LAST UPDATED:June 27, 2013
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7 Tips for Effective EU Public Affairs: Practical ideas to reach the highest impact for your issue
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7 Tips for Effective EU Public Affairs: Practical ideas to reach the highest impact for your issue
Please note that the following transcript has been edited to make reading easier and may slightly differ from what was said in the webinar recording. Disclaimer: We aim to ensure a high level of accuracy, but the webinar and the transcript are for information purposes only and they cannot be considered as legally binding.
Speaker: Diederik Peereboom (moderator: András Baneth)
Diederik Peereboom is a Director at Burson-Marsteller dealing with energy related issues and he has been involved in public policy for nearly 15 years. Therefore, Diederik has a very broad range of expertise. For five years, he has been advising clients on environment and energy, topics which are very high on the EU’s agenda. He has also worked for the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers in Brussels and is an alumnus of the College of Europe in Bruges.
Burson-Marsteller is one of the key consultancies in Brussels in public affairs and in public relations and covers specifically every aspect of public affairs and every single EU policy area in terms of representing stakeholders and advising clients on campaigns.
Regarding myself, I am András Baneth, the Director of the European Training Academy, which is a company that provides training to public and private stakeholders and clients on how the EU works, how to work with the EU and how to lobby institutions. It also helps them understand the EU decision-making process and the regulatory and other dynamics of EU affairs.
With this introduction, I pass the floor to Diederik and he is more than welcome to share with us his 7 Tips on How to Make the Most of EU Public Affairs.
Thank you very much, András. It is a pleasure and an honor to be here and have the opportunity to speak about what I consider one of the most exciting and fascinating jobs one can has that is in public affairs. It is also quite daunting speaking to an audience that is probably very well aware of public affairs and so it is quite a statement to come up with seven tips on public affairs.
Nevertheless, I feel quite comfortable in sharing my insights based on my experience and I am very well aware that others may have additional tips.
What’s in a name?
When we are talking about public affairs, people very often asked ‘what is this’? Is it communication? Is it lobbying? How do they interrelate?
I do not think we have the time nor do I think I have the knowledge to give a clear cut division and definition of all these different areas. Based on conversations I had with colleagues and other interested people, one thing you learn quickly is that there are different views whereas the different elements are to a large extent interlinked and there is a large overlap.
To clarify, Communication is very much the activity of conveying meaningful information in the sense of ‘be clear’, which has to mean something. In a professional sense that is how we deal with that.
Lobbying is slightly more specific. It involves targeted communication with a clear purpose. The purpose is very much about influencing specific decisions or series of decisions. Therefore, it is a very specific way of communications.
Public affairs, in my view, is very much an overarching concept, which involves communication and lobbying and is basically the management of the external environment of organisations, companies but also non-profit organisations or even governments. Typically, they involve a series of activities ranging from government relations, communications, issues managements, corporate citisenship strategies, public policy often linked to the reputation of the organization but also stakeholders in terms of the dynamic and diverse environment that you are trying to manage when you are conducting public affairs.
Personally, that list demonstrates how exciting public affairs can be and how diverse. It requires different talents and it is also a lot of teamwork. For me, that is one of things that I really enjoy and have enjoyed over the past years. What I am going to do next is to show you a list of the 7 Key Tips that I found to be relevant throughout my experience for effective public affairs. After showing you the list, we will go through them one by one and I will tell you a little bit more about each of them and give some examples of how they can work in practice or what you should think about when you are doing your public affairs.
Having said that, the 7 Tips are:
1) Set Clear Objectives, which is very important;
2) Develop a Compelling Story, a key aspect involving a lot of creativity;
3) Understanding the Process, whatever process you are involved in. For people in Brussels, it is mainly the legislative process but there are ways of looking at it slightly more broader than that;
4) Being Informed is a very crucial aspect;
5) Maintaining Your Network of Contacts and Building it up is equally important;
6) Avoid Complacency is something often forgotten but I would like to say a few words on the need to avoid having your hard work and your team’s work being ruined at the last minute and;
7) Having a Strong Team and what that involves.
The reason why it is so important to set clear objectives is that you need to know as an organisation, as a group and as a team, what you want to achieve, what is it that you are trying to do because there are thousands things you could do but the question is what you can do with your limited resources and within the time you have available. A really important aspect of designing any public affairs campaign is to think clearly through what the objectives are. My experience is that people are often very enthusiastic and keen to jump into all sorts of activities that could be counted as public affairs activities without necessarily having thought them through carefully. This often leads somewhere along the process to a hiccup or difficult decisions having to be thought through, which does not really help the momentum of any campaign.
