Is There a Case for Digital Public Affairs?

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For many PR professionals, the Internet is already an essential channel for reaching out to a broad public. But is that also true for public affairs?Traditionally, lobbying is associated with secrecy and mystery-mongering, but consumers and NGOs today increasingly demand transparency.


Create visibility on relevant platforms like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Apps can be useful too, but often, a well programmed mobile Web site will also do the trick.So is there a case to be made for “Digital Public Affairs”? Yes, because regardless whether a company decides to become an active part in Internet communities or not—people will talk about the firm online. Digital public affairs means providing a platform to engage relevant stakeholders on political and societal issues, to address critics and engage customers as stakeholders. In Germany, the food giant Nestlé learned this lesson the hard way when Greenpeace broadcasted a negative YouTube ad targeted against the company’s use of palm oil and the associated destruction of the rain forest. Soon, Nestlé’s Facebook page was swamped with critical comments. This example shows that merely having a Facebook page is not enough. A successful digital public affairs strategy is made of four steps: 

  • Create reach by growing a base of “relevant” fans and followers. Huge numbers are not the only indicator of success: it’s not the size of the ship, it’s the motion of the ocean.

  • Become a valued source of information by posting relevant content. Success can be measured by the number of retweets and likes, but also make sure you post your content at the right time.

  • Most importantly: Encourage your fans to engage on behalf of your case by creating “action points” like asking users to sign a petition, to comment on a position paper or vote on a specific question.

Increasingly, the European Commission, national governments and parties experiment with new tools that allow stakeholders to take part in policy formulation and comment on draft laws. Although these experiments are still in early stages, this is certainly an opportunity for public affairs campaigns.

Daniel Florian

But not only the tools are new—the role of a public affairs manager also changes significantly: instead of being a “puppet master,” he (or she) has to think of himself as a community manager. We will see public affairs managers begin to build their own personal brands because the social web is based on personal rather than institutional ties. Business leaders like Google’s Eric Schmidt show how the roles of CEO and public affairs manager slowly merge. On the other end of the spectrum, we will see that each employee becomes a part-time public affairs manager in his or her own constituency.

Building on Tim O’Reilly’s phrase of “government as a platform,” digital public affairs must also understand itself as a platform. There are many roads towards this goal. For example, the German telecom provider E-Plus has recently started a digital public affairs strategy which combines social media outreach with monthly networking events for online activists and MPs. So far, this strategy has proven to be successful: the Facebook group now has more than 2,000 members and in January this year, E-Plus started its BASE_camp, a shop/co-working space/event location which will function as the public window to the company’s lobby team.

In contrast, Google Germany’s “Collaboratory” is a closed think tank of hand-picked Internet experts who develop policy ideas on a number of relevant issues for a modern, digital society. The Co:lab deliberately sees itself not as a lobby group but a public interest organization that serves as a “catalyst” and a “bridge” between the Internet community and politics. 

A third model is the “Government 2.0” network—a group of individuals and companies mainly from the IT and software industry—which aims at promoting e-government. Their conferences showcase best practice examples and sometimes remind one of traditional sales fairs in a more modern setting. Still, the network is a good example of a potential win-win situation for business and the administration.

These examples show that digital public affairs can be a useful supplement to traditional lobbying. In combination with offline events, digital public affairs can help to create strong ties with relevant stakeholders in politics and society. The transparency that comes along with online activities creates trust and public affairs managers can both prove leadership on their issues and receive feedback from users. Even more so, it can help a company to stay ahead of the game even in times of a crisis by building political capital online. Digital public affairs however has to be relevant to the audience—and that often means that it must have a broader focus than traditional lobbying—and it should be linked to the “real world” because while weak ties are easy to create, it is strong ties that really can make a difference.

Daniel Florian is associate director at the Berlin-based public affairs consultancy dimap communications. Klas Roggenkamp is founder of the online agency compuccino. Florian can be reached at [email protected]Roggenkamp can be reached at [email protected].