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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Using digital and social media in technical vs. communications driven EU public affairs

I recently wrote about the nuance between technical/legal and public interest driven dossiers in EU public affairs. In short, high-quality technical information provision is the key determinant for success on technical dossiers, while on politicised issues in which public sentiment plays a role, a successful PA programme will likely need to include more of the marketing-communications toolkit.

This same nuance affects the use of digital and social media in public affairs. On communications-driven dossiers, strategies will frequently have considerable digital components. Run-of-the-mill examples might include:

  • An online-centred rebuttal programme when a public affairs goal is being hampered by a specific item of misinformation.
  • Leveraging public support from a specific constituency – people who live in a certain place, work for an affected company or industry, or have a certain set of values – with the help of online tactics like petitions and social networks.
  • Utilising digital storytelling techniques to raise awareness amongst diverse stakeholders in a cluttered information space.

In legal-technical public affairs activity, like tracking and analysing ramifications of policy or drafting and advising on policy-related texts, such strategies may seem irrelevant. And in all honesty they often are, at least on a large scale.

But by no stretch does that make digital channels as a whole irrelevant, as they remain viable tools across three core components of all public affairs activity:

  1. Intelligence tracking and analysis

While the use of data in public affairs remains rudimentary, quick wins may be found in areas such as proof point identification (e.g. what do people in a key decision-maker’s constituency think of your issue and can this be leveraged) and analysing the opinions, habits and communications preferences of targeted decision-makers active on social media.

  1. Message delivery

Providing policy-related information online is obviously key. Even on the most procedural of topics involving limited stakeholders, information will be sought online. Meanwhile, highly targeted digital marketing methods can help get relevant content to the narrowest of audiences.

  1. Relationship-building

Last but not least, if target decision-makers are engaged in social media, it presents an alternative channel for reach and influence. There are only so many meetings one can attend.

The use of digital and social as one minor cog in technical/legal-centred public affairs programme may seem unexciting and perhaps even irrelevant. Undoubtedly, the options available when campaigning to influence a wider set of influencers will appear more enticing to most communications professionals. But don’t underestimate the value that digital and social can provide in shifting the pin even on under-the-radar PA, be it through a piece of intelligence uncovered online, first-rate content, or because of reputational capital and relationships built up over time in part via social media.

Technical vs. public interest dossiers in EU public affairs: options when public sentiment is king

There are two common takes on corporate advocacy in Brussels:

1. Technical information is king

In seeking to dispel claims that it is packed full of idle bureaucrats, the EU forces its institutions to be under-staffed. Given the complexity of most dossiers, lobbyists are likely to win when they help overworked regulators by providing excellent technical information, and understand the political process well enough to provide said information at the right time. And indeed, a study on EU interest group influence by German academic Heike Kluwer identifies high-quality technical information provision as the main determinant of EU lobbying success. Given that corporates tend to invest heavily in research and most of their lobbyists are lawyer or political-scientist types rather than campaigners, dossiers on which regulators crave technical information tend to favour corporates.

2. Public opinion is king

Kluwer also states that close alignment with public opinion is a key determinant of EU lobbying success. Grumbles about the supposed democratic deficit inherent in EU policy-making makes the institutions uncomfortable. In order to demonstrate democratic legitimacy, they will frequently seek to side with public opinion. As an exercise in democracy, this may be laudable, but public opinion is not always entirely rational! Activists understand this dynamic very well and will often seek to make an issue as controversial as possible in order to sway public opinion and force the regulator’s hand. On dossiers which have a public dimension – think TTIP, shale gas, GMOs, a number of chemicals, or privacy and data protection – activists have a natural advantage over corporates in Brussels as they are adept at building and exploiting public sentiment for public policy ends.

In some instances, corporate lobbyists in Brussels are on the ‘right’ side of the public debate. Most companies and sectors lobbying on the circular economy, for instance, are promoting some form of sustainable development, which few can have gripes with. Yet given many of the issues handled in Brussels, from energy to chemicals to financial services, it is fair to say that corporates are frequently victims of the ‘public opinion is king’ dynamic. Which is often a very good thing: public opinion tends to side with the good guys. But sometimes it is not so clear-cut and a more nuanced debate would be preferable, to put it mildly.