Thus, the objectives provide you the focus of what you are trying to achieve but they also very important because in the course of your campaign, they will allow you to see how much you have progressed towards reaching them. This in turn is important if it is necessary to modify your strategy whereas it can also be very motivational to see that there is actually some progress being made, thanks to the activities that one has conducted. Finally, at the end of each exercise, it will allow you to measure your success since in many organisations, there is a need to have a measurement of success to tell your superiors or your clients what is happening.
(András) At this point, I would like to ask you about this angle because I completely agree with the idea of setting a clear objective and I am wondering what sort of objectives you have come across in your practice. Would that be generally a legislative change? For instance, we want a new Directive on whatever -probably it is very ambitious to have a whole new legislative initiative- but possibly changing different parts of a Regulation, which is the classic example. Could that be also putting a certain issue on the radar screen of policymakers? For example, if you are The European Diabetes Association, you want the EU policymakers to have more awareness of a specific issue in their public health policy. Would it be a funding issue? That is an organization applying for a certain funding. So what sort of objectives have you encountered?
This is a very good question. In short, I can say yes, all of the above. Very often in Brussels, we tend to think of lobbying in terms of the legislative process. In particular, when there is a piece of legislation in the making, a lot of people start to lobby the European Commission at an early stage, which should always be done if you want to be effective. Then it moves on to the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, when it comes to legislation. One particular objective can be to have a certain piece of legislation introduced or -what happens more often- is either to introduce or to avoid the introduction of a particular phrase or a provision in a piece of legislation.
It can also be non-legislative in the sense that you want to improve the reputation of your organisation among a particular set of stakeholders and you can do that via different ways but it can also be an objective which is not linked to any legislation. You can have broad objectives such as having a certain piece of legislation presented but it can also be much more limited. I think that a lot of organisations are active in Brussels this week will have had as an objective to have a certain number of attendees at the events they are organizing during the EU Sustainable Energy Week or a particular quote in a leading publication regarding their issues.
There can be different objectives which you can identify. It is not necessarily legislative although that is the easiest way to think about it. It can also very much be non-legislative. The importance is to think it through, make sure that you understand, make sure that your entire team -however big that team is- understands that you are all on one page and that you almost have them as a mantra. It will just facilitate your teamwork.
I spent a little bit of time on the objectives because I have seen certain examples where sometimes people tend to rush into activity and then they find out that they are not entirely sure why they are doing it and what they are trying to achieve.
When you have your objectives set, strategy forms a part of them and these two are very closely linked on how you want to achieve these objectives. Then, you are getting to the more political and creative aspects of public affairs. You need to develop a compelling story because you need to ask yourself, how am I going to attract the attention of the people I want to reach with my story so that they can help me reach my objectives?
There are many different things but that is one of the fun things about public affairs; it is very much a creative profession and that is why the good public affairs practices are very much able to think outside the box. Therefore, if everybody is doing an event, maybe you want to consider doing something else instead of an event, maybe you want to do a webinar. But think outside the box; do not just follow the stream of what is happening and what is cool in Brussels in a particular case.
That is the creativity part. Allow for creativity to be part of it and do not be afraid to show that. Secondly, especially in Brussels, it is very important to think politically. You need to understand that public affairs because of its definition, it is managing your external environment. You need to know what is happening in that environment and very often that means you need to be aware of what is happening in the society and what is on the political agenda and you need to be able to link to that. It is very important to be aware of that and teach your story with that in mind.
The third thing which is very important and we very much advise the clients we work for to do is to back up your arguments. It is often not enough to only come up with statements that sound good; they need to have some sort of substance to back up your arguments in a form of a study or external expertise. That is an important part of your story which is sometimes a little bit forgotten in certain areas.
Finally, once you have your story, make sure you use it in different channels. Again that is something you need to factor into the development of your story because the channel limits you in a way or gives you more opportunities to tell your story. Having the different channels you can think of, a face to face meeting is different from developing a video or conducting your outreach through social media, or the traditional media. Therefore, you have to keep in mind how to best utilise those channels.
The creative part I would like to underline, which is really important, is that when you deliver through whatever channel you do it, make sure you do it with enthusiasm. Very often there is a lot of boring public affairs being conducted. I think enthusiasm is a key element and it would actually help you to get your message across. As an example, when I was at the European Parliament and being lobbied, I remember that on a very busy day, all of a sudden, an older man with a suitcase turned up and he was from a lighting company from The Netherlands – Philips. He did not know anything about the process. He knew that we were dealing with something called electronic waste and he was not really switched on. But his enthusiasm about the product and about his industry, is still with me today and has thus helped Philips to have a quite a positive reputation in my mind simply because of that one meeting.
