In sharp contrast to the extensive use of digital communications in US public affairs and electoral campaigns, many UK public affairs professionals have been slow to wake up to the opportunities provided by digital communication techniques.
Public affairs practitioners in the US have used digital techniques for many years - indeed Fleishman-Hillard's Washington DC office has been at the forefront of these techniques and is now seen as an industry leader in developing new and radical PA digital campaigns.
Although many traditional public affairs techniques are still absolutely right for many clients, there is clearly a fresh need for those working in the sector to recognise that even our politicians have jumped into the digital age. Over a third of MPs now tweet and most of these attach a link to their own blog. Although many of these MPs are part of the new generation in Parliament, many more experienced MPs also recognise the power and influence of the digital age - John Prescott will testify.
Of course, there is a difference between a politician wanting to communicate more widely and wanting to communicate selectively. The reality is that political decisions are no longer taken in isolation. Instead, there are many pressures, ranging from direct contact, the media, third parties such as NGOs/pressure groups - and now, digital communications.
This is why at Fleishman-Hillard we have always taken a wide definition of public affairs because we recognise those influences that create the environment in which decisions are taken. We also recognise that using digital communications can help create this environment. These digital PA techniques include the following:
Campaign mobilisation Digital assets such as a campaign website, Facebook page, Twitter and YouTube can allow a campaign to mobilise grass-roots supporters so much quicker than the old-fashioned postcard campaign. It also allows you to update anyone who signs up to support a campaign with regular information and calls to action such as contacting ministers or mobilising their local MPs to contact the minister with tailored emails.
Defensive mobilisation In terms of a company's reputation management (where political audiences can have a major impact), digital defensive mobilisation against NGO/pressure group attacks are absolutely crucial.
Targeted campaigns Public affairs campaigns designed to be targeted to a much wider range of political stakeholders can use traditional and digital methods to drive interest towards a campaign site that will communicate key messages and facts.
Search optimisation Google Adwords can be highly effective. NGOs and pressure groups optimise this by putting campaigning ads on sites where particular companies are Googled. This public policy space is being lost to such campaigners - clients need to recognise that politicians and their advisers will see this negative campaigning if they ever Googled an issue or particular companies.
There is little doubt that digital comms can mobilise people far more quickly than traditional methods. MPs are online because they have to be - the campaigns of today are being conducted in cyberspace as well as in the chamber of the Commons. Despite this, clients like the personalised approach that individual meetings will give them. Digital public affairs in the UK is now a reality and companies and organisations will ignore these developments at their peril.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
- Which public sector budget cut is likely to be the toughest for the Government to push through?
Defence spending has not really been a major political issue since the early 1990s. This is just about to end. We can also expect a big political battle on welfare reform, which no party has successfully tackled in decades.
- Who would make the better lobbyist - David or Ed Miliband?
It came down to a two-way pitch, which Ed narrowly won.
- Which public sector organisation has made the best case for ringfencing its budget or minimising any cuts?
The most effective organisation in obtaining a ringfenced budget has been the NHS.