Big data has the power to transform public affairs campaigning

This busy political year demands that public affairs practitioners get to grips with digital and social media.

Jo-ann Robertson: "Digital public affairs is not standalone."
Jo-ann Robertson: "Digital public affairs is not standalone."

This is going to be a big year politically in the UK. With European elections, local elections, the Scottish independence referendum and the start of the long 2015 general election campaign, public affairs professionals are going to be busy developing campaigns that influence policy development and manifesto commitments. What is different now is that digital and social media need to be a core element of any public affairs strategy. Why? Because big data, used in the right way, can transform political campaigning and public affairs.

Our industry has been slower than it should have been to embrace this technological change. Most agencies and in-house teams still do not have the technology or staff to gather the data, analyse it, interpret it, and develop and implement a strategy to maximise the insights. But if we are going to be faster, more accurate and more convincing in our work we cannot procrastinate over this any longer.

But we can draw on recent digital campaigning methods practised by US strategists, which are always an election cycle ahead of digital strategies in the UK. In 2012, the Democratic campaign was able to use data to analyse the core vote and directly target them through the television programmes they watched or the websites they visited. Having the resources to do this meant the Democrats were one step ahead of the Republicans throughout the campaign. So what are some simple steps to using digital and social media in public affairs?

The first step is to listen. There are more than 400 MPs on Twitter, and this will undoubtedly rise as elections approach, so listening to how they interact with their constituents, their fellow MPs, journalists and friends will provide deep insights into their priorities.

The second step is to build a strong community. Identify the interested, the influencers and the catalysts that are active online and bring them together into a community that you manage and engage with.

Third, have a smart content calendar. This needs to comprise visually based content that is engaging and more ‘light touch’ than we would traditionally produce. Essentially, it needs to be shareable and something that the community wants to get out there. Use a hashtag the way you would use a soundbite. Labour has succeeded where the coalition has failed in getting hashtags trending – think #bedroomtax or #costofcameron. To have something trending helps to steer the conversation. 

Finally, it is crucial to analyse continually how conversations are changing, how the community is behaving, the impact of content and progress toward the end goal. Digital public affairs is not standalone, so have a 360-degree integrated strategy and ensure digital is at the core of what you are trying to achieve.

There remain many sceptics about the value of digital and social media in public affairs, but its role is growing. Embrace it, or the power of what we do will be damaged fundamentally.

Jo-ann Robertson is partner and managing director, corporate and public affairs, Ketchum

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