Communication isn’t magic

In public affairs land, we often think that decision-makers act a certain way because there’s an information gap that effective communication can fill. We begin a vicious war of attrition: repeat the message often enough and at some point, the decision-maker will succumb.

But on politicised issues on which publics have a strong point of view, decision-makers tend to follow the tide of public opinion. In the interests of keeping their jobs and democratic legitimacy, this makes sense, clearly.

If one is on the “wrong” side of the public debate, describing how brilliant one is, even if one believes that one’s activities align with public interest, will not suffice.

One must: a) demonstrate changes in behaviour in line with public expectations (e.g. improve products or services, or in policy-land alone, a willingness to compromise or self-regulate) AND/OR b) build and demonstrate support from politically relevant constituencies.

On that note, here are two oft-heard fallacies in public affairs:

We just need to get our message out!

Sure, some organisations do not get their way because they have failed to communicate. But usually, foghorn communication will not magically bring about more favourable treatment when an issue is political. The challenge usually isn’t awareness but political viability, and again, one becomes politically viable by changing behaviour (compromising etc.) or showing support from politically potent allies.

We must change the narrative!

When the public narrative is counter-productive, it makes sense to want to change it. But most narratives cannot be changed through communication. I remember once hearing a lobbyist for a sugary drink manufacturer suggest that their company should seek to shift the narrative from the dangers of sugar to the dangers of dehydration. Good luck with that. If a narrative has been determined, it can usually only be altered – again – through behaviour change that demonstrably addresses the other side’s grievances OR building and demonstrating support from a substantial group of allies.

In summary: success in public affairs can and should of course be the result of better facts. And it often is. High-quality information provision remains the key determinant of success in Brussels. But as issues get ever more political, organisations need to be politically palatable if they are to win in the policy arena.

Being politically palatable involves the two items I’ve now repeated ad nauseam in this post:

  1. Behaviour change AKA some sort of operational improvement, or if that is not viable, compromise or self-regulation.
  2. Building and demonstrating wider support so that one is on the right side of the public debate, at least in the view of a substantial number of decision-makers.

But the former cannot be dictated by public affairs folk alone while the latter involves bolder communication that requires the skillsets of campaigners and marketing-communicators working alongside government relations professionals. Herein lies the challenge for public affairs folk in Brussels. Business as usual won’t do: it’s time for us to get out of our comfort zone.

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