Assuming they’re genuinely not nasty, how should companies or even entire industries respond if unfairly lambasted because they’ve become the cause célèbre of a set of activists? The easy answer is: become the sort of organisation for which doing good and being nice is part of the corporate DNA – think Disney or Unilever – and avoid being targeted much in the first place. But that’s hardly a short term fix nor is it purely the domain of a public affairs or communications function. Easy answer #2 is a staple of public affairs 101: act early. Monitor obscure blogs or journals where the alarm around your product or service might first sound, and escalation signposts like initial activist take-up, and cultivate relationships with stakeholders early rather than when the proverbial shit has hit the fan.

But what is slightly more realistic for public affairs and communications professionals in the short-term? Three thought-starters:

Accept the distinction between technical/legal vs. communications-driven PA

A majority of EU public affairs professionals are issue and policy-process experts. Which makes sense: most EU dossiers are technical/legal in nature. But when the issue in question has a highly public component, technical nitty-gritty is trumped by politicisation. Navigating a political minefield involves shifting from technical/legal to communications-centric public affairs, which is frankly an entirely different discipline. The PA professional’s conceit will often lead them to believe that they can manage the enlarged toolkit. How hard can campaign strategy, creative content conception and production, and broader stakeholder relations (esp. media) be? In truth, pretty hard – so bring in the required expertise.

Tone over content

A number of organisations would benefit from focusing on tone over content. Their instinct is to fight back; to forcefully rebut inaccuracies, citing fact and sound science. Which is commendable in theory but often less so in practice if the tone of delivery isn’t right. Right or wrong, we’re constantly reminded in today’s political climate that gut feeling often matters more than truth. And most people’s guts don’t digest aggressive corporates all that well. Activists pick battles they are most likely to win. They will therefore often target individual companies within an entire industry when they have the sort of corporate tendencies that make them easy bait: aggressive, defensive, male-dominated and immune to humility. As trite as it may sound, getting rid of the pin-striped suits, listening and being nice (and a tad boring) can be more effective than reams of rock-solid evidence.

Frequency

Assuming the tone is right, delivery frequency is another factor. Organisations often simply do not make enough noise, choosing to speak and publish intermittently in a couple of channels (on or offline). Repeating the same message on repeat (within reason) is essential to campaign success, for two reasons. Information overload makes it easy to be drowned out, so without frequency, there is no basic awareness. Heuristics also plays a role. Cynical perhaps, but simply being everywhere lends legitimacy. It implies that you have nothing to hide and showcases genuine belief in your position, which may well make a few people think the issue is not as black vs. white as they may first have thought.

Clearly, these quick wins may not magically turn the tide. Strategy, message, funding, partnerships and the external environment are key. But the memo here is this: in their quest to win on communications-driven public-interest dossiers, public affairs professionals frequently spend eternities on message, but ignore the basics, like resourcing, tone and frequency. They shouldn’t.

US vs. EU digital public affairs: different stages of maturity or just different markets?

Digital public affairs, incorporating methods like grassroots mobilisation, use of data to guide bespoke content creation, and advanced use of paid media to narrow-target audiences, is more advanced in the US than it is in Europe.

Some assume this is the case because we are at different stages of maturity. With a few notable exceptions, we probably are, but a few further factors explain why Europeans embrace digital public affairs to a lesser extent than our American cousins.

Technical vs. public interest dossiers

At the EU level especially, a majority of dossiers are technical, with limited public interest or involvement. Influence is more easily attained through the provision of high-quality technical information that facilitates policy making rather than campaigning aimed at affecting the environment in which policy is made. While there is still a place for digital, albeit on a narrow scale – e.g. high-quality online content and some social media if stakeholders are that way inclined – broader campaign methods like grassroots become somewhat obsolete. On most EU dossiers, there are few grassroots to mobilise, frankly.

