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About Digital Public Affairs and Why PR=Marketing. A Discussion with Steffen Moller, Digital Strategist Fleishman-Hillard Brussels

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steffen_mollerFleishman-Hillard released recently the second European Parliament Digital Trend Study. What does it really mean for a member of the European Parliament to get involved in the digital area?

Basically, with this survey we look at two things. We look at one: how members of the European Parliament actually using the tools to communicate with constituents, with other politicians, with companies, with NGOs, whoever. And two, we look at how they use the tools for research. Here are a couple of findings that you’ll find them online too. They love Facebook. About two thirds of them are on Facebook. They blog a little bit from what they used to. About one third are on Twitter. Now, we have to take this figures with a pinch of salt. I think Facebook and Twitter are great interaction tools for building relationships.  I don’t think that the two thirds of MEPs (members of the European Parliament) on Facebook or the one third MEPs on Twitter are using the channels to build relationships. Only few are. They basically using them to some extent because you know, they are popular.

How do MEPs use the channels for business purposes?

There are actually some MEPs who are really using the channels to engage in conversation with their constituents. There are people in their home country who are asking questions, expressing their concerns. And these MEPs really get value out of this. They are engaging in conversations, they are winning this people over. They are probably better politicians.
The figures are really indicatives. Obviously these tools are becoming more popular. But, they are not using them to the full extent.

Based on these things, we are now talking about the evolving of a new domain – digital public affairs. How do you see the future of this domain at a global level? Do you see it more developing in Europe, and expanding more from the main cell that Brussels is?

I think it will expand and I think politicians in the US, for instance are very good at using a particular tool. Once they’ve discovered Twitter for instance, the value lies in these conversations, in the fact of being able to show that you listen to people, respond to people’s concerns; then there’s true value in it. If you’re just using it to say that I’m speaking at an event, here’s my latest press release, you don’t get any value from it. In Brussels there’s an MEP called Marietje Schaake . She’s a Dutch, liberal MEP, possibly one of the best. She says she loves Twitter because she actually learns stuff. She learns things from other MEPs. She actually ask questions from her constituents on Twitter. She goes: I’m dealing with this issue, what’s your take, what do you think, what is my constituency to you? It’s a great feedback platform.

Besides the fact that the audience has shifted from the offline to the online medium why is it important for a client to be involved in the digital world?

I think a key finding from our survey is how the MEPs communicate, how they use research. I think the research element is quite indicative. 93% of MEPs use Google or a search engine every single day to do research on politics. 99% use it several times a week. Basically what that means is that you need to have a presence online. It’s not necessarily being on Twitter engaging in social dialogue online. It’s actually having good quality content online. And that’s step number one. Step number two is how you approach that content. It’s not just enough having dry content, it’s not enough to have just text, a big document. What you really want is a compelling, interesting content: a video interview with an expert, good quality content. For a client or organization, whether they are trying to reach politicians, whether they are trying to reach customers, they need to be selling an interesting story, they need to be selling human interest, they need to sell relevant stories that people can relate to. They don’t just need to be blurting out messages that sound like advertising from 20 years ago. They have to create compelling content.

During your presentation at Digital Marketing Forum you talked about 3 key points for brands: create a compelling message, reach the right people and then the buzz will spread. Where do you think most brands fail, where exactly do they get lost in these steps?

They tend to make the mistake right from the start. They tend to think based on channels rather on what they are actually saying. So they will go: everyone is on Facebook, we should be on Facebook too. Everyone is on Twitter, we should be on Twitter. They don’t just actually plan the process. And planning the process is one - identifying your audience, two - identifying where it is  and three making sure that you are actually reaching them with a compelling message, story and content. And then you say, I’ll do Facebook campaign which looks like this, I’ll do a blogger outreach that looks like this. That’s tactically. First you have to do the ground work. That is were a lot of organizations fail, because they see these tools like a quick win. Facebook is free, loads of people on it, so let me just be on it. It’s not a quick win, you have to have the exactly same strategic approach to a digital age that you did in the non digital age. You still need to build campaigns for the brand up, you still need to say this is the preparation, this is the strategy.
Today we saw a lot of presentations showing really good statistics, data. If you’re trying to reach an audience with a key demographic of female between 35-55 you’re thinking what channel are they going to be on, when are they going to be on it, what sort of message are they going to respond to, and that involves a lot of data. Organizations should find that data, than just simply assume they know everything.

How do you see the consumer’s behavior evolving in the digital area, where information overload has become a problem?

I’m a member of a travel online community called Jetsetter. Basically, that’s an exclusive hyper community where you can only join if you have been recommended by someone who has been a member for a period of time. They are trying to keep the numbers low. Because there is an information overload out there. There is so much stuff, that increasingly they are trying to create smaller communities to keep people interested. Take Facebook. When you have 300 friends, it’s pretty manageable and cool and all of a sudden you have 1000 friends and it become a little bit difficult to manage. Same with these exclusive communities.

The overall trend is people becoming cynical. Before, they used to trust people like them, then they started trusting friends and acquaintances, now they are increasingly trusting only the people they know very well. So again, I think the consumers are becoming increasingly cynical. So that’s why organizations need to establish a message that people are actually going to say, right, I’m willing to share that with my group of my 50 friends who I really know and trust. Really, really difficult. It has to involve a really good human interest angle.

