The formal dress code in my office was relaxed on Friday for a communal clean-up effort. There I was, going through my desk drawers in extreme casual when a call came in asking if I could take over the plenary speaking engagement of a colleague who was snowbound in New York City. I found myself unexpectedly committed to a fantastic opportunity to speak at the CPRS Ottawa conference Take the Leap: from Good to Great conference… under-dressed and under-prepared.

Everything came together in five hours. I created the presentation deck, rehearsed, went home to get changed and arrived at the venue with 10 minutes to spare.

The session was about ways to take public affairs activities from good to great.

Knowing that most people talk about tools, statistics and case studies that largely revolve around the creation of social media content including text, audio and video on the net, and building constituencies of support on social networking sites, I decided to challenge the audience to think beyond creation and start putting more energy in participation, In fact, I plan to map the role of  owned media and earned media in digital public affairs using Dave Fleet‘s model of the social media ecosystem.

Participation is largely overlooked in most campaigns. Monitoring efforts tend to focus on the quantity and qualities of content created by others (e.g. articles and videos by news organizations, and blog posts, videos, Twitter messages and Facebook groups by individuals to name just a few). Few organizations have the resources for or the interest in wading through the comments left by site visitors. While there’s generally very little to measure in the way of comments on user generated content, there are some exceptions to that rule. The windfall is in studying the sometimes hundreds of comments left on mainstream news sites.

Organizations that develop a matrix and can apply good filters to the comments will find them to be an incredibly valuable index of public opinion and public understanding of news stories — more so than a telephone survey that asks people to park their dinner and rank their opinion and understanding of a specific issue based on a numeric scale.

I was part of a team tasked with tracking an issue that received explosive media attention last year. We built a matrix and studied hundreds of comments on news websites. That data helped us identify new elements of public concern and measure misunderstanding that was driven by both the media and the snack/skim consumption habits of the digital public. While it’s true that a decent portion of the comments were irrelevant and inflammatory, those comments sometimes drew out those who are more knowledgeable on the issue which added further value to our monitoring efforts. I developed evaluation criteria to better assess the individuals behind the comments (see Communication anthropology: evaluating five types of commenters) and shared those findings as part of my session on Friday.

Digital commentary is where organizations can find the breeding grounds for constituencies of support. For the public affairs team, this is gold and can be used to determine how to respond as part of the community on the news site or in the further development of created engagement. This ties back to Dave Fleet’s social media ecosystem.

I believe that participation drives the kind of earned media and public trust money can’t buy. Of course, if your organization tracks time for your financials so you can measure short term payoff rather then long term competitive advantage, participation can become a measurable component of your ROI.