Scale at national level

Publics may not exist at EU level, but they do at national level. But most European markets are small which makes organisations less inclined to explore new methods. This might seem counter-intuitive given that small markets means smaller budgets, and thus surely more scope for targeted and cost-effective digital tactics. However, small also means smaller teams covering more ground, fewer experts to drive new approaches, less saturated media markets meaning easier reach via traditional methods, and fewer degrees of separation between public affairs professionals and targets, making personal outreach more viable.

Lack of Pan-European issues

Scale would be easy if Pan-European campaigns were feasible. But Europe is too heterogeneous. Beyond obvious barriers like culture and language, campaign strategies would often need to differ even on the same issue. I remember exploring options for a campaign in German and Poland for an energy client a few years back. Seems obvious in retrospect, but local sensibilities to energy are polar opposites, with the environment and energy security the respective dominant concerns. Clearly a one-size-fits all would not work.

Availability of data

European campaigners envy the ability of their US counterparts to utilise all manner of third-party data sources in order to generate, and then target, a very narrow list of key targets. Given our history, it is perhaps unsurprising that Europeans are less comfortable with sharing data: our far stricter data protection and privacy rules preclude pesky campaigners from obtaining data that would facilitate deep segmentation and micro-targeting.

Does EU public affairs “campaigning” still represent the future? Yes and no.

We’ve been told for years now that traditional public affairs (face to face, technical lobbying) is not as effective as it used to be in Brussels. The logic is that many issues, and even entire industries like financial services or oil and gas, are now “political”, meaning decision-making on legislative matters is no longer based on the rational analysis of available information, but rather, the tide of public opinion.

For this reason, the adage goes, public affairs professionals need the support of marketing-communications professionals more adept at applying techniques that can affect the opinion of constituencies, with a view to shaping the environment in which decision-making takes place, rather than just the decision-making itself.

In other words, PA professionals need to run “campaigns” that seek to build and/or showcase some level of public support in parallel to lobbying on policy. Good campaigns should be focussed and simple: channel agnostic, definable in a single sentence, with a single and specific goal, a visual identity and end-date. Fish Fight was a PA campaign, aimed at banning fish discards. As are Renovate Europe and Keep me Posted in the UK, looking to set deep renovation targets for buildings and banning email only billing, respectively.

So does campaigning represent the future of EU public affairs? Yes and no.

However detached Brussels may be from real European publics, its legislators gain legitimacy in part by demonstrating that they respect and represent public constituencies. Hence why some activist campaigns have been so successful. Fish Fight and ACTA campaigners took issues that were not on the public agenda, put them there, and flipped decisions that had previously not been in doubt. On the corporate side, scrutinised organisations need to build and harness the support of specific constituencies, often through campaigns, in order to legitimise their policy objectives. Think pharma and health care professionals or patients, agrochemicals and farmers, or tech and entrepreneurs. But campaigning is not the dominion of corporates on the defensive. There is real value in campaigning when one is on the “right” side of the public debate, or even when no “right” or “wrong” sides have been defined and early mover advantage may be gained.

Having said all that, organisations should be less hasty at hiring marketers and creative agencies while eschewing technical expertise. Traditional public affairs remains dominant in Brussels.

In her study of interest group activity in Brussels, Heike Kluwer concludes that the quality of technical information provision remains the foremost determinant of lobbying success, ahead of demonstrating market power and public support. Her work is admittedly not very recent, but there’s little reason to assume much has changed.

Apart from certain issues (the likes of GMOs and shale gas), national publics remain largely disengaged, and legislative activity remains highly technical. Put simply, on most issues, there is no public debate and no constituency to mobilise, so campaigning would not provide a competitive advantage to public affairs practitioners

And even when an issue has been politicised, better lobbying can still win the day. The most notable example is probably that of mandatory food labelling around the turn of the decade, when better lobbying arguably meant the food industry’s favoured system, guideline daily amounts (GDA), prevailed over the traffic light system endorsed by consumer groups and health advocates.

