We all know how and why the web has revolutinised the nature of communications. Every new major medium that has been developed before, from the printing press to television, has been controlled by a small number of untouchables, meaning that you or I could not really influence what they published or broadcast, or make our opinion on what they were publishing or broadcasting known to anyone outside our own networks. The Internet has changed that and the top-down nature of communications in place pretty much since Guthenberg had his brainwave is under threat. Not just because anyone can be a journalist/publisher. People know they can answer back, and are not afraid to do so, sure, but as important is the effect this has had on traditional communicators themselves.
What does this actually mean in practice? Corporate PR and Marketing is where it’s really heating up. Customers are increasingly given the chance/encouraged to interact with brands and become brand advocates in their own right; the nature of the corporate “message” has been toned down massively; while companies, sometimes even CEOs, are speaking from the heart (supposedly) directly to their end customers. In short, they are showing more respect and honesty, trying to communicate with rather than “at” people, and they’re largely doing it online. Meanwhile, the French and US Presidetial election campaigns have revolutionised the use of the web in politics in a similar way. Candidates from Segolene Royal to John McCain have let supporters do anything from create campaign material, debate issues, mobilise people in their own neighbourhoods, and post videos on their websites. In the US, questions in recent debates have been posted by citizens on YouTube rather than set by journalists or broadcasters. Although the questions were vetted by CNN, this was surely further proof that traditional owners of this territory i.e. journalists and broacasters, are having to give up space.
Despite all this, there is one area of communications where digital has been extremely slow to take a hold: Public Affairs. Nowhere more so than Brussels, where the web is hardly ever a strategic priority. Why might that be the case? Perhaps PA professionals view their job as mere advocacy and do not see how a communications medium can play a strong part unless it’s the FT or the Economist writing a feature. These people often state that “politicians don’t use the web”. This is really missing the point. First of all, they do. And if they don’t, their assistants will, or the journalists who write in the papers they read will.
But what’s really important here is the assumption that swaying the public debate via campaigning, or starting a real conversation involving citizens, does not equate to directly influencing politicians. More than ever before, voters are acting like consumers. Party allegiance based on family, regional or class tradition is being replaced by a “what’s in it for me” attitude that would seem to imply that politicians should be more aware of citizens’ concerns than ever. One would think that whoever owns the public debate and influences more voters is more likely to win the support of politicans. A bit simplistic perhaps, but it does explain the success of NGOs on a range of issues. They campaign tirelessly and play the emotional card, winning the backing of the general public on issues from GMOs to nuclear power, where to be honest, the other side too has a strong case.
How does the web enter the equation? First and foremost, it’s a great campaigning tool, and again, the NGOs are at the forefront of eCampaigning. Seems too good to be true – reaching and mobilising countless supporters using a tool that is far more cost-effective than traditional media?! More importantly, it’s the nature of the web that should be harnessed. As described above, the Internet is far more than just another one-way communications medium. It has given way to communication that respects the recipient and encourages a response. An issue is not going to get support if a campaign simply involves blurting out “clever” messaging at people. The approach should be humble and methodical, and most of all should encourage action. This not only shows people the respect they demand – it also encourages people to take the issue to heart and themselves moblise others in their networks.
Second, as part of a more long-term consideration, the web should be used to break down communications silos and create a community of stakeholders, supporters or customers. This is already taking place on many levels. Companies are approaching communications with a wider, end-user-centric approach, and incorporating marketing, branding, and PR in ways that best matches this end-user’s needs and expectations. PA should be more visionary and join this process: PA professionals should not be afraid to sit down with the marketing team or the branding agency and create a holistic approach to communications that makes objectives such as achieving sales and avoiding harmful legislation part of the same equation.
What are the prospects for this all happening? The importance of the web in high-profile political campaigns – perhaps finally “proof” that the web indeed does matter to politicians – means that even the most conservative of communicators can no longer ignore it. At the moment, it’s looking likely that 2008 is the year that PA agencies start adding major digital components to the strategies they are devising for clients.