13 February 2013

That population white paper, and 6 common content marketing mistakes

I don't usually write about politics because it distracts from the purpose of this blog. This blog is about content, not so much about public affairs. But the ongoing contention over the Singapore Government’s latest White Paper has important lessons about the place of content and publishing in public relations.

I want to take this opportunity to explain the concept of content marketing to the public relations people that make up the majority of my meatspace professional network. It may not be the biggest example of content-strategy-gone-south from Singapore, but it is the most mainstream in recent memory.

First, some background for foreign readers

Most readers of this blog are from outside Singapore, so here’s a brief summary of the situation here:

In January this year, the Prime Minister’s Office released a White Paper that made the deeply unpopular recommendation to continue a net-positive immigration policy. The main justification: economic growth. The challenges: a critically low birth rate, overtaxed infrastructure, and an increasingly xenophobic environment.

Despite widespread criticism of the roadmap described in the White Paper, particularly its projection of a 6.9 million population in 2030, the Parliament has passed it last week. Discussion and criticism remains active online, and a public protest (these things are rare in Singapore) is being planned for 16 February.

The White Paper's poor public reception was the result of mistakes common to many content self-publishers:

Common mistake #1: An inflexible editorial calendar

Of all the factors that led to the White Paper's negative reception, the one with the biggest impact was probably the unplanned delay to its publication.

Originally scheduled for release in December 2012, the White Paper was postponed due to a local re-election. The result: not only was it released after concrete government measures had already been announced, it followed a defeat at the polls that’s widely interpreted as a referendum on the People Action Party’s unpopular policies. Instead of prefacing a series of major government announcements, such as the new maternity/paternity benefits and new land use plans, the White Paper came to sum up the public’s doubts about the PAP’s national development plans.

The unfortunate timing of the White Paper highlights a risk that’s well known in the traditional publishing and media industries: A lengthy production process exposes the publisher to external risks while production is in progress.

A complete content strategy doesn’t just focus on the question of when to publish. It also describes when not to publish. Content strategists must take care to avoid the sunk-cost problem–no content is too expensive to cancel or withdraw from distribution. Organisations should diversify its risks by adding buffers in its content pipeline and having parallel, concurrent content projects, in case there’s last minute postponements and cancellations.

In the White Paper's case, cancelling probably wasn’t an option. It had already been announced and lined up for debate in Parliament. The result is a high-profile public document, made redundant even before it could be debated publicly, that did significant damage to the Government's public relations.

I agree with Bertha Henson when she said,

You know, maybe the G[overnment] shouldn’t have released the report and just quietly ramp up the infrastructure…That population target/projection can be classified as an official secret. We go with central planning. No discussion.

Common mistake #2: Underestimating and trivialising the editing effort

The White Paper had several widely reported mistakes. One was the mischaracterisation of the nursing profession as a “low-skill” job, for which the Government issued a corrigendum (and, from the Prime Minister, a public apology. The other is about a chart that passes off stretch targets as statistical projections.

Many have asked: How could the document have passed through so many pairs of eyes without them getting spotted?

My guess: the Prime Minister’s Office underestimated the effort needed for content quality assurance.

Organisations that underestimate the editing process typically hold onto a few myths about editing:

  • Proofreader==editor: Inexperienced self-publishers often think a “thorough” edit is just about catching spelling and grammar errors, or conformance to style and voice rules. They consider an absence of grammar errors a sufficient measure for content quality.
  • The primacy of primary research: Organisations think that information from “the source”—the subject experts, the operations specialists—is always correct. Non-expert editors can't be expected to add value to content by experts, much less fact-check and challenge the data created by them. (Of course, in the mainstream press, editors check content outside their subject expertise all the time.)
  • “Pre-approved” text: Large organisations try to improve publishing efficiency by having the specialists supply paragraphs that's already been certified correct. It's both faster and more acceptable to have content that can only be understood by other experts, than to oversimplify things for an audience who wouldn't understand anyway.

Underestimating the editing effort is such a universal phenomenon it almost feel silly to finger it as a cause of public communications failure on this scale; after all, "my expert writers gave us ample time to review and fact-check their content" said no marketing department ever. Still, here we have a case of the Singapore government messing up so badly that even Members of Parliament criticised its official publication directly in public. Underestimating the editing effort is reflects an underestimation of the impact of poor quality content.

Likewise, high-quality writing and content isn’t just a matter of talent, process and budget. It’s also a matter of organisation culture and how tall its silos are.

Common mistake #3: Expecting content to sell itself

Advocates of content marketing often say that good content can help sell product. What’s not said often enough, I think, is that content itself is a product. And like any other product, the content needs selling.

High-investment content, such as infographics, video or research reports, requires substantial lead time to research, write and produce. Unfortunately, for the senior management team that commissions such projects, investment of time and money often comes with magic thinking: the effort put into quality content will always be rewarded. "Isn’t content king?" goes the reasoning.

