Heard in Brussels: “we need to do something different”

The conversation then usually proceeds like this:

  • Yes indeed, you’re stuck in a rut, you’re not shifting the pin on your issue at all and your organisation is losing out.
  • What can we do?
  • Technical argumentation in the bubble with the same stakeholders isn’t working: you probably need to look beyond the bubble.
  • Where’s that?
  • Outside Brussels.
  • ?!?
  • Presumably there are people affected by the issue beyond Brussels? Involve them in this and make your arguments value-based, not technical; emotional, not technocratic.
  • How do I do that?
  • Identify who might be affected, see what resonates with them, reach out, engage, befriend; talk to your PR people elsewhere, your marketers… and then feed into the communications loop in Brussels. Decision makers will usually side with the most “popular” position so if you can somehow show it’s yours, you’re more likely to succeed.
  • No thanks, I’ll stick what I know best (usually followed by something like: “our organisation is not ready for such a shift”.)

I’ve spoken about how PA is shifting before here. James has too over at Bubble to Beltway here. The question is: why are organisations who ultimately know the same-old isn’t working (as mentioned, the conversation always starts with “we need to do something different”) very often unwilling to then do anything different?

Probably a mixture of the following:

Comfort zone. Public Affairs in Brussels is not strictly a communications discipline in many respects: it’s more like political counsel. Developing a value-based narrative or building a coalition beyond traditional stakeholders might seem second nature to marketers, corporate communicators and PR people; to PA professionals it’s a little daunting.

Self-importance. Let’s be honest: we’re a bit smug. We somehow think PA is too cerebral for emotional argumentation or non-traditional outreach. How many agencies in town have a clear PA vs. PR hierarchy? Plenty. Frankly, it’s damaging: time to get off the high-horse.

A compelling case. Maybe this is where consultants (me included) fail. To get PA professionals out of their comfort zone, a really compelling case is required. It should be apocalyptic – do this or die – but more than that, it needs to be backed up by data: this will work because of a, b and c. That means more research before the proposal is made, mocking up campaigns and programmes, potential outcomes, step by step scenarios and very clear resource allocation.


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