Digital Marketing Trends Critical To Environmental Advocacy

Public affairs and public relations are not synonymous or mutually exclusive terms, but the line is getting blurred as the art and science of influence evolves.

I see public affairs as an organization’s efforts to manage relationships with stakeholders in the public policy arena at any level. These are individuals or groups with an interest in the organization’s affairs, such as politicians, regulatory agencies, communities, clients, prospects, shareholders, trade associations, think tanks, business groups, charities, unions and the media.

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I see public relations as a subset of marketing. Beyond that, both arenas rely on similar strategies and tactics to influence target audiences. Public affairs strategists have wisely borrowed some pages from the world of marketing. Likewise, the world of marketing is no longer isolated from advocacy and public policy. Boycotts, trade wars, demonstrations and online protests have marketers tuned in to corporate and government policies around the globe.

Public affairs practitioners engage stakeholders in order to explain organizational policies and views on public policy issues, assisting policy makers and legislators in amending or laying down better policy and legislation. They provide statistical and factual information and lobby on issues, which could impact the organization’s ability to operate successfully. Both disciplines rely on strategy, messaging, positioning and branding. Both disciplines essentially boil down to “who needs to hear what?” That part of the equation hasn’t changed since day one.

Public affairs work combines government relations, media communications, issue management, corporate and social responsibility, information dissemination and strategic communications advice. Practitioners aim to influence public policy, build and maintain a strong reputation and find common ground with stakeholders.

Storytelling is an ancient and effective way to convey your message. But to keep up with shrinking attention spans, 24-hour news cycles and 140-character replies, you need to employ the next phase of storytelling – and that means getting visual. It’s the best way to stand out in a cluttered advocacy environment, and it all boils down to condensing your story into the smallest, visual representation, whether that’s a short video, a photo or an infographic.

Organizations who want to increase their effectiveness are focusing their efforts on digital public affairs and digital advocacy, an arena where online tools and digital communications are used to build grassroots support or influence policy.

Content Management and Blogging

Blogs may be most famous as a tool for political discussion, but they are also becoming an important communication tool for public relations. Blogs may be most famous as a tool for political discussion and used as a personal journal for individuals, but these are also becoming powerful communication tools for public relations. They also build upon your content management strategy.

Many companies in high-tech fields, such as eBay, Google, and Microsoft, and traditionally low-tech fields, such as General Motors, McDonalds, and Wells Fargo Bank, now produce in-house blogs that report on happenings at the company. These blogs enable company employees, including CEOs and marketers, to post messages updating company developments, which serve as a useful PR tool.

While in the past developing such website applications was considered time-consuming and often an overly technical undertaking for the vast majority of marketers, this has changed with the evolution of easier to use site development applications which allow for quick creation and convenient updating of site content such as blogs.

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Powerful Visuals

Conveying your public affairs and policy messages can be difficult in an age of short attention spans and a segmented media landscape. However, successful use of visual storytelling can help your organization break through the noise in a crowded public policy environment. Visuals help you gain attention, understanding and support.

Social Media

While social media has been readily adopted by marketers, public affairs professionals have been slower to harness social’s power for advocacy purposes. Using social media for public affairs can be challenging but rewarding if done properly.

Often, public affairs professionals are wedded to and want to control every aspect of their message, but if they can overcome this challenge and can create engaging social content, they can help their organization reach influential audiences, such as policymakers, reporters, grassroots supporters and other online stakeholders.

Many organizations also use social media to elevate their policy expertise around an issue as to be seen as thought leaders on a particular topic. Organizations are building out their online social influence to ensure that reporters, academics and policymakers reach out to them first when working with policy issues important to the organization.

By far the most significant trend to affect public relations in the last 25 years is the impact played by social media.  In a matter of just a few years, social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, have created opportunities for monitoring and communicating that are quickly raising these methods to the top of the list of PR tools.  But while it offers tremendous PR advantages, social media also poses significant threats.  One of the most pressing issues is that social media forces PR professionals to respond rapidly to negative or misleading information.  In effect, social media is turning PR into a 24-hour job, particularly for global companies.

Also, the time required to monitor and respond to the growing number of social media outlets is forcing some companies to place less emphasis on traditional public relations tasks, such as the creation of press kit materials.  Since social media is still evolving as a PR tool, it is unclear if shifting workload to social media will carry the same return on investment as what is offered with traditional PR tools.

Discussion Forums

Web forums are the child of the old Internet bulletin board services where people can post their opinion often anonymously. Forums pose both opportunities and threats for those involved in PR. A presence in an influential forum helps build credibility for an organization as forum members recognize a company’s effort to reach out to the public. On the other hand, forums can cause major problems as a breeding ground for rumor and accusation. Public relations personnel must continually monitor forums and respond to misguided comments posted on a web discussion board to stop rumors before they catch fire.

Audio and Video

YouTube and video marketing remain a powerful part of all outreach campaigns. Typically, these messages should be short and sweet, but some technical topics demand and deserve more time.

The emergence of the Apple iPod and other digital audio players has significantly altered how people listen to music by allowing easy downloading of desired songs. But the use of audio players is not limited to music downloads; a fast growing application is to deliver other content including programming. Public relations may soon find podcasting to be a quick and easy way to send out audio news releases and other promotional material.

Search Engine Optimization

Publicity is about getting media outlets to mention the name of a product, company or person. For several years Internet marketers have recognized the importance of getting their company and products listed in the top rankings in search engines. So called efforts at Search Engine Optimization (SEO) involve concerted efforts and specific techniques to attain higher rankings.

While at first glance SEO may not seem like a responsibility of public relations, it would appear to contain the main characteristics for making it so, namely getting a third-party media outlet (i.e., search engine) to mention the company (i.e., search rankings) at no direct cost the company (i.e., no payment for ranking). And, just as PR people can use methods to affect coverage within traditional media, optimizing a website can work to influence results in search engines by using techniques that allow a website to fit within ever-changing search engine ranking criteria. In this way SEO does what PR professionals do, namely obtain good placement in third-party media outlet. Consequently, SEO may soon become an important PR function.

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Big Data

These days, professionals in nearly every industry know the term “big data,” but using to inform your government affairs, communications and grassroots engagement strategies is not a fad – it is a necessity. Data-driven communications and advocacy campaigns are slowly becoming the standard for many organizations. Data helps target organizations’ advocacy efforts and can greatly improve key performance metrics, a combination which, ultimately, increases the likelihood of an advocacy win.

Organizations use data to find potential advocates, increase advocacy action rates, target particular lawmakers and help move their advocates up the engagement ladder. These practices will continue to increase in importance as organizations collect more digital data and as software platforms become more sophisticated at automatically optimizing tasks based on data collected. This might include email A/B testing of subject lines or even more advanced optimization techniques that adjust email send times based on individual preference.

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Crossbow Communications is a full-service advertising agency and public relations firm in Denver, Colorado and Phoenix, Arizona. The firm specializes in issue management and public affairs.