COVID-19 has been a boon for Zoom and now platforms of all kinds are reaping the rewards. Political roundtables, strategy workshops and policy conferences are flocking online. But will it last — and should it?

A spoonful of digital

Without a doubt, a dose of digital helped with the lockdown blues. As confinement kicked in, it became clear that shifts in policymaking practices meant influence strategies needed to be redrawn. Thankfully, the growth of digital infrastructure had left us with some ready-made channels waiting in the wings.

In Brussels, Twitter has been top dog for a while, the open forum where stakeholders gather en masse to gossip and exchange in real-time. Recently, LinkedIn has emerged as a place of targeted discussion where issue and industry expertise can be demonstrated through long-form content. The result has been increased avenues for citizen participation and the enabling of smaller players to influence policy.

Considering that social-media was built for peer-to-peer participation, you could think these channels would drive engagement with decision-makers during a time when we are all stuck on our sofas. Meetings could be conducted via Zoom, webinars replaced roundtables and Hopin replicates your conference down to the letter.

But all this was true before COVID-19, so this is simply an accelerated trend? With the global events industry losing US$135 billion in revenue in this period, you could be forgiven for thinking so.

But this is categorically a shutdown not a slowdown. Before COVID-19 companies were hosting and sponsoring offline engagements with gusto. A HBR survey even found 93% of executives placing a priority on traditional events for outreach.

Were they all simply blind to the power of Zoom or Hopin? Perhaps. But maybe, their experience led them to a place of intuitive intelligence — they simply understood the face-to-face factor.

Conducting one-on-one conversations is not the same as having one-to-one interactions. Talking to a screen does not deepen relationships in the same way conversing around drinks does, as science shows us.

5 ingredient for engaging public affairs

Offline events should remain a staple of your public affairs programme because they complete what I call the Stimulation-Cycle. Simply put, they are the forum of close-quarter engagement, which meets our base psychological need for social connection.

A study of touching behaviour of basketball teams in the NBA found that regular touching before, during and after the game had a positive effect on the final score. The “touchy teams” won more often because physical interaction inspires cooperation.

Policymakers are people too (surprised?) and have the same human nature and need for interaction as players on a baseball court. As such, offline events will be needed to bridge the sensory gap and foster connection. A handshake, the feel of documents you pick up from a table, the taste of the coffee you sip as you listen to small talk… sense embeds the experience. If you are looking for long-term influence, you need to be thinking about the kind of long-term cooperation fostered by inter-personal ties.

Pulling on insights into experimental marketing and research into the making of affectional ties, here is a five-point framework for embedding messages:

  1. Move my senses
  2. Make me feel something
  3. Move my mind and make me think
  4. Move me into an action
  5. Make me relate to you

Great influence strategies will plan public affairs activities around fulfilling all steps in the cycle. Digital can be an adequate supplement or replacement to provoking thinking, driving action and even emotional reactions. But when it comes to stimulating our senses in a material or multidimensional way, nothing matches up to face-to-face interactions.

Think about this for a second, how would the historic summit in July have played out online? Moments of conflict could be muted, attention diverted to another tab on one’s laptop as talks dragged on.

Merkel disconnecting from Zoom would not have the same impact as leaving the room early. Neither Macron banging his fists on the table, as the sense of the expression would be lost. The tough moments would have seen trivial on a screen — and the proximity needed to hammer out a compromise around a Belgian frite lost. The fact that the deal was struck at the first in-person meeting since the lockdown can not be overlooked.

Let’s bridge the gap — not overhype

An article trumpeting the value of offline in public affairs might seem a little tone-deaf right now. We are all busy adapting the in-person for the online and digital is and will remain our lifeline for getting anything done.

Virtual will events increase your reach by removing barriers to participation and expanding your audience. Better yet, digital enables you to act in the moment — no need for costly postponements and the associated organizational struggles.

But these are tactical changes, adaptions to overcome our context. A good strategist is as mindful of future possibilities as they are of the present realities, and you should already think of the post-confinement environment.

So, how can you get creative and add some sensorial stimuli back into your public affairs activities?

1. Think small: Hosting yearly large scale events in the Parliament is out the window. Use this chance to refresh your thinking on who is relevant and focus more narrowly, integrating regular small scale exchanges in person with stakeholders. Opt for depth over breadth.

2. Take it outdoors: Contact bubbles and restrictions on indoor meetings are likely to stick around. But, you can still be creative with outdoor spaces to bring people together. Research into outdoor education shows us that taking discussions outdoors can even give you an attention boost.

3. Supplement the screen: Still, plan to be fully remote? Then at least explore ways to get Phygital by adding physical supports around events. Send things to attendees that they can open and interact with during or after your meeting. One idea could be an event attendance packs with items like a programme, a postcard, CEO letter etc.

For now, lean into digital and adapt to reach and drive actions online. After all, there is a reason that digital-driven corporate advocacy is set to outstrip lobbying spend within the next 5 years.

But, do not forget that something will be missing. A strong public affairs programme will always need tactics for stakeholder involvement that fully incorporates the five elements of sense, feel, think, act and relate.

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