Campaigning in EU public affairs remains under-utilised

Public affairs practitioners in Brussels face a paradox. Policy-making is becoming more technical, with growing amounts of legislation being thrashed out in expert groups. Yet it is also more political, with EU policy-makers and regulators increasingly eager to cement their democratic legitimacy by siding with popular sentiment.

Most would applaud the EU’s championing of popular viewpoints (within reason). One group with mixed feelings may be the public affairs profession, for whom politicisation can make work a whole lot more challenging.

Politicisation is not new to the EU public affairs profession. On issues from nuclear to GMOs, corporate public affairs practitioners have long begrudged the ability of NGOs to drive public contempt and push issues up the political agenda. Back in 2001, one noted public affairs authority, the late Simon Titley, spoke of a ‘new model of influence’ driven by NGOs and an active citizenry, which required values-based rather than technical arguments in order to gain public support and ultimately influence public policy in Brussels.

But EU public affairs professionals valiantly fended off calls for a new approach, helped by a citizenry detached from Brussels. This apathy was driven by a natural penchant for national news and the fact that the EU largely did not deal with topics that interest most people, like health and education. Technical standards for trucks and obscure financial instruments do not quite have the same allure.

A few years down the line, it is hard to escape politicisation. Even the European Commission, previously a bastion of technocracy, has become more political, compounded by an ever more active European Parliament, and greater involvement of member states for whom Brussels had once often been an afterthought. There is no reason to think things will be different following the recent elections.

As a result, public affairs professionals are increasingly having to display popular support in order to ingratiate themselves with policy-makers. Here is where the challenge arises: demonstrating existing popular support can be difficult; and generating fresh popular support through campaigning is even harder.

  • Campaigning is time-consuming and expensive, especially if it needs to be done in multiple countries.
  • It often requires a shift in culture. Public affairs folk drawn to Brussels mostly enjoy the intricacies of complex legislation and the EU’s labyrinthine decision-making process. Campaigning is a different discipline best suited to those rare people who marry political passion with an instinct for marketing.
  • If one is looking to alter the policy status quo, one may need to create public interest from scratch. Doing so requires a great deal of creativity, especially if the issue is not intrinsically newsworthy.
  • And most challenging of all, one may be on the wrong side of an already public debate. Shifting public opinion enough to counter public antipathy is extremely difficult.

Yet public affairs practitioners looking to show policy-makers that they command popular support need not necessarily generate new support. They can demonstrate existing support. This is already a staple of EU public affairs. Agrichemicals companies exhibit their importance to farmers, and pharmaceutical companies their life-saving contributions to patients, for instance. The tech giants are also at it. No one in Brussels could have missed Google’s recent campaign praising the virtues of Android for various sets of distinct citizens, from entrepreneurs through to senior citizens.

While these tactics are laudable, and possibly effective over time, they may often not in themselves be powerful enough if:

  1. An issue is not on the public radar and a policy change away from the status-quo is required; or
  2. An organisation is on the wrong side of the public debate and needs to generate a major shift in the public narrative.

For either to happen, campaigning to mobilise backers – and thereby creating a new, active supporter base – is required.

While difficult, it can be done. Two noted and oft-quoted (sorry!) case studies from the past decade are the campaign against ACTA and Fish Fight. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a treaty aimed at cementing international standards for intellectual property rights, triggered protests across Europe and a series of petitions which were signed by millions of people. Public displeasure reversed ACTA’s political support and it was never ratified by the EU. Similarly, when EU fisheries legislation was up for renewal in 2012-13, the practice of throwing perfectly edible dead fish back into the sea for quota reasons was not questioned. An online driven, celebrity endorsed campaign ensued – Fish Fight – calling for a halt to the practice. It resulted in fish discards being banned in a landslide vote.

Neither issue was especially prominent at first. ACTA was a shoo-in and fish discards were not even on the agenda. Yet well-run campaigns that mobilised the public over a short period of time did enough to shift the public narrative and completely reverse the expected policy outcomes.

But of course, both campaigns shared a highly favourable trait: protesters were on the ‘right’ side of the public debate. They were respectively fighting on behalf of freedom of expression and privacy, and pretty fishies. It is much harder for organisations or causes that are not intrinsically popular or likeable to mobilise support. But not impossible. The route to success is to either:

  1. Mobilise a narrow yet highly motivated set of supporters; or
  2. Identify one or more groups unrelated to oneself who share the same objective.

Uber’s efforts against bans in several European markets are an example of campaigning by mobilising a narrow set of supporters. Criticised in Europe due to reports of its aggressive entry into markets and other alleged wrong-doings – and most decisively, opposition by incumbent cab firms – Uber has suffered at the hands of European policymakers. They have therefore often sought to mobilise an intrinsically loyal group – existing customers who use the service and appreciate its many conveniences – by enabling app users to immediately get engaged by signing a petition. While I’d stress that I am only an external observer – I have never worked for Uber – and cannot vouch for the outcome of this vs. other tactics, it appears very sensible in principle. They are mobilising people that are inherently loyal, as they have downloaded the app already, at a time when they are frustrated, as they are unable to use the service. What’s more, many of these people are likely to fit within in a demographic – urban, young, and relatively affluent – that policy-makers pay heed to.

Identifying disparate organisations or groups that support one’s position on an issue requires some imagination. But it can be done. The ‘Keep me Posted’ campaign cites the following goal: “To offer all citizens the choice of receiving information through paper correspondence as a standard offer… and refrain from penalising in any way, any citizen for preferring to receive information through paper correspondence.” Run by postal services and the paper industry, who of course have a commercial interest in maintaining paper correspondence, it is supported by other organisations, such as the European Disability Forum and The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) who support people who cannot access the internet and believe that digital-only correspondence is discriminatory. Again, I am an external observer and cannot fully vouch for the success of the campaign, but it seems very sensible in principle because the organisations in question have very different raison d’êtres, and yet they have found a single issue on which they share a goal, thereby lending greater greater credibility to their campaign.

Campaigning is difficult, especially if an organisation is on the wrong side of the public debate or if a change in the status quo is required. And it needs to be done well or it can quickly become an expensive yet ineffective exercise. But at EU level, given politicisation of an ever-growing number of issues, it must become an integral cog in the public affairs professional’s toolkit.

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