry has the edge on this issue. The scientists agree, as do academics, as would the most of the general public if they know the facts. The argumentation used by the Green MEP and the NGO campaigner was aggressive and emotional, lumping all industry together as the devil incarnate, be it tobacco or consumer electronics (over CFC), but it was poor in terms of real substance.
Nonetheless, it appears they’re going to win this battle, and it makes you wonder why some elements of industry in times of crises still spend fortunes on aggressive advocacy and financing events and impact studies full of facts and figures that supposedly support their case, rather than communicating in ways that resonate with people in a more gradual manner before the proverbial s*** hits the fan. By appearing aggressive, industry shoots itself in the foot. Furthermore, the “science” is no longer that important! People are put off by it, and yet industry remains prone to state that science is in its corner and somehow expect the whole thing to go away.
So what should they do about it? Go down the road many players in the energy and automotive industries are taking, from Exxon to Shell to Toyota. They are some of the biggest polluters in the world, but by turning the corner and communicating more proactively, appearing more honest and compassionate, trying to be part of the solution, talking to pressure groups, and coming to the table offering something, they’ve greatly enhanced their appeal – and as a result have far more leeway with legislators.
Plus I think they should be focusing a lot of their attention on communicating on the web, for the reasons described in my previous post, and for the following two in particular. First, the nature of the medium suits the honest and compassionate angle because it’s so easy to give a face to a supposedly faceless industry, and personalise communications, via say a blog or video interviews. Second, it’s the easiest place to give up or at least share control of the message with those who might disagree with you – which is imperative seeing as industry is chastised for not listening to concerned citizens. What better way of countering this than providing a platform for airing concerns that gives equal access to all?
September 11, 2008
I saw this poster strung to a lamp-post near the European Parliament last weekend, and pretty much every other lamp-post in the vicinity, urging MEPs to insert more stringent measures in a CO2 reduction bill doing the rounds at the moment.
Its message is simple and to the point, pulls the heart-strings and guilt-trips naysayers, it uses familiar imagery, AND is visible to the right audience at the right time. Quintessential, well-executed, NGO fare.
The site the poster refers to is OK too. Again, simple, provides further information but does not overwhelm users, and makes decent use of YouTube to present the issues. What I don’t like though is the call to action: a pre-written letter to post or email to an MEP. These are annoying and disingenuous. I think it’s much better to provide links to contact details for relevant MEPs and a few pointers on what to write, but most importantly, insist that the letter be personal, as I’m sure that ten personalised letters from concerned citizens carry more weight than a hundred of the same.