221: Let’s face it, public affairs issues can be dull. So what should you do?
A lot of the issues that public affairs has to deal with can be quite technical and, frankly, boring for a lot of potential audiences. The level of complexity can put stakeholders off, so what approaches should you think of?
Many sectors by their very nature can be technical – sciences, healthcare, financial services – but they can also be their own worst enemies in the use of terminology. Industries often talk to people who know and understand the language so it doesn’t necessarily lead to a problem. It could be argued that they benefit from expert audiences. Given that these sectors are often heavily regulated, they have more engagement across government so more opportunity to work with those who really know their issues.
For others, however, the lack of need for previous engagement means they may suddenly need to covey the complexities of their sector, the issues and the challenge itself all in one go. A lack of previous engagement can create the opportunities for Government to act in an ‘uneducated’ way but it can also be that it simply starts paying attention to an issue that wasn’t previously of interest.
Faced with that type of scenario, an organisation needs to work out what to do with its complex issue. Here are a few ideas:
- think targeted – appreciate that the numbers of stakeholders who are really interested in the issue may be quite limited, at least to start with. So start small and build. Do not become obsessed with communicating with a large number of people when only a few are really of any relevance. You can always build momentum over time, if needed; and
- don’t scare people off – start by thinking small and making the issues as relevant as possible to them before building towards your main argument. Going straight to the big issue will simply scare them! If it looks too big or complicated, then attention will drift and it will be less of an impact. This also means avoiding the standard jargon wherever possible. Eyes glaze over when the terminology gets an airing!;
- be realistic in what can be achieved especially in relation to the media – the chances of media coverage will be increased with case studies and human interest angles but otherwise complex issues can have a narrow audience. So media coverage may well play a useful role but there needs to be realism about the level of coverage and it should be deployed at times when it can have most effect.
- challenge the orthodoxies – there can be ways of capturing attention by doing something a little different. If you take a look, for instance, at some of the recent campaigns from the Association of British Insurers (ABI), you may be surprised by the tone and approach. They have thought beyond what insurers do with some of their campaigning. Calls to ‘be creative’ can be just as facile as demands for materials to ‘go viral’. These things need to be worked on and ideas drawn from across an organisation but it needs a realisation that there is a complexity issue in the first place;
- think simple – and this is really where this takes us. Build the issue from the bottom-up and think about how people outside your organisation will think about it. You are, in effect, the conduit by which the complex information gets to audiences so think about them first and how they will receive your information;
- friends and allies – as usual, think about who your friends are and could be. This is arguably even more important when dealing with complex issues. Audiences will look for even greater reassurance when they are less sure of their position. If X backs the campaign then it must be right…
The most challenging public affairs issues are often the most complex. That is when you really find out how good you are!