So, I think enthusiasm is something that sticks with people. Since then, I met with many other lobbyists who have made on me much less of an impression. This is only one example; do not fit with the pattern, do not conform to a less outgoing and less enthusiastic tone. I think the debates in your messaging will be much more effective if you show enthusiasm.
(András) I think there is a very interesting point that you have made in terms of thinking politically and gaining or using a certain momentum in the political discourse. For instance, I think of the current negotiations between the US and EU, on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which for many fields, industries and practitioners could be an excellent point of reference. Even if your industry is not directly linked to it, it is still a great point of reference. That is why my issue should be considered now and not in a couple of months or even years. Or using, for example, a G8 Summit conclusions and link a certain issue to those developments. So in terms of gaining that momentum and ultimately attracting the attention, I think that this is a very important take away.
Yes, that’s right and that leads me to the next step which is understanding the process that is extremely important. One of the most annoying practices or habits from a politician’s point of view is lobbyists who come in too late or at the wrong time in the process. It is very important that you understand the process whether it is the ordinary legislative procedure or the consultation procedure as well as knowing the editorial process if you want to get into a publication.
It is not enough to only know the broad tricks. If you want to be effective in public affairs you need not only to know but to understand each step of the process in quite some detail. That is an important aspect just as it is very important to know the key actors and influencers of that process. Who are the key players in there and who are the people who may not be the key players but who are very influential towards these people? You need to identify each of them in a way that probably requires a special thought about how you are going to approach them, what is the kind of story that would be compelling for them and which part of objectives they could help you with.
That leads me to another part of the process and I think this is where public affairs and campaigning is different from academia or even perhaps from journalism. Public affairs is a very active profession. You need to think ahead. You do not take the process and developments for granted. You are trying to shape things in public affairs. That is my approach towards it. So if you know the process, think ahead and be proactive. Do not follow but shape the process.
For example, if you know that a meeting is taking place, when they are going to talk about your issue, do not say “Oh I will wait and see what the meeting would decide”. Approach it proactively, contact the people who are going to be in that meeting and talk to them about what you think is important and what you think would be helpful for your particular point of view. Do not take the process for granted and follow it. Be a shaper rather than a follower. That really makes people stand out. Plan ahead and try to shape the process to really achieve your objectives.
(András) I would like to add a personal example, something that happened to me at the time when I was working at the Commission and I was a member of the Cabinet of a Commissioner. Exactly as you described, I had a similar story when I was dealing with a very technical file called Alcohol Excise Taxation. There was an association that was interested in the champagne industry and they had a certain stake in that.
I remember sitting at my office on a Thursday afternoon, receiving their email with their position. It was essentially an email with their position paper asking me to consider their view and they referred to the meeting of the College, the 27th Commissioner’s weekly meeting that was due the Wednesday after. Trying to represent and shape things via sending such a position paper at that stage, a few days before the meeting officially endorses a Commission proposal, which eventually yes, it goes to the Parliament and to the Council so it can still be changed at that pace, was basically a mission impossible. They woke up roughly one year later than they should have.
Because understanding the process and knowing how that works, they could have participated in certain stakeholder discussions and they could have sent their views and backed up their claims several months ago to the Commission officials who may not have endorsed them but nevertheless they would have considered them. They would have thought about them at the least. So even if I had wanted to, I basically had no leverage or influence because they simply did not understand the process.
I think many of those on the webinar today will have similar stories where at the last minute people think something magical can still be done by people in the right places. Of course, sometimes it is possible but it is not the best or the most certain way of reaching your objective. It is a good example. We see that every now and then.
What you refer to Andràs is also an issue of timing that leads me to my fourth point which is to make sure that you are informed, that you have your information. In other words, publicly available information from the media, from press releases, from the Commission or governments’ news items, from the latest features or from leading figures that relate to your issue. But also intelligence, which is not something you will find by looking at the screen on your computer. Intelligence is what you get through your contacts. It is your contacts’ insights, at places where people decide or discuss your issues.
It is extremely important to understand what the relevant developments are and how they impact on the position of your particular issue. So ask yourself, what is happening today, although it takes different way of looking at news with your objectives in mind. Then interpret the consequences; if something is happening, what it means. For example, those who are working in an energy environment, they would probably have to read today’s newspapers quite differently when reading about the speech of President Obama and his change of plans regarding climate change.
