Online public affairs and using social media and the internet for analysing and influencing public policy isn’t as well advanced in the UK as it is in the USA where Washington lobbyists use it far more than public affairs professionals do in Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels.
Last month I ran a training webinar for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations on ‘Public affairs and social media’ and I’m also currently writing a skills guide for the CIPR as well as a longer white paper on online public affairs and lobbying.
One question that hass been put to me privately be several people is doesn’t the latest fiasco regarding Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Bell Pottinger Public Affairs (BPPA) show that public affairs and social media don’t mix well?
For those who aren’t familiar with the story I’ll do a brief recap, although PRWeek has the full details. BPPA chairman Peter Bingle â€“ perhaps the UK’s most prominent lobbyist â€“ revealed on the Bell Pottinger blog that Eric Pickles had enjoyed a five-star dinner at BPPA’s expense where at least one firm in attendance was awaiting a planning decision from the minister’s department.
This has resulted in extensive national media coverage and questions in the House of Commons.
Not surprisingly the Bell Pottinger Dispatch Box blog has been ‘shuttered’ and is now ‘open to invited readers only.’
So is that case proven, public affairs and social media, never the twain shall meet?
Not really. This was just the usual story of social media not being used very well. In fact, being used quite badly. The blog post in question wasn’t done as part of a properly planned public affairs programme, it was simply appears to have been a marketing blog for Bell Pottinger Public Affairs that went wrong.
It simply isn’t a good idea to have a corporate blog in a sensitive sector and then use it to publish quite personal, opinionated and revealing articles. Some of the content in this case should probably never have been published anywhere by a member of the team. Other content would have been perfectly fine on a personal blog of a team member, but not the official company one.
All of these problems could have been avoided with the right planning, training, content management and implementation.
It also doesn’t get to the core of the issue which is to do with greater transparency and openness in the public affairs and lobbying profession. If we open ourselves up to scrutiny and demonstrate that we are above aboard then we shall have a far better chance of avoiding inappropriate and over restrictive legislation and controls. Social media has a vital and central role to play in that transparency and openness, but it requires public affairs professionals to get to grips with how to use it far better than most have at the moment. Public affairs professionals lag behind their communications sector colleagues in public relations and marketing who are mainly ahead of them in the digital learning curve, although many still have a long way to go.
One final thing that it does highlight is the absolute importance for every public affairs consultancy and in-house team to have in place a social media policy and training programme for its team. This was a simple mistake that could have been avoided.