Communications in EU Public Affairs: 3 levels of maturity

Brussels is not a particularly mature market for communications. While changing, the media landscape is underdeveloped, and with publics based in member states and traditionally detached from the Brussels machinery, generating and harnessing popular support has tended to play second fiddle to technical policy tinkering.

Perhaps, this makes sense. If one looks at the drivers of influence in public affairs, the quality of technical input remains the key determinant of success. Given that more issues are now being handled at expert group level than before in Brussels, one might argue that it is more important than ever.

But if we look at the other levers of influence, it becomes clear that different methods are needed to shift the proverbial pin on policy. While public affairs folk bicker over what drives influence, most agree that the following drivers are significant:

  • Being perceived to provide credible solutions to pressing challenges defined as political priorities.
  • Having a high-quality coalition or network with well-regarded actors fighting the same battle. Coalitions and networks need not be large in terms of market size: having many legitimate actors can beat having a few big actors on-side.
  • Proof of economic impact. In PA circles we often hear that ‘jobs and growth’ is so overused and defined so arbitrarily that no one cares. Not so. Good, credible data on jobs and growth is very handy indeed.
  • Proof of popular support. A tad paradoxically, given that EU decision-making has become more technical, it is also more political, with EU policy-makers and regulators eager to cement their democratic legitimacy by siding with popular sentiment.

Clearly, which of these is most relevant depends on the type of issue at hand. Lobbying in support of road safety measures or a highly scrutinised chemical will demand different methods. And timing is crucial. If a vote is imminent or a policy is not yet even on the political agenda, different tactics will be applied. But generally, any organisation looking to influence politics and policy will need to position itself towards policy-makers and their circle of influence by demonstrating solutions, market power, credible allies, or popular support; and often to generate popular support amongst key constituents through external environment shaping. In an age of vicious competition for attention coupled with significant mistrust and apathy, positioning and external environment shaping are very challenging indeed. Both call for first-rate communications.

The 3 levels of maturity

In terms of overriding communications strategy for public affairs, organisations have many options. An organisation (or whole industry) that is considered old-fashioned but is actually highly innovative might try to reposition itself to avoid punitive legislation. A company that is marred by the actions of others in the same category but actually operates differently, could look to differentiate itself. But whatever one’s overriding strategy may be, the tactics at one’s disposal remain the same.

And it is in communications tactics in particular that Brussels players have tended to limit themselves to basic awareness raising measures rather than thinking more broadly across three categories that we outline below: amplification, advocacy, and integration with marketing-communications functions.

Amplification is the most comfortable starting point for public affairs professionals applying the broader communications toolkit. It principally involves targeting policy and political messages at policy-makers and their circle of influence through means other than direct advocacy. Tactically speaking, we are talking media relations targeting publications preferred by policy makers or their circle of influence. Or social media to converse with them. Or paid media to push content directly at them. Or search engine ads or out of home ads shown where they are likely to come across them.

This is 101 stuff, yet essential: there is a finite number of meetings one can have; and moreover, message repetition across multiple channels is a prerequisite for recollection and trust-building in any sphere of communication.

But while most of these tactics may appear ordinary, we would never claim that amplification is easy. There is a lot of competition in communications-land and the vast majority of content is ignored or fast forgotten. Amplification efforts need to be professional, creative and on strategy: they should respond to an audience’s interests, needs or values; and must delight, interest, or be of use. And again, speaking tactically, Brussels needs to evolve. Dull press releases expressing delight should perish, replaced with media relations that might actually result in coverage. Instead of dull talking heads videos or blog posts peddling tired case studies, we might wish to try producing excellent content, and maybe even have a go at experiential content creation using VR and 360° video.

Rather than being a starting point, amplification is often the end-point for many EU public affairs professionals doing communications. Which means hardly any of us conduct ambitious ‘advocacy’.

NB: we apply the US definition of advocacy: identifying and mobilising supportive individuals and organisations, so that they might ‘advocate’ on one’s behalf.

While we have been doing some forms of advocacy in EU public affairs for years but calling it things like key opinion leader mobilisation or grassroots campaigning, we have tended not to do it in a highly targeted manner, nor at scale.

The logic behind advocacy is clear: get a credible 3rd party to make the case for you and the legitimacy of your efforts are enhanced. Standard examples include pharmaceutical companies working with patients, or agri-chemicals companies with farmers, or any organisation mobilising employees and citizens in their communities.