How do you see overcoming the major stereotypes of online engagement in order to gain real conversation for brands?

This is part of what we were talking about, making sure that everything you do is insight driven, making sure everything you do is data driven, you’re continuously measuring. Online communication is a big circle, it’s not a straight line. You have to first search your audience, communicate to them and then feed that input back in the circular loop. With the measurement tools make sure you’re continuously relevant. This is our approach to communication.
And as much as you can test one message, maybe that message or story will work for a couple of weeks and then they are on to the next new thing and your story is old news. It’s a tricky space.
A lot of markets are talking about the golden age of the 50’s and 60’s when if you were Procter and Gamble launching a new brand of detergent and spend 5 million on launching it and having a smiley person with their kids at home saying we use this detergent, it makes our sheet sparkling white. And then you buy this detergent for years. And that’s how you created a brand – you made up a story, people would buy it.  Now, you try to create stories like that, people laugh at you.

Why and when do you think that happened?

Because we’re cynics. It’s been a gradual process. I don’t necessarily think it’s just social media or the Internet age that made us all cynics. I think it’s a graduate thing. I think it has to do with more people having a voice. Sort of what I was saying before, in the past politics used to be divided by big business, big journalists and a politician and then increasingly other people got involved, NGOs. Everyone realizes now that they can have a stake, they can decide on things that were previously outside their grasp. I think that process is turning people more critical.

How can you really keep the attention of a consumer in the increasingly digital clutter world?

One is content, making sure your content is really interesting, updated, relevant. And two is the relationship and engagement angle, making sure that once people see that their friends like you, building relationships with individuals. So that what these tools really allow you to do. It’s not just about simply deliver good content. It’s then being able to respond to questions and then feed those questions back into the company and giving people the knowledge that they are being listened to. That’s the key.

We see a new phenomenon exploding as the use of Twitter as a customer service. Dell is a good example, JetBlue Airways, an American airline that has 2 million followers. Basically what they do is they have full-time people who are responding to people’s concerns online. They are mashing customer service and reputation building in an amazing way by building this personal relationships.

How do you see customer service like this, who should be in charge – a person that is fully dedicated to this job 24 hours or an agency that provides you with this service for a limited time?

Ideally, in the interest of keeping this things real, personal and human etc., you need people within the company to take ownership of this sort of stuff. Another big job title created in the social media area is the community manager. It’s a really important job. The community manager is the person who knows the brand, likes the brand, is really good with social media, reaches out and engages people, follows conversations etc.

Lots of companies go: do we employ a community manager from outside? And they usually have to, but then the community manager doesn’t necessarily love the brand. You look for someone inside the company who knows and loves the brand, but maybe it’s not someone who knows how to engage.

In your presentation you referred to the fact that now PR = Marketing. What has mainly changed for the PR industry and when did this happen?

When I say that PR=Marketing I still think they are different disciplines, I just think that the communication professional has to be able do both PR and Marketing. I still think marketing is brand related, whereas PR in more on the relationship front. The thing is that is not enough to simply deal with a brand anymore, it’s not simply enough to deal with relationships anymore, because they are closely interlinked. I’m saying that PR and Marketing are still different disciplines, but the same people have to do both. It was easy in the past when you had a marketing executive and a PR. Now they actually have to be the same person, or they actually have to work closely. That’s the key.  When did this actually happened I don’t think it is now in the internet age. It’s more like a trend accelerating now. I think it stands back from 70’s and 80’s when people started becoming more critical. People don’t just believe the brand talk, they actually want what they then read in the paper about that brand can impact. If they read in the paper that the people who were producing the top drinks that they drink are guilty about something horrible across the world, that actually impacts their respect for that brand when that in fact might not have been the case before. In that case reputation and ultimately buying that product are closely linked.
Again, it’s an ongoing trend, it’s accelerated by the internet, not necessarily brought about by the internet.

Do you see more and more organizations having one department that gathers PR and Marketing?

Yes, totally. It’s not happening fast enough. I notice this from Brussels, where we have corporate communication people, marketing people who have big office buildings near the airport and they have public affairs people who deal with politicians who sit in the center of the town near the European Parliament. The thing is that those people need to be sitting in the same room. Yes, it is happening increasingly and I’m noticing with a series of clients who used to have very separate departments for PR, or Marketing. And another important trend is how the communicators are more in tune with the business units as well. That’s another things. The business units develop their products on the side and the communication people, the marketers, the PR people are separate from that. Now, PR and marketing people are actually more connected to the business, because they need to feed what they are hearing into the business units. Because they may need to develop products that need approaches not necessarily related to the communication in line, but with what people are saying.

Steffen Thejll-Moller is Digital Strategist, Fleishman-Hillard. He has spent the last five years developing online strategies for organisations looking to engage in the European political process using digital tools. Prior to joining Fleishman, Thejll-Moller worked for a Brussels-based digital agency, where he lead the corporate communications practice, running campaigns and programmes for a wide range of companies, trade associations, politicians and political groups. He is a Danish-Italian national and holds a degree in Modern History and Languages from Oxford University.

Interview by Florina Baciu, Junior Editor PR Romania. All rights reserved.

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