9 Changes in 9 Years: 9 Ways Public Affairs Communications has Changed Since the Founding of Blue Engine Message & Media


A lot has changed since Blue Engine Message & Media was founded nine years ago. At the time, George W. Bush was President and Barack Obama was just 18 months into his career in the U.S. Senate. Twitter was not yet a year old, Facebook was two. YouTube, running for just one year, had just been purchased by Google. Top stories of the day included: former Enron executives found guilty; “30 Rock” premiered on NBC; Taylor Swift just released her self-titled debut album; and Blue Engine Message & Media was just beginning. Since 2006, not only has our business gone from a sole-proprietorship to a growing team of 16 strategic communications professionals, but the tools we’re using to help our clients have also changed dramatically. Over the last nine years, we have seen the explosion of digital communications. While the internet was two decades old at the time of our founding and had been used as a communications tool throughout that time, the past nine years have been transformational in how digital tools can be deployed to speak directly to diverse audiences, empowering movements and enabling change. This has impacted not only how firms like ours do business, but also how the media covers the issues of the day. But the internet isn’t the only thing that has grown since our founding. To celebrate our first nine years, we’ve outlined below nine ways communications methods have changed how we and our peers do business.

1. Removing the Filter Between Public Figures and Their Audiences

Today, there are 304 million active Twitter users and 1.5 billion active Facebook users across the globe. Included among them are nearly all Members of Congress, the President of the United States and the journalists who cover them all. They use the platforms to speak directly to their constituents, stakeholders or other audiences. At our start in 2006, Members of Congress were not yet permitted to use Twitter, Facebook or to post official communications on nonofficial websites. That action is now not only permitted, but these tools are now central to both political and brand strategies. Journalists can break news faster than ever; audiences can join the conversation virtually wherever they are; brands can use sophisticated targeting to advertise directly to consumers; and advocacy groups can demonstrate and activate an engaged constituency on any issue. As social media tools continue to grow, the question we ask ourselves isn’t, “Should we use social media to communicate with someone?” but “How can we use social media to better engage our audience?” The filters of old are falling and the result is a more connected world.

2. Going Viral / Always On The Record

We can’t imagine a world without viral videos or trends moving at the speed of light. Sure some of the silly viral videos like Charlie Bit my Finger or The Evolution of Dance have nearly a billion views, but this trend impacts more than just YouTube fun. A public affairs campaign can bring together disparate audiences and marshal action. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge got more than 17 million people involved and raised $115 million to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease. But the same tools that enable a viral social movement can also mean that mistakes can spread faster than ever. Take the now-famous “47 percent” comment then Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney made to a small group of people at a fundraiser. The video of the remarks took off, driving social media conversation, forcing him to react in traditional media interviews and eventually, a campaign ad against him. It isn’t just public figures that can be consumed by social media furor. One public relations professional had her entire career implode from the time she sent a tweet to 170 followers just before boarding a flight that became a worldwide trending topic to when her flight landed and she had lost her job over it. While social media provides significant freedom of expression and opportunities for social change and mindless entertainment, brands and celebrities have to be careful about what they say and how they say it

3. The Decline of Print Media and the Rise of Online News

Declining readership, lower advertising revenues and falling subscriptions have led to an overall decline in print media. We’ve seen long-running newspapers close or reduce their print editions and cut staff at alarming rates. At the same time, there’s been a huge spike in the number of news outlets online. The scale of this shift may have been hard to imagine nine years ago, but today’s media reality impacts every aspect of public affairs and crisis communications. Along with Blue Engine, Buzzfeed was founded in 2006. Then, it was just a specialty website capitalizing on an audience that was captivated by cat videos and “listicles” but now, Buzzfeed has a reporter in the White House briefing room and other online outlets like Huffington Post, Vox and Ozy are boasting record unique visitors –some even higher than traditional print outlets. Online outlets are hiring traditional print journalists, too. Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith came from Politico and the New York Daily News before that. Former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein now runs Vox.com While these sites still cater to their original audiences with fun links, they now also analyze complex policy issues in easily digestible formats.

4. Websites as The New Campaign Hubs

A central part of our communication work these days involves developing websites that serve as a campaign hub to drive a message and goals. Sure, websites mattered in 2006, but now they play an important role in establishing credibility and, importantly, bringing people together. These digital hubs can be a one-stop-shop for everything about an issue or campaign. Where websites used to be static sources of general information about a company or an issue, they now serve as a way to drive action, as an information source for journalists and other third-parties, and even a place for people to communicate directly with a brand, a campaign or a Member of Congress. Most importantly websites have become a useful tool to build a community and drive action around an important public policy issue. These hubs are creative message-vehicles and a central part of any campaign – whether proactive or in response to an emerging trend or crisis. New technologies are making it so creating these hubs is easier than ever and accessing them can be done from anywhere, on any device and at any time.

5. Thinking Mobile First  

In June of 2015, the New York Times announced that it would temporarily block access to its desktop homepage inside the newsroom so reporters would be forced to use the mobile version instead. Attributing this experiment to the fact that more than half of their traffic to the website comes from mobile devices, the Times wanted its reporters to think “mobile first” when it comes to how reporters think about coverage and how their readers view it. The Times’ experiment is a reflection of the reality of these times. According to the Pew Research Center, online, more traffic to the top newspaper websites and associated apps comes from mobile than from desktop users. And that’s true too for non-news websites too. In creating digital hubs for our clients, Blue Engine thinks “mobile first” as well. We make sure sites are responsive and easy to use for users accessing information from smart phones, tablets, and desktop computers.  People still want information, they’ve just changed how they get it. Companies, candidates, governments and campaigns are adopting to the “mobile first” reality, or they’re being left behind.

6. The use of multimedia: images, infographics and videos

We could say more, but … INFOGRAPHIC Image by: https://contently.com/strategist/2015/04/29/infographic-why-your-brain-and-your-readers-love-infographics/

7. Data

Sophisticated analytics tools have transformed how we test content, methods and messages to make sure we are using the right tactics to drive our message and reach the right people. We now test campaigns and then scale them to ensure a higher impact. We can use metrics to target key audiences, refine messages and make sure that our clients are talking to the right people, in the right way, at the right time to the greatest impact.  This is expanding all the time. Where once we were forced to rely on polling data, we now have a robust set of research tools to help refine our work.

8. Digital Advertising

Digital advertising is an effective way of raising awareness and encouraging engagement on an issue – it can also be an effective tool for responding to or even preventing a crisis. Using sophisticated digital tools to target regions, states, cities and even a neighborhood block or building, we can now reach a very precise audience with relevant content.  Nine years ago, we often had to rely on blasts of broadcaster print advertising and hope our target audience was watching or reading when the ads were running. Last year, more than $50 billion was spent on digital ads including ads on mobile devices. Digital tools give us greater flexibility on timing – allowing us to drive messages around key moments or counter opposing messages.  Digital also gives us the ability to test messages and markets to make sure our work is effective. This is an exciting time because we are now able to marshal detailed evidence to make sure client resources are well spent.

9. Blue Engine Milestones  

Of course our business isn’t the only thing that changed. Our work wouldn’t mean as much as it does if we weren’t able to share it with wonderful clients and an amazing team. In addition to growing our staff, collectively we have experienced a number of exciting milestones: we’ve celebrated: 3 weddings, 5 engagements, 4 births, 1 baby on the way, 8 graduations, and 3 new dogs. We couldn’t be more excited about what the next nine years will bring in our business and in our lives.

– Written by: Erik Smith, David Di Martino and Allison Fastow