So which is it: to campaign or not to campaign? As ever, it depends. If an issue has been highly politicised and external forces are reducing prospects for lobbying success, there may be no choice. If an issue is slightly off the radar but campaigning can improve the likelihood of success, it should probably be added to the mix. But with three major caveats: 1) campaigning is usually expensive and difficult, so adequate resources need to be available, which is often tricky given intractable siloes (e.g. PA and legal vs. marketing and communications); 2) campaign success relies on building and showcasing support from a key constituency, whether small or large, so at least one such constituency needs to exist; and (controversially) 3) if the other side is ineffective and failing to win over a major constituency, campaigning may not be necessary even on a somewhat politicised matter (e.g. food labelling).

Three levels of digital public affairs

Digital and social media can make public affairs more effective. But not always in the same way: depending on the environment in which an organisation operates, and its goals and challenges, strategies should differ.

Broadly, there are 3 levels of digital and social media applied to public affairs:

  1. Supporting day-to-day public affairs
  2. Digital as a campaign tool
  3. Digital and internal communications

Supporting day-to-day public affairs

In PR-speak, the 3 “core deliverables” of the PA professional are:

  1. Providing intelligence (and analysis)
  2. Helping deliver a message to policymakers (directly or indirectly)
  3. Building relationships with said policymakers and others (civil servants, media, activists etc.)

Digital and social media can support each element e.g. more efficient intelligence gathering using online tools; delivering a message via web content and search; stakeholder engagement via social networks, for instance.

This is the nuts and bolts of digital public affairs, applicable in varying degrees to all public affairs functions and probably covers 90% of all digital PA work. It is equally relevant to organisations trying to operate under the radar, given that they are on the “wrong side of the public debate” or generally have a behind-the-scenes culture (many B2B companies) although they are less likely to engage on social networks.

Digital as a campaign tool

This is a step up from day to day support. It involves utilising digital and social media tools to mobilise supportive constituencies and generate or leverage support for a policy position. It can be done via broader use of social media and content, and online petitions, for instance. NGO campaigns, like Greenpeace’s new Detox Outdoor initiative, or a number of campaigns on sites like 38 Degrees or Avaaz, showcase digital as a campaign tool for policy outcomes.

Admittedly, most corporates do not utilise digital as a campaign tool in this way. They may be on the “wrong side of the public debate” and have no major constituencies to mobilise (e.g. banks and energy companies, say). Or the PA function may be legal/government relations centric and removed from other marketing and communications functions more adept at running campaigns of this nature.

Digital and internal communications

An oft-heard lament in corporate PA is that the function is not well understood by the business, and is as a result seen as an irrelevant cost centre and poorly funded. Digital and social media can’t magically fix this, clearly. PA professionals need to be more adept at quantifying the value of their activities e.g. how much is mitigating policy X really worth in € terms? However, improved, jargon-free internal communications by PA professionals, including internal online content strategies and better use of enterprise social networks, certainly can’t hurt.

I’ve previously summarised the tactics in a pretty(ish) visual: the digital public affairs wheel.

Simple lessons from political campaigning: social data & email

In corporate communications and public affairs, we often look at clever political campaigns and admire their ability to utilise the web to build support from the ground up and – sometimes – drive public opinion.

One mistake we often make at this point however is to gush at the ability of these campaigns to build communities of support on social networks, assuming this represents the silver bullet.

Providing material and engaging on social networks, if done well, can no doubt help position a person or entity, galvanise existing supporters and reach new ones.

But in top-tier political campaigning, social media is more powerful not for its role in community building, but as a source of data. Using social data to scrutinise audiences can allow political campaigns to micro-target based on very specific touch-points shared by small segments of people. The online outreach tool of choice at this stage is then often email, as it is a 1-on-1 channel and can be entirely tailored, unlike social networks, which still ultimately rely on “spray and pray” of single broader messages, with the added bonus of dialogue.

Communicators looking to segment and micro-target to this extent face challenges: micro-targeting is complex and expensive and thus beyond the means of most, years of neglect and data protection laws mean we often have poor email lists, and moreover, it’s difficult to match email addresses and social data – it is frequently a manual and inaccurate exercise.

But the lessons remain evident: email is still very useful, an email database can be a very valuable asset, and social should be harnessed as a source of data as well for building community.