Aidan Muller: When will digital public affairs get serious?

Written by Aidan Muller on 15 September 2016 in Opinion

While social media hogs the limelight, the explosion of digital data is key for public affairs.

Almost ten years ago, social media crashed into the public consciousness. While social media already existed in many forms – from message boards to Facebook via MSN – it was the rise of Twitter which created the need for a “label” to discuss this new phenomenon.

Ten years on, it has changed the face of communications. Consumer brands quickly embraced the opportunity to engage with customers at scale. In their wake, corporate brands like Maersk and General Electric have been defining what digital corporate communications looks like.

On the political side, Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign is widely regarded as the first social campaign, while 2012 saw data take the spotlight. In the UK, Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds described 2015 as the first digital General Election. They should know, having led the Conservative Party’s digital team during the election. At the height of the campaign they were reaching 17 million people a week through online channels.

So what of public affairs? In many ways, PA is to political campaigning what corporate PR is to consumer PR. So it is hardly surprising that in digital terms, the industry is trailing behind.

Of course, Twitter monitoring is now a given. Online/social advertising is a well-understood tactic. And there are pockets of excellence on the blogger engagement front.

But the revolution that digital and social media heralded for the industry hasn’t quite materialised in the same way that it has for other areas of communications (or maybe it simply remains hidden). I am still often asked at public affairs events today, what exactly is digital public affairs? (Usually followed by, is it social media?)

Ten years in, perhaps it is time to take stock. With this in mind, here is my own take. To keep it simple, let’s consider digital public affairs to consist of two broad pillars of activity:

  1. Digital campaigning
  2. Digital intelligence

Each of these two pillars are multi-faceted, but they are the two major areas which are changing the practice of PA, and will continue to do so.

 

1) Digital campaigning

Whether we’re talking about a time-limited campaign or ongoing communications activity, the objective of digital communications is to connect and influence.

Cognitive psychology suggests the most effective way of doing this is to tell a story – a fact wrapped in a story is 22 times more memorable. This is well understood in PR and advertising.

The fact that the audience is a small number of political stakeholders does not make this any less valid. In fact, it makes it all the more necessary. Political influencers are busy people. They are constantly bombarded with figures and graphs.

Digital offers a means to tell a rich story, and make it stand out.

Social media content plays a hugely important role. From hashtags to emojis, from imagery to infographics, from data visualisation GIFs – over the last decade we have been honing the language of social storytelling. And beyond traditional social content, experiences like the Met Police’s Choose a Different Ending remind us that messages can be delivered through other means than tweets and Facebook posts.

Owned digital assets like campaign websites and apps are a staple. MP emailers are tried and tested. Sharing functionality well understood. But there are other simple and relatively cheap ways of delivering content, like Symantec’s interactive ISTR20 infographic, New Climate Economy’s Seizing The Opportunity report, or Shine Pulikathara’s interactive data visualisation.

The New York Times’ Snowfall was seen as a game changer in digital storytelling, while The Guardian’s The Shirt on Your Back is a personal favourite. And Statoil shows that corporate brands are also seizing on the trend, with their The Power of Possible campaign.

But beyond owned assets, leveraging third-party channels can take your messages far beyond your immediate community. This can take multiple forms, from online influencer engagement to media partnerships, via paid promotion (on political blogs, content discovery platforms, or social platforms).

 

2) Digital intelligence

While social media hogs the limelight, the explosion of digital data is probably the area which is changing public affairs the most. Each social media post, each share, each search leaves a digital footprint. And the data is publicly available.

Whether it’s observing long-term trends in conversations around policy issues, measuring local sentiment around public services, visualising online relationships, or identifying those who influence the influencers – the data is there to be harvested and analysed, for anyone who is interested.

Where the analysis gets particularly insightful is combining these datasets with other datasets. For example, visualising hotspots of online conversation by local authority, or comparing local sentiment with levels of literacy or household earnings.

And while the data is generated digitally, the insights derived from it apply to PA programmes and strategies as a whole – offline as well as online.

Finally, digital intelligence can play a key role in supporting digital campaigning, by supercharging the practices of monitoring and campaign evaluation.

 

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This is not intended to be a comprehensive list – just a conversation starter. I’m sure there are many great case studies out there, I’d love to hear them.

But I remain convinced there remains much to learn from other areas of communications, and I hope you will join us in this journey.

 

 

Aidan Muller is the founder of Daimon Communications. He is also digital lead for Westminster Advisers.

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