During our European digital ambassadors meeting in Milan last week we spent two days exchanging notes on some of the cool new trends in the online space. These included augmented reality (digital car races on a pizza box anyone?) and Google Wave (collaborative computing that could be very useful indeed for all of us) among others. However, amongst the delights of the internet future to come one new tool stuck out that could prove to be a pain for both politicians and companies. It’s called Sidewiki and its brought to us – as with most cool things on the internet these days – by Google.
If you, like me, are new to Sidewiki here’s a brief overview that summises my understanding. It’s a tool you can add to your Google Toolbar on either Firefox or Internet Explorer, but strangely not Google’s Chrome. Users of the Sidewiki with a gmail account can choose to add commentary to webpages they are visiting. Commentary from individuals is pushed up to the top of the list depending on relevance and popularity (users can like or dislike). Despite the label ‘wiki’ it does not appear to have a group editing function to moderate spurious content. Google acts as moderator for the comments and will take down comments that are flagges as inappropriate (fingers crossed). The commentary is held with Google, not on the website you’re visiting. Sounds neat. But think about it. Anyone with a Google account can tip up to your website and leave a comment for the world to see, over which you as the owner of the site have no control.
Back in our ultra modern hotel meeting room we were seeking to find an analogy for what this is like. Was it like parking your car on someone else’s front lawn? Perhaps not. After all users of Sidewiki don’t get to post their comments on your website as such. They are all on Google. Our thinking is that it is more akin to a stranger standing in front of your real estate holding a big sign that says that your house has dry rot and there are rats in the basement. Users of Sidewiki have the opportunity to picket any site they fancy.
A quick surf round some familiar sites underlines that, as yet, the use of Sidewiki is yet to catch on a big way. There are a few comments on http://www.number10.gov.uk but by no means a flood. But if it does, what could it mean?
Primarily, you can now challenge others on their turf. Whichever side of an argument you’re on, now you have the opportunity to go to get your messages/facts directly placed next to the site of those whose argument you are seeking to challenge. And they can do pretty much nothing about it. Imagine an NGO challenging a company’s record on child labour. Now NGO activists can go straight to the website and point out where the corporate spin surpasses fact. Equally NGO group questions the safety of a company’s product? The company can go on the NGO site and directly challenge the science. Clearly tit for tat could ensue. This works both ways after all. But who has the most supporters and the guts to take this to its illogical extreme?
Of course, one could take an optimistic view. These Google folks have just come up with something that will allow us all to read what the community believes to be the truth on any website. Your MP has fiddled his expenses? Post a link on Sidewiki so even if his party leader forgives him his constituents won’t forget about it. Has your MEP not showed up for months? A running commentary of his attendance record could be added to his sparkling new website. This could be a positive thing! Alas, those with the most extreme views tend to be the most persistent. What if all we get is the popular but wrong view? Nothing would seem to prevent this.
Google is the big friendly monster, out to hug you and provide you with all sorts of free help. In some way, it is sort of frightening. But those of us who help build websites for a living shouldn’t complain when the ‘Analytics Evangelist’, the man behind Google Analytics, offers advice on how to use that service.
The Official Google Blog is publishing a series on measurement, and the first article discusses bounce rates. If you think this means the number of times per hour that someone jumps up and down on your website, you definitely need to read the article.
Key learning: ‘Puked’ is actually a technical digital term.
Google is planning on launching an online election service to cover all aspects of the European Parliament elections in June. If it is anything like the Google service for the US elections then it should give viewers the chance to stay up to date on the latest campaign maps, news, videos and blog posts from the election trail.
This is a step in the right direction for European politics, hopefully increasing interest in the EP elections and voting turnout in June, which at the moment looks to be very low if the Eurobarometer is anything to go by. Especially as it seems only a tiny 4% of Europeans are aware of which month these will be held, and bringing up the rear, only 3% of us Brits knew they were to be held next year. We can only hope this is something the Google Gadget can improve on.
Expanding our reading beyond our traditional EN sources, we note that the use of Google Adwords for political campaigns has caught the attention of our Italian friends at left leaning daily la Repubblica. Surely our MEPs, Italian or otherwise, should be looking into this tactic with elections in mind to reach out to voters interested in the issues they deal with here in Brussels? With this in mind, perhaps that’s why we hear rumour of an e-campaigning event being hosted by Google here in Brussels (p.s. we’d love an invite if Google people are listening/reading). Not sure MEPs have Obama’s budget but still, every click counts (both for MEP and Google I expect).
For those MEPs thinking about it, this article from much earlier in the US primary season contains some hints from experts from Google and elsewhere on what to do and not to do. Tips iinclude advertising on your opponents name and advertising around those issues that poll top of voters concerns.
In any case, we’ve also been noticing a veritable increase in interest in using the tool to reach out to get messages out here in Brussels. Can you spot any of our current ads I wonder?
