Friday 10 July 2009

Getting lulled and distracted: PR strategies in the European Web 2.0

Yesterday, The Lobby, a blog run by the PR agency Grayling (Brussels), lobbied for better strategies of European PR and communications agencies:
"PR is not about ‘pushing’ news, rather it is about creating relationships “with the greater communities of influencers and users who can help extend a story, intentions, value, and sentiment as a means of driving awareness, building communities, and empowering advocates over time”. [...]

[...] Brussels agencies are keen and the tools are all around us, but it remains to be seen whether Brussels and its opaque institutions are ready for them.

I challenge you to name a single senior Brussels PR executive who has 6 influential bloggers and 4 prolific Twitter users on speed-dial rather than 10 members of the Brusssels press corps (and who is willing to take his or her story to them rather than to the press)?
This approach has to be seen in the wider context of the adaptation of public relations management that professional PR companies are going through these days. If I may summarise their tactics in two simple words: "Lull & Distract".

The first step is to become part of the community, if there is something like a "community":

PR companies establish blogs, like The Lobby (by Grayling), Public Affairs 2.0 (by Fleishman-Hillard) and Hyperthinker (by ZN) or at least react to blog posts written by others, like you could recently witness with the Hill & Knowlton CEO reaction to one of my blog posts.

More refined seems to be the strategic positioning of Burston-Marsteller:

Through the establishment of The New EP, a website informing about everything around the new European Parliament, including a blog-like front page that can be easily subscribed via RSS, as well as through the support of political debates, including the coverage on Twitter, they are apparently trying to build
  • public attention,
  • an image of competence in EP matters, and
  • trust and relationship through targeted interaction with the euroblogosphere and the eurotwittersphere.
As far as these activities are directed towards the Web 2.0, they are meant to lull "us", bloggers and twitterers. We are supposed to get used of their presence, their knowledge, their arguments. We are supposed to see their contributions as "equal", happy that more people participate in our discussions.

But what one has to remember is that these companies want sell their services to well-paying customers.

All their activities are part of a strategy, either to position themselves as established players to get clients or to use their position to influence political actors for their clients. They are in competition with each other, competing about attention, about money, about influence.

Their interest is not to contribute to political and social debates because they have convictions that they like to defend. They don't socialise, inform, and discuss because they have so much fun doing this. They need to do this as part of their job, a job where they are not the actors but the advisors or the executors of whatever they are asked by their clients.

As soon as everyone around is lulled, accepting their activities as natural intervention of well-informed and competent actors, they will start using their position.

They will be bought (if they aren't already) by clients who are happy to get trusted and already embedded players to distract the general attention and to steer it towards the topics that their clients want to see discussed, at best going into the political direction the client would like them to go.

One of the "best" examples are GPlus and Aspect Consulting, which got nominated for the Worst Lobbying Award, supporting the Russian war propaganda, even though the strategy was still rather classical.

Altogether, I am watching the activities of the European PR agencies with interest but with caution - because they know what they do, and they do it for money.

PS.: And by the way, PR agencies are one of the most frequent recognisable groups of visitors to my blog.


Jon Worth said...

I'm getting worried Julien - which of the actors in EU politics do you actually have some respect for and not fear?

Julien Frisch said...

Don't have time to answer now. But I respect a bunch of people, but whenever you start talking good about them, they do something stupid... ;-)

Erik Wesselius said...

Interesting observations.

On Twitter I have the impression that EU PR/PA agencies and corporate twitterers are not very active. In general I find their tweets rather useless to follow, with one exception: EuropaBio.

But no worries here: I am aware won't be lulled and distracted.

Ralf Grahn said...


You have written off the EU institutions, older males and now public affairs & public relations agencies - in your campaign to create a European public sphere.

Paid or unpaid, we all have an agenda of sorts - overt or covert.

Why not try to assess every contribution on the merits?

Perhaps a more inclusive approach could bear some fruit(?)

Macarena Rodriguez said...

I am not sure Julien if you are right, because customers are not silly. I found very useful all the information which can contribute to the European and social debate even if they have a monetary purpose (I choose to follow them or not!) And the info they are currently offer is for free, why not used it? That's true. You and me and others bloggers are not earning money with blogs but public are recognaising our effort. You are one the most followed blogger on European affaires! Just a question: if a non profit organisation or fundation or whatever should consider to engage you for making exactly the same thing what you're doing now but with their logo embebbed in your blog, do you refuse the offer?

