Online grassroots campaigning to support Public Affairs: once overhyped, now largely ignored

Even just a couple of years ago, a fair few people in the Brussels bubble were getting excited about the prospect of online grassroots campaigning.

Their logic was as follows:

  1. Regulation increasingly reflects public sentiment
  2. Public sentiment lives beyond the bubble
  3. Being able to showcase public support in member states is thus key to success
  4. However, building, showcasing and/or somehow aggregating support is very difficult
  5. The web is by nature cross-border and quick: a silver bullet for mobilisation, surely

The concept is no longer in vogue, given that, clearly, it was highly unrealistic in the first place: the assumption amongst a fair few PA pros was that there are people out there willing to be mobilised on any issue overnight as long as you looked hard enough.

This ignores the following:

  • Many organizations are either too unpopular or too obscure to rack up support overnight
  • Many regulatory issues are highly technical, making it difficult to create a “narrative” that makes mobilisation realistic
  • What’s more, even with suitable issues, many decisions will likely be based on consensus rather than who has most friends, especially if the Commission is the key player, making the whole premise pointless in the first place

BUT (and it’s a large BUT) that’s not to say there aren’t instances where it can be very valuable to showcase support or that it can’t ever work:

  • It can if the issue has a very clear public interest angle and the EP is a key player e.g. see the recent fish discards campaigns
  • Clearly, if an organization is popular, it’d be easier to drum up support
  • And in some cases, mobilisation can even work for an unpopular or obscure organization if it goes about it sensibly i.e. keeping expectations realistic and giving it time; and usually focusing on a single key constituency, rather than “general public”

As a side-note, personally, I’m pleased people aren’t seeing it as a silver bullet any longer. On one level, it shows we’re moving from hype to maturity. On another, it means investments in digital PA are being funneled into areas where it is more likely to provide a real benefit, such as analytics, content strategy and search.


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