One of the running themes of this blog is that PA as we once knew it – the government relations centric model – is being superseded by one where government relations lives side by side with a range of other communications disciplines. An organisation’s reputation, often beyond Brussels, is increasingly important in determining how that organisation is perceived by decision makers, as is the extent to which it is aligned with public opinion on any given issue.

However, when I was asked just last week by a London-based Public Affairs professional to what extent corporate communications and PA are converging in Brussels, my reply was: probably not as much as in London.

That is not to say that I’ve done a volte-face on the statement above. However, the extent to which corporate communications and PA converge is not consistent: it depends on the nature of the issue. The more the issue is in the public domain, the greater the convergence, and the fact of the matter is that fewer issues are in the public domain in Brussels than in London.

In a previous post, I outlined three issue realities and the appropriate digital response, and I think the same separation is pertinent here. The three are, in short, the very technical issue which only a few policy wonks know about, the slightly less technical issue which is being discussed widely in policy circles, and the issue which affects a lot of people and has people talking beyond policy circles.

Arguably, only the latter reality requires highly proactive corporate communications, and the fact of the matter is that more issues fall into that bracket in London than in Brussels.

Why? Generally, because there is less interest in and scrutiny of the legislative process in Brussels than there is in London. Here are a few reasons why that might be:

  • Many of the meatier issues which tend to attract public interest are beyond the EU’s remit (immigration, tax, social security, most foreign policy etc.) Instead, the EU deals with many highly technical and – in the eyes of most people – dull dossiers.
  • MEPs have low profiles nationally and in their constituencies: they don’t necessarily need to prove themselves to their electorates based on issue alignment and so probably make decisions based on facts and figures more so than their MP counterparts, who are perennially busy courting voters.
  • The way legislation is put together in Brussels is based heavily on compromise and attaining the lowest common denominator in a drawn-out process, which is frankly less interesting (slow; fewer dog-fights).
  • A red thread here is the fact that the UK media has little interest in EU affairs, meaning most stuff passes under the radar in any case.
Anything I’ve left out?

At FH Brussels, we’ve just published our 2nd European Parliament Digital Trends Survey, available in its full glory here, including figures for the findings cited in the title and more.

Why did we repeat the exercise and what’s the bottom line? Here’s how I summarised it in the foreword to the print version:

When we last conducted our survey on the digital habits of Members of the European Parliament in 2009, we were at a watershed moment: digital in politics seemed to have gone mainstream following the French presidential campaign in 2007 and, in particular, Barack Obama’s successful campaign in 2007-08.

Brussels too was picking up on the excitement, with a variety of MEPs engaging online, looking to harness the ability to communicate with the sort of immediacy and candour previously only reserved for traditional canvassing; and increasingly using the instantaneous information available at the click of a mouse to conduct research on policy matters.

Nearly two years on we felt that it was time to reassess: the enthusiasm from across the pond has abated and the European Parliament is no longer in election frenzy; yet the value of the tools remains undiminished and citizens and businesses are increasingly connected. Have MEPs followed the trend or was 2009 a mere blip?

It turns out 2009 was anything but a blip. Our survey shows that, more than ever, MEPs are using digital channels to reach out and to inform themselves on issues of importance. In parallel, the findings also indicate that personal contact and traditional media remain essential, highlighting to anyone engaging in communications that digital is not replacing established modes of communication, but living alongside them.

I’ll be writing a few posts analysing the report in more detail over the coming weeks on Public Affairs 2.0, looking at topics like: why are MEPs blogging less, how does the EU compare to the US, what do the findings mean for the PA profession? I’ll reference here, so watch this (or that) space.