Julien Frisch said...

Just for all of you:

The reason why I wrote this article is not so much PR bashing, it is a kind of self-protection, for me and any reader who is not too much into all these things, because I kind of liked some of the things written, while noticing an increasing amount of traffic from PR agencies.

It is quite easy to forget that they are not supposed to be actors on their own behalf - apart from their existence as companies - but that they usually represent clients, whose interests are not necessarily transparent in the process.

What made me actually want to write a blog post was the argument at "The Lobby" with the telephone number of bloggers (see my quote), used in the same way as the telephone numbers from MEPs.

I find this a kind of dangerous approach, because the main advantage of blogging - if done in the way many individual bloggers do it - is transparency of motives and arguments.

Becoming as important that you need to be called - or just to be regarded as if you needed to be called - is not my understanding of the blogging exercise.

And @Macarena:

If I would blog for an NGO I would need to be personally involved in its activities. I cannot imagine to blog against my conviction, without my involvement or just for money, at least not by now.

I can rather imagine to completely stop blogging, than to do this. Maybe I should, if I am getting too negative.

PS.: However, Jon has said something very true in Rotterdam - the work that we can do as bloggers lies mainly in the negative, in the critique, open and comprehensible. In this sense, I like to play the devil's advocate because it opens up debates, debates that are blatently missing in EU and European politics, centred in "the bubble" of the closely interrelated Brussels community.

James Stevens said...


You are of course right that at least to some extent all agencies in town, including my own, are engaging in the online debates in order to get our brands out there in the Brussels marketplace and attract new customers. This is after all only natural, if we weren't doing so we would not be in business very long.

However, I have a couple of additional comments.

Firstly the issue of transparency. You seem to suggest that we are engaging on behalf of our clients in an untransparent manner. Sorry, not so. As in our direct advocacy with our clients, we believe strongly that you need to be transparent about who you represent. Online or offline, it does not matter. As an example, with our blog whenever we have a client interest in a subject (even tenuously) we go out of the way to state it. See a post we did on biofuels for example.

Outside of agency branded material, we do help our clients blog, twitter and engage in online conversations and when we do so we advise our clients that it is against their interests to hide who they are. We believe our clients are their best advocates and when they engage on an issue it is better that they do so rather than us. Hopefully our clients have something interesting to say, if not don't read it.

Secondly, you suggest that people in agencies have no personal stake in the issues we discuss. Not so. Most of those people I have met in agencies do actually wish as individuals to engage in the political topics and issues of the day. We're the kind of people who go home and discuss the politics and policy issues with our wives, friends and family. Sad I know. But most of us ended up in Brussels because we believe in the EU project and want to be involved in it. Happily for all us we found day jobs that allow us to earn a crust and do what we love. When I comment on others blogs it tends more often than not to happen after the working day has long ended and the kids have gone to bed. As an example most of the posts I have written in the last two years on our Public Affairs blog have happened towards midnight.


Julien Frisch said...

Dear James,

I appreciate your comment, and especially the personal part of the story.

Just to make sure I am never mistaken: When I criticise organisations or even single officials, I never want to attack them in their private personality, but in their public function or activity - and I am well aware that there is a difference between the private life and the necessities of a job or a larger organisation.

I also don't want to criticise anything that is done for the better of the European Union, for our democracy, and for the transparency of public and private-public policies. So anything PR agencies do in this regard has my full support.

Yet, if we look at your company (Fleishman-Hillard), as an example, there is both, the work for a better interaction between politics and society that you point to, but also the support of the weapons industry ("defence industry"). On the page I link here, you cannot see who your clients actually are (so you need to go to the Commission's lobby register) to see which companies are your clients.

What I want to say there are two sides to the medal, and that PR companies are ready to live with these two sides because this is their function.

Writing this article was thus meant as a reminder that all the nice and fancy things should be taken as what they are, not as what they appear. As long as you contribute to the advancement of our society, you have my full support and appreciation!

Erik Wesselius said...

@julien interestingly I can only find one defense company on Fleishman Hillards clients list in the EC lobbying register: Lockheed Martin Overseas Corporation.

In the US Lockheed Martin seems not to work with F-H currently, although the company is a big spender on lobbying in Washington, having already spent $6,482,462 on lobbying in the first half of 2009, with a contingent of well over a 100 lobbyists representing the firm in the US capital!