Jimmy (still searching for suitable word beginning with J for new trend of signing posts on this blog)
Apparently in the world of search we are moving in two opposite directions, or at least Google think so. And who are we to question. Mere PA people that we are.
Firstly, there is apparently a move towards expanding the scope of general search to other forms of content. After all, whether it’s a vid. Note that as you’ve been searching Google recently maps, pictures, videos and allsorts of other online content are starting to pop up in your results. Have a go at putting in “Fleishman-Hillard Brussels” and you get a handy map of our location for example.
Secondly, there is a move towards more specialisation. In this regard, the boys over at Euractiv have created their own custom search engine for the EU blogosphere. Check it out here.
Which all leads us to wonder what does this mean? Well, we suppose if we work on our premise that policymakers also use the internet to find out about stuff – or at least their assistants do – that it’s not only your website that needs optimising but increasingly that other types of content may become more useful. Secondly, the custom search could be useful – for example, do you only want to know what the EU institutions websites say on a subject, or how about what a collection of NGO websites say? Could be handy.
In the early summer we mentioned Italian comic turned online political activist Beppe Grillo and his efforts to gather the signatures needed to introduce a popular law in Italy. From all the attention he has been getting in recent days in the Italian media, it seems Beppe is causing a few sleepless nights for the elected politicians as he continues his campaign to rock the political establishment of the country. Especially as it has been reported that his V-day campaign netted around 300,000 signatories.
Last night’s Rai Uno (Italian public broadcaster) evening news, which some of us are compelled to watch, dedicated a substantial part of their broadcast to his activities. The same channel’s pseudo political chat show, Porta Porta, also debated the campaign, with the likes of Prof. Prodi commenting on Vaffa-Day. Whether you are a showgirl (velina), tv presenter or politician, you know when you’ve made it in Italy when Porta Porta presenter Bruno Vespa gives you a call. It seems therefore that online grassroots campaigning has truly arrived in Italy.
Amidst the continuing discussions over transparency here in Brussels, a blog entry on the advocacy activities of eBay on the European Parliament Blog reminds us that whatever position an organisation advocates towards policymakers, they should be prepared for it to become public.
Brussels is, so the cliche goes, a small town. You’d be amazed how willing people are to talk about who is saying what on any given issue. Its part of the unwritten rules of the game. And that goes for institutional actors as well as lobbyists (consultants, corporates, trade associations, NGOs et al). The position paper that you just emailed to the MEP’s office could be forwarded to anyone at the touch of a button, more than that it probably will be.
As such, it is not just an organisation’s lawyers who should be checking what you write in your position paper. The public affairs team should also ensure that whatever is advocated fits in with corporate messages and the core values of the organisation. Such an approach seems like common sense, but in our experience is not always followed when an organisation’s bottom line is at stake.
Such an approach also makes a lot of sense in terms of ensuring that an organisation’s advocacy is effective. Decision-makers in Brussels need information and are happy to listen as long as you have something to say that is relevant to them and what they are trying to achieve. The result of Brussels openness, despite what some may say, is better legislation and a vibrant public affairs culture that stresses professionalism rather than personal contacts.
In such a system, what you say, how it resonates with policymakers’ objectives and when you say it are going to play a large role in how successful you are in persuading people. But underpinning this is how credible you are as an organisation in making that case. How much the decision-maker sees you as authoritative on the issue and how far your position echoes what they think you stand for are therefore important factors in how likely you are to be believed.
We think many organisations are getting this, as we have seen many more investing time in building their reputation with decision-makers in recent years. It is for a large part about ensuring that Corporate Communications and PA work together hand in glove. They are after all both communications functions. Such investments are sometimes difficult to justify internally, but PA functions in enlightened companies seem to be winning the argument.
One example of this is Sun Microsystems, an open source company that takes its approach to business over to how it communicates its stance on policy issues. You can find their policy positions on their website. Other examples that we have come across are consumer goods manufacturer P&G and of course Google’s (US focused) Public Policy blog.
A constant challenge in public affairs is ensuring a fair case for our clients in the media.
The influence of the most prominent newspapers is enormous. The nature of newspapers – the quest for brevity – can occasionally overly simplify complex arguments and overlook essential ambiguities.
If you or your issue is misrepresented in the news, in the past the traditional response has been to pen a letter to the editor, hope that the editor publishes the letter, hope that the reporter considers your rebuttal, and hope that readers see your response in addition to the original article.
This might change, if another Google experiment succeeds. Google News now plans to let the subjects of articles comment on the article in a dedicated space.
We all hope that the news media is objective and balanced. However, when it misses this target, it is important that some means of redress exits. We think that Google’s new idea is excellent – let us hope that it works in implementation.
A blog on politics, policy, public affairs and communications in Brussels and the European Union. The blog is written by the team at Fleishman-Hillard in Brussels. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect those of the company or its clients.