Online content can help define public affairs priorities

For public affairs pros trying to understand what people are saying about their clients online, the sheer mass of electronic discussion occurring throughout the electronic ether is a problem. No one has time to read the millions of blogs and Web site message boards out there.

For public affairs pros trying to understand what people are saying about their clients online, the sheer mass of electronic discussion occurring throughout the electronic ether is a problem. No one has time to read the millions of blogs and Web site message boards out there.

For any topic, there are thousands of sites generating the bulk of user-generated content. In the case of politics, they might include DailyKos (on the liberal side) and Free Republic (conservative), and software tools from Technorati, Nielsen BuzzMetrics, and others help clients figure out just where on the Internet they are getting the most discussion.

Qualitative analysis follows the identification of those sites to help public affairs pros understand the tone of the discussions. Compared with relying on newspaper clipping services, or conducting telephone surveys and other traditional types of research, analysis done on these key sites gives public affairs teams the ability to know much more quickly just how effective their campaigns are and to make changes accordingly.

Pete Snyder, founder and CEO of New Media Strategies, says his company last year did work for a coalition fighting reform of existing bankruptcy laws. The coalition had initially sought to sway conservatives in part by arguing that the legislation would harm trial attorneys, but research on online discussions found that the only people more hated by conservatives than trial attorneys were the credit card companies. That showed the client that "playing that card probably wasn't going to work," Snyder says.

Jim Nail, CMO at Cymfony, says that for public affairs pros concerned about how corporate activists could prompt the passage of legislation detrimental to their clients' interests, monitoring online user-generated content helps set priorities. In a study Cymfony undertook of a large US retailer, for example, the company found that outsourcing in China is much less of a concern than the company's US workplace policies.

"They can use the information to prioritize," Nail says. "No one has infinite resources to do everything at once."

Key points:

Monitoring user-generated online content provides an "early-warning system" on issues public affairs pros may need to respond to

Analysis of online discussions can be used to alter clients' campaigns, as well as to prioritize what issues to address first

With any issue, a few key Web sites will generate the bulk of online discussions

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