Aidan Muller: Digital public affairs is finally taking off

Written by Aidan Muller on 7 February 2018 in Opinion

For years the practice of influencer marketing was like the wild west. Now the industry is now starting to formalise best practice.

A little over a year ago, I called for the public affairs industry to start taking digital seriously. It seems the industry is now waking up.

2017 was a milestone for digital public affairs. I have seen agencies invest in analytics. Digital PA appearing in RFPs. Clients up-skilling. And digital taking its place at the heart of campaigns, rather than as last-minute add-ons.

While I’d love to think it was due to my clarion call, it is hard to deny that the election of Donald Trump, the rise of Momentum, and the fake news agenda all had far more to do with it. If there were any doubts remaining about what role social media could play in political affairs or diplomacy, these have been answered in spectacular fashion.

Regardless of what happens next, the genie is out of the bottle now – and there is no going back. Public affairs professionals need to rise to the challenge.


1. Content: Still king, but in need of new clothes

In an increasingly noisy environment, brands need to find innovative ways to convey complex messages to time-poor office holders, public servants, journalists or the public. The traction of populism’s simple (and wrong) answers to complex questions makes this all the more pressing.

I’ve previously written about communicating complexity in the world of policy, so I won’t labour the point here. The key take-away is that communicating complex ideas clearly does not have to mean over-simplification. It just requires hard work, planning and a little imagination. The need for clarity is compounded by the rise of voice search. In 2016, there were 35x more Google voice search queries than in 2008. ComScore predicts that by 2020, half of all searches will be voice-activated, while Gartner predicts that 30% of all searches will be done without a screen.

This has a few implications. Short term, content must increasingly take account of spoken language, and must be easily consumed on mobile. Longer term, we must think about what non-text-based public affairs content looks like. Could podcasts be the next indispensable weapon in the PA professional’s armoury?


2. Social media: Providing the ‘surround-sound’

Political decisions are not made in a vacuum, and social media now provides the mood music which influences both media agenda and political debate. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are perfect examples of social media reflecting and driving the public mood. On a smaller scale, campaigns like Stop Funding Hate are also making waves.

With 86% of MPs on Twitter, the micro-blogging platform remains the most popular among political influencers. Last year, parliamentarians posted close to 2.3 million tweets, of which 1.3 million were engagements (e.g. retweets or @replies).

Companies are regularly discussed in the context of their day-to-day services – for example, Virgin Media were mentioned 152 times by parliamentarians on Twitter, while Natwest were mentioned 146 times. These are opportunities for brands to engage – to provide the surround-sound to their offline public affairs activity. Twitter is also popular among journalists, with around 75% of them using it for work. However, despite the media’s obsession with Twitter, it is not as widely used by the general population as the Westminster bubble thinks (45% usage).

To engage the wider public – whether to raise awareness or change opinions – Facebook and YouTube provide the broadest reach (respectively 78% and 85% usage). And as for more business-oriented campaigns, LinkedIn can be effective for targeting professional audiences (30%).

Meanwhile, Instagram (29%) and Snapchat (20%) remain mere curiosities for PA professionals for the time being – unless you are specifically targeting a younger demographic.


3. Social media advertising: Now non-negotiable

2017 was also the year social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accepted they were more than just tech platforms. As providers of the infrastructure of our global online community, they recognised they have a social responsibility – from making political advertising more transparent to tackling terrorism, via curbing fake news.

To be clear, social media companies are not doing this out of a sense of social duty alone. All of Facebook’s recent initiatives have been geared towards de-politicising the platform. It recently announced that the feed will favour local news – only a few weeks after announcing news would shrink to no more than 4 per cent of the feed.

Why? Because for all the well-meaning soundbites, politics is simply getting in the way of business. Facebook wants the platform to go back to being about family, friends, relationships and community. It is no coincidence the corollary to this ambition is that brands should be expected to pay if they want to play. Organic reach – i.e. without advertising – has been on the decline for years now. PA professionals need to be conscious that content alone is no longer good enough on social media. The average lifespan of a tweet is 15-18 minutes. For Facebook it’s 5-6 hours per post, and for LinkedIn 24 hours.

There are many more reasons to invest in social advertising beyond reach. These will have to be explored in a future post. Suffice to say, social advertising is no longer a nice-to-have.


4. Influencer engagement: The rise of the micro-influencer

This was one of the areas that showed the most progress last year. For years the practice of influencer marketing was like the wild west. However, the PR industry is now starting to formalise best practice. This is exemplified by Edelman’s development of its APEX methodology, which uses data to help identify the right influencers for its clients.

While consumer brands have been leveraging online influencers for years now, the market had reached saturation point. YouTube and Instagram superstars like Zoella or Logan Paul command astronomical fees well beyond the budgets of most brands (further inflated by the new ecosystem of talent agencies that have sprung up to represent them).

Enter micro-influencers. Over the last year or so, an increasing body of research has shown the relative value of “micro-influencers” compared to “macro-influencers”. Definitions of what constitutes a micro-influencer vary, but broadly these can be seen as online influencers with a follower base of between 1,000 and 100,000 depending on the sector.

This is good news for the industry. PA professionals have typically seen influencer marketing as a tactic best suited to consumer brands. However, as our understanding of influencer engagement becomes more data-driven and sophisticated, we realise it was never purely about reach.

It is first and foremost about developing engagement through long-term partnerships, with relevant content producers whose values and tone of voice align with your brand’s. A smaller, but more relevant and engaged online community, might offer more value to the brand than vlogging royalty.

Whether you are trying to raise awareness or generate support, this logic applies just as easily to PA campaigns as to consumer brands. Perhaps even more so. PA professionals can – and should – take inspiration from these developments in PR.


5. Big data: Do we really still have to discuss this?

I was happy to hear of a number of PA firms investing in analytics in the last year, while also bemused that it still has to be justified in others. Would we develop a media strategy with no insight into past coverage? Why would online and social media be any different? Use of social media analytics has been commonplace among marketers for a number of years now. From analysing a brand’s digital footprint to online conversations around a relevant issue, product or service, via sentiment or influencers – analytics platforms give us priceless insights to feed into our communication strategies.

They also allow us to monitor online coverage in real time and systematically, across online news and blogs – but also conversations on social media networks, online forums, customer reviews, video-sharing websites, and more. More often than not, social media accounts for 70%-80% of the coverage around a brand (corporate as well as consumer). Focusing purely on mainstream media coverage falls far short of the 360-degree view required as reputation managers.

There are literally dozens of analytics tools to choose from. Some are better than others, some offer different pricing models. The cheap ones rarely offer enough functionality or customisation to be useful. The key is to identify your requirements and then find the tool which can best deliver these within your budget.


So what's next? The digital revolution continues apace – but in recent years, technological progress in terms of PR or PA has taken the form of improvements on existing tools and technologies, rather than anything more substantial. For example, voice search and image analysis – two growth areas of digital marketing – simply build on the existing practices of search and social analytics.

Currently, we are redefining industry standards to catch up with the technological advances witnessed over the last 15 years. However, another revolution is around the corner in the form of AI. Predictions on how this will change PA or PR abound, but most of them are vague and unhelpful. I have my theories, but realistically it’s too early to tell.

What we do know is that we have a short window to get up to speed with the last revolution, before the next paradigm shift. So, let’s get to work.


About the author

Aidan Muller is a digital strategist. He advises companies and organisations on using digital and social media in politically-sensitive environments. He tweets at @aidanm31.

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