Public Affairs in the Age of Conversational Communications

As recent political campaigns—and their subsequent snafus and recovery efforts—have demonstrated, directly engaging audiences for the first time when you are in the midst of a crisis adds more stress to an already haphazard job. Communicators in public affairs know that consistent engagement with audiences is the best way to send out their messages. Consider these basic tips for crafting public affairs communications before you are knee-deep in an online revolt:
•    Find a good online monitoring tool: The current presidential campaign shows that the public is participating in online conversations about candidates and issues with increasing frequency. Begin monitoring what people are saying about your “client” (be it a politician, a nonprofit/NGO, a legislator or an entire political party) online. There are a number of popular tools out right now that range from free to fee, including Technorati, Google Blog Search and Radian6.
•    Appoint an editor: Publishing on a blog or some other company Web site might not be a top priority for your staff, so make the editorial schedule one person’s responsibility and grant them the power to nag others to participate. Put executives, public relations and public affairs staff into publishing rotations to write a paragraph a month on a topic they will need to address over the long term.
•    Be personal: Don’t edit everything into third-party press release tone. Let the natural voice of individuals come out. The public is skeptical of politicians/public affairs execs, and muting its voice with PR jargon doesn’t help.
•    Find and follow the influencers: If you’ve been doing your monitoring, you know who the online influencers are in your topic area. Make a point of following what they’re saying and comment on/link to their blog posts. Don’t worry that linking may be considered an endorsement.
•    Be aggressive: If you have critics online talking trash about your brand, be aggressive about correcting them. If you want to avoid giving a critic a larger platform, don’t link directly to them or quote them; just restate their argument in a manner amenable to your messaging. And remember that when it comes to public affairs, you will always have enemies. It’s just a matter of keeping their mistruths at bay.
•    Grade yourself, but not too harshly: You cannot grade your conversational communications efforts by any one event—it’s the long-term effects of your effort that matters. Set monthly reviews of your traffic statistics and media impact of your online communications. Anything more frequent and you’ll become too focused on page views and not the overall goal: influencing your audience’s opinions.

This piece was written by Shabbir Imber Safdar, founder of Virilion Inc.