A second client listed by Fleishman Hillard Brussels, the Carlyle Group, primarily a private equity firm, with more than $84.5 billion under management, including significant investments in the aerospace and defense industry.

F-H Brussels, clearly specialising in clients from the financial services sector, probably doesn't lobby on defense issues for the Carlyle Group, but unlike in the US, we don't know what they lobby on, how much Carlyle (or Lockheed Martin) pay for the provided services, or who are the F-H lobbyists representing these clients.

In the US, the Carlyle Group spent $140,000 on lobbying in the first half of 2009, only working with Ogilvy Government Relations. The US Lobbying Disclosure Register shows none of the lobbying in the first half of 2009 was related to defense issues.

I have gone into so much detail to show how meagre the data in the EU lobbying register look when compared to the detailed information that can be derived from the US Lobbying Disclosure Act database. Datasets are provided every 3 months by the US government agency administering the database and can be used by non profit public interest organisations like the Center for Responsive Politics to present the data in an attractive format for the media (and citizens):

Julien Frisch said...


Thanks for the details!

Bernardo said...

We must always maintain a critical view about anything we read.
When I am reading something that is presented as an opinion, by default I assume that the author is trying to syncerely convince me that his opinion is the best one.
However, in some cases, as you point out, the motivations of the author are different, and I should better be aware of them.
Thanks for reminding it

Steffen said...

Hi Julien,

Sorry to be joining the discussion a little late. I work on social media strategies for clients every day and I can honestly say that my approach to blogging, Twitter et al (and ZN's too) centres on how I can best help clients use the tools themselves (and always in a fully transparent manner.) Can't vouch for other agencies, but I suspect it's the same.

Why? Frankly, it works better. Sure, if you're an agency and you're building relationships via social media, I won't deny that in some cases it might come in handy one day, but I can assure you that you're far better off helping clients build constructive relationships themselves, and generally not with eurobloggers but preferably with issue or sector experts operating in the social media space.

Although some agencies no doubt make the mistake of simply transferring media relations to the web and seeking out people most likely to be read by legislators, I suspect this practice will fizzle out. Why? Because an article in the FT is undoubtedly worth more in “PR dollars” than a far better article in a relevant trade publication, whereas online, impact can be determined more by quality than by reach because of search, hyperlinking and aggregation.

To spell it out, here’s two (very simplified!) scenarios I could propose to clients (no prizes for which one I think is most likely to work.)

1) We’ll write a post on our blog saying you’re great. We’ve hooked up with Julien Frisch and the other 30 popular eurobloggers – maybe one of them will pick up your story (but don’t hold your breath, none of them have ever written about your issue.)
2) Your 3 experts could blog or tweet (assuming they want to.) We’ll help them out with the dos and don’ts, but they have to do the writing and it has to be honest. We’ll do some research to identify other people (academics, scientists, companies, pressure groups, students etc.) writing good content on your issue (whether for or against) and run them by your experts. In due time, we can add them to our blogroll, your experts could link to them in posts or comment on their blogs, and maybe we can build relationships with them if they’re interested, and hyperlink to their content or maybe even get them to be guest bloggers.

The difference is obviously that it’s the organisation’s experts and not the agency that is telling the story, and you’re promoting good quality content and interaction rather than throwing a story at someone who happens to have MEPs amongst his/her readers and hoping that it will stick. Is option 2 still PA/PR pure and simple? Perhaps, but seeing as it’s the sort that promotes open, highbrow debate and engagement, I’d venture to say it’s a good thing.

As a last point, I think there are far better reasons for agencies to be engaging than hoping to entice a euroblogger. In my case (my blog is strictly-speaking personal, but I do cross-post on it's to showcase expertise in online communications (for more traditional communicators it's more about demonstrating their thorough understanding of how Brussels operates) and to "walk the talk" i.e. if I were to recommend social media strategies never having written a blog post I doubt I'd have much credibility. (Although most of all though, I blog because I really enjoy writing.)


Julien Frisch said...


usually you stand out in the PR crowd and I find your remarks in your blog or on Twitter far more reflected than most of the standard approaches that I can read elsewhere.

But just to repeat it, although said above:

One of the important things for me as a political blogger is also the question of content. There is a fundamental difference between advising a democratically elected official how to engage better with the public than to advise the producer of cluster bombs on how to make them look nicer...

So even though there can be better advice on how to involve bloggers or social communities, it is important to keep in mind for what purpose this is done.