Digital in EU Public Affairs: what really matters

Talk about the application of digital and social media in Brussels-based EU public affairs often centres on the potential for grassroots mobilisation, citing one or more of the following:

  • At national level, citizens are politically active online across the EU; given that they’re using the same social networks, the advent of the European Citizens’ Initiative, and activist sites like Avaaz are uniform and multilingual, pan-European campaigns should be on the up.
  • In part through digital means, citizens have dramatically reversed the tide on issues that seemed set in stone e.g. ACTA and fish discards.
  • Even corporate-led public affairs is veering towards greater engagement with downstream players e.g. consumers, retailers and unions, who are more able and willing to mobilise constituents.
  • Online grassroots mobilisation is inherent in US politics and where they start we tend to follow.

There’s some truth in all of the statements above, but they largely ignore the following:

  • On many (most?) Brussels issues, there is no major public interest angle; the sexy stuff (health, education etc.) is largely dealt with at national level.
  • EU policy-making remains more technical and less political than it is at national level. Unless an issue has become highly politicised, technical know-how and the ability to navigate expert groups and comitology is key to success.
  • Likewise, EU policy-making is more consensus-based than at national level; the ability to come with solutions that can form the basis of consensus is valued more highly than public support (again – unless this is considerable).
  • On the corporate side – let’s be frank – even if there’s a public interest angle, players are often on the wrong side of the public debate and thus have no interest in raising volume levels.

Does this make digital and social irrelevant in public affairs? No, but in most instances, focus should be on other elements of the digital/social suite, for instance:

  • Basic content and search: successful public affairs requires timely provision of relevant communications material; this needs to be available online (and must be easy to locate) but too often it is not.
  • Intelligence: various online intelligence tools and techniques should be applied more broadly e.g. network analysis technology can help map and prioritise relevant networks of influence.
  • Social business: a frequent complaint about business lobbyists is that they know the dossiers inside out but not enough about the business they represent; similarly, PA professionals complain that their business counterparts don’t value their work. Improved internal collaboration networks, one of the hallmarks of social business, could help both ways.
  • And…. the digital & social ethos: given the complexity of the subject matter and the background of most public affairs professionals (i.e. policy/politics not strategic communications), PA is too often knowledge – not strategy and outcome – focussed, making too much PA output dull and ineffective. In digital and social, given online information overload, highly discerning audiences and greater internal scrutiny, output must be strategy based, creatively executed, social by design and measurable – or it just won’t work.

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