The principle behind advocacy – the need to build and demonstrate public support from key groups – is appreciated in EU circles. Some Brussels-based organisations that represent scrutinised industries are even running ambitious campaigns aimed at shifting hearts and minds. But frequently these are traditional one-way campaigns with no mechanism to get involved and build community. But to have any hope of ‘shifting the narrative’ in 2019, scrutinised organisations should look to build a motivated base of advocates who can be called upon to inform and mobilise their networks, lobby in their own constituencies, lead local campaigns – and even be brought to Brussels to lobby.

Advocacy can be more targeted and impactful than ever before through data and digital, and yet we are choosing not to up our efforts, usually because we do not know how, or think it would not work in the EU because of GDPR. Across the pond, most organisations engaged in policy-shaping are using modern strategies and tools to identify potential advocates in target constituencies, and subsequently engaging and mobilising AT SCALE. And they are winning because of it. This is not a fad. We estimate that in ten years, advocacy budgets will match or surpass those spent on ‘traditional’ public affairs. But adoption amongst corporates in the EU so far remains paltry.

Last but not least, better integration with marketing and communications functions is increasingly key to success. Public affairs should be a fundamental part of the marketing-communications mix. It often is, with some public affairs functions even now reporting to CMOs, and many at least sitting in the same building (if not team) as marketing-communications folk.

But why should this matter? The key area is corporate reputation tied to sustainable development goals. Companies are expected to contribute, and many want to or at least acknowledge the need to. 181 CEOs of members of the US Business Roundtable lobby group recently signed a declaration that ends with the following: “Each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies and our communities.”

While the risk remains that some activity may descend into CSR fluff or at worst greenwashing, many companies choose to go down the path of genuine shared value initiatives, where commercial goals overlap with societal benefits. It is not naïve to note that when the Green Deal was announced recently in Brussels, most companies were genuinely excited about the tight knitting of sustainable development to economic opportunity, which is the hallmark of the programme.

Where does marketing-communications (with PA) fit in? Certainly not to sell a company’s great deeds to an adoring public. Ideally, its role should be far more strategic: to track and gauge public sentiment to help set and realign strategy; and to identify actors with shared goals, build networks, and engage in ongoing, mutually beneficial activities.

This is where the public affairs function can and should really play an essential role. It is the best placed function to understand and engage with non-commercial stakeholders – like policy makers, civil society organisations, and international organisations – that are key actors in the political and social sphere. In other words, public affairs will help to ensure that a company’s efforts respond to real-world needs, and as the key interface vis-à-vis most non-commercial stakeholders, help it become a credible player in the coalitions and networks that will dictate and drive sustainable development.

Many public affairs professionals tend to underestimate the potential that communications has to help organisations meet their policy and political goals, with most stopping at amplification. But given the importance of public sentiment in policymaking, coupled with the complexity of wider problem-solving, in which organisations are expected to participate, most public affairs professionals could step up their efforts in advocacy and integration. They might even have some fun along the way.


Online grassroots campaigning to support Public Affairs: once overhyped, now largely ignored

Even just a couple of years ago, a fair few people in the Brussels bubble were getting excited about the prospect of online grassroots campaigning.

Their logic was as follows:

  1. Regulation increasingly reflects public sentiment
  2. Public sentiment lives beyond the bubble
  3. Being able to showcase public support in member states is thus key to success
  4. However, building, showcasing and/or somehow aggregating support is very difficult
  5. The web is by nature cross-border and quick: a silver bullet for mobilisation, surely

The concept is no longer in vogue, given that, clearly, it was highly unrealistic in the first place: the assumption amongst a fair few PA pros was that there are people out there willing to be mobilised on any issue overnight as long as you looked hard enough.

This ignores the following:

  • Many organizations are either too unpopular or too obscure to rack up support overnight
  • Many regulatory issues are highly technical, making it difficult to create a “narrative” that makes mobilisation realistic
  • What’s more, even with suitable issues, many decisions will likely be based on consensus rather than who has most friends, especially if the Commission is the key player, making the whole premise pointless in the first place

BUT (and it’s a large BUT) that’s not to say there aren’t instances where it can be very valuable to showcase support or that it can’t ever work:

  • It can if the issue has a very clear public interest angle and the EP is a key player e.g. see the recent fish discards campaigns
  • Clearly, if an organization is popular, it’d be easier to drum up support
  • And in some cases, mobilisation can even work for an unpopular or obscure organization if it goes about it sensibly i.e. keeping expectations realistic and giving it time; and usually focusing on a single key constituency, rather than “general public”

As a side-note, personally, I’m pleased people aren’t seeing it as a silver bullet any longer. On one level, it shows we’re moving from hype to maturity. On another, it means investments in digital PA are being funneled into areas where it is more likely to provide a real benefit, such as analytics, content strategy and search.

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