The creation of quality content that's highly anticipated by its intended audience is not all upside. Taking time to create a long, informative report exposes publishers to more, not less, risks. Lengthy content requires more of readers’ attention, which means a higher likelihood of losing it. Also, when there’s more content to be read, there’s also more content to be scrutinized by readers, and more things for detractors to quote out of context.

Expecting a report (or any sort of high-cost content) to sell and defend itself in the marketplace of ideas, especially when the audience is hostile to your message, is akin to sending tanks onto the battlefield without air and ground support. Not only will you fail to gain ground, you will lose your content development investments.

Common mistake #4: Mistaking content research for audience research

Before we talk about the next common mistake, let’s get a myth out of the way.

It’s a common criticism in Singapore that public engagement prior to a major policy announcement amounts to nothing more than a token exercise at engaging the public.

This criticism isn’t entirely fair.

It’s standard practice–good practice–to first use controlled surveys and focus groups to collect feedback, rather than head straight to a public forum for feedback. It ensures a fair representation of views, rather than allowing a bias towards the more vocal stakeholders. From all appearances, I think PMO has made a reasonable effort at when it conducted its surveys with individuals, stakeholder groups and organisations.

Here’s the real mistake, one I’ve seen in the past (though not necessarily here in the White Paper’s case):

While focus groups and surveys are a good practice, we sometimes forget that research isn't the same as public relations. Content teams that are closely involved in the research/engagement process risk coming under the impression they've made a fair effort to reach their detractors out there. They sometimes forget that dissenters involved in the content research/engagement process don’t speak for dissenting voices in the wider audience.

Content research is simply that–an activity that improves the quality of the report/video/infographic. When the content goes public, publishers will have to face the reaction of the audience, regardless of how much preparation went into the content, or how informative it was. What's more, content quality itself doesn't negate the need of selling the content’s message.

In short, I’m saying that a content strategy isn't the same thing as a PR strategy.

Common mistake #5: TL;DR (Too long, didn't read)

The Prime Minister’s Office didn't just conduct studies to shape the White Paper. Other government agencies helped in the communication lead-up by publishing a series of information papers…

Did I just say, a series of information papers?

Yeah, until I did my research for this article, I didn’t know about them too .

Wait, you didn’t read these information papers too?

(I guess the low readership of those information papers kinda prefigures that of the White Paper itself.)

To me (and many others I've read and asked personally), the most striking aspect about the White Paper ruckus was how few actually read the White Paper. On the initial knee-jerk negative public reaction, former nominated member of parliament Calvin Cheng noted:

In the era of social media, nobody shares 41 page white papers full of technical jargon and pie-charts. They share sound-bites. Nobody posts status updates on Facebook with logical step-by-step explanations but instead, one –liners that shout at you and get shared virally.Nobody will remember anything else from the White Paper and very few would have taken the time to read it.

Not only did few people read the document; the length and information-density of the White Paper meant that it couldn’t be effectively shared or syndicated across social networks. In the first few crucial days (hours?) when public opinion about the White Paper was being shaped, most people were talking about it without having read the document.

Long before the communications plan was in place, the format of the content had already determined the trajectory of its reach.

Common mistake #6: Neglecting to tell a good story (aka Too boring, didn't read)

More needs to be said about how unfortunate it is that the content lead-up to the White Paper was more information papers.

In this age of social media, it’s hard to overstate the importance of storytelling.

Social media is not an infinitely malleable gestalt media many media gurus make it out to be. Just because you use your Facebook Likes as a mailing list, or your Facebook page like your blog, doesn’t mean your Facebook page actually behaves like a mailing list or a blog. Facebook is behaves like Facebook: it tells a story about your brand and organisation.

Storytelling is the method to the madness of social media. Underlying that mess of status updates, meme photos and inspirational quotes is a story about your organsiation. If you do it well, people go away thinking they know your brand or organisation a little better. Do it poorly and they forget about you or, worse, think your effort at storytelling is meant to hide something.

Here's the deal about using social media to communicate a complex message. Publishers should deliver smaller, simpler complex messages over a period of time. They should not deliver a heavy piece of content (e.g. a 40-page report, or a 20-minute YouTube video) without adequate publicity and lead-up.

Sure, this approach will cause you to lose much control over your message. People may reach their own conclusions before you've had a chance to present yours.

But a long lead-up also lets you answer potential objections as it slowly builds up towards the brand message or call-to-action. By engaging the audience, it lets you to iterate and refine the message along the way.

In a sense, this isn’t content strategy at all. It’s just PR 101, albeit for the age of social media.

Social media is essentially a storytelling platform. If you don’t tell a good story on a social platform, the network will weave a story about you on its own terms.

That, in part, was what happened to the White Paper.


popcorn philosopher said...
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