Immediately thinking what would be the impact, what would be the consequences for my particular campaign and as an immediate second thought, what needs to be done? Can we leverage it? Is it a new hook for my story? Do we have to come out and push back? Again, it is an act of engagement with the news, an active engagement with your external environment.
It also includes what potential opponents you are going to have. How could they use this? How could they use new developments to push their case and make life more difficult for you? It is an extremely important part of public affairs to keep your eyes and ears open to the external environment. Actively think about how you can use the developments for your campaign and how you can mitigate some of the activities.
In my experience, some of the intelligence that you get comes from a good network people from inside the institutions in terms of the legislative procedure. For example, an industry that manages to build up a good relationship with a leading member of the European Parliament will always have an advantage simply because there is a level of trust between decision-makers and industries to see what is happening, what is going to be the next step in the process. There is nothing secret about that but it is the result of hard work and having pitched the right story to the right direct person.
(András) I think, if I may, there is a very interesting and often overlooked way of learning more for instance of the European Commission’s intentions. Especially when it comes to speeches, they are usually considered as something that a Commissioner as a main policy initiator would do out of courtesy or out of a public relations exercise. But often and especially if it is a key note speech or a high-profile event, Commissioners tend to outline their thinking and their ideas in a speech. Therefore, a speech could be viewed from an intelligence perspective as a strategic indication of where they want to go.
This can give a head start to many organisations because this is not something they would naturally look at, maybe only if a journalist picks it up, but if it is overlooked, it could be a hidden channel. Another interesting thing I am wondering about and would like to have your view on is whether for instance, Google alerts, is a tool that public affairs professionals who are monitoring developments in the energy or in another technical field like medical devices should use, in terms of gathering intelligence. This is not on the analytical and forecasting side but on the input side.
Well, in terms of collecting your information, you tend to use all effective and efficient means of gathering your information and in today’s world, Google alerts are a good way of doing this. So they can be very useful to stay up to date like certain online services that gather and collect information. It is certainly one of the tools that it is being used in public affairs for those who want to keep up to date and be aware of what is going on. Yes, that is certainly something that is part of the whole tool set.
The next aspect which is extremely important for an effective public affairs campaign is your network of contacts, meaning your organisation and each member of that organisation. It is something that relates both to if you talk about the legislative procedure and to being linked to people who take the decisions, thus the politicians and the decision-makers. That is of course very important.
On the other hand, there are also the people around you. People who may share what you are actually trying to achieve, maybe for different reasons, but they want to get the same text in a piece of legislation adopted as you do or who share a common cause and are prepared to help you. Very often this means that you have a potential to search for allies and build coalitions. Of course, a lot of coalitions, trade associations or existing relationships between different organisations already exist whereas there are certain natural and longer term coalitions.
But sometimes there are also unusual gatherings, the so-called ad hoc coalitions on a specific issue where all of a sudden you see NGOs with certain industries coming together to make a case for the same result. This again is something which links to thinking outside the box. Do not necessarily limit yourself to the people you know because sometimes your best ally is the one you have not thought of but is there.
What is very often missed, I feel, is people that only afterwards find out that “Oh, if you would have told me I could have talked to some people or I could have shared your article or your video with people who would be interested because we actually share the same view”. It is a good idea to think carefully about who else might be interested without necessarily being part of the process that you are involved in.
In my experience, many people are prepared to help many organizations. Of course, you need to be prepared to do the same for them at some point in the future, since nothing comes for free. In summary, the idea is to form a choir of different voices. Thus, try to work with others who share the same outcome and if different people pass the same message but from a different background that usually tends to strengthen the message and starts to shape the environment in which your objective becomes more achievable.
I basically have two questions. One concerns organisations or individuals who are not necessarily based in Brussels or have limited resources and are somewhere else in Europe but their issue has EU relevance or such a scope. How do you think they would they take your advice in terms of using networks and maintaining this network of contacts if they are physically not here or have limited resources that prevent them from being here? The other question is more related to your personal background. If you can maybe reckon an example when you had a very diverse coalition with many stakeholders, obviously something you can disclose.
In terms of your first question regarding how you maintain your network of contacts even if you are outside Brussels, many people are active professionally or in another way of organisational form, they have contacts. There are very few organisations that operate in complete isolation. So, for example, if you are a local company but you have contacts with the National or even Regional Trade Associations these are places where you can build an alliance between business and employees and workers who in turn are connected to the international and European level. That is one way of doing it. The other one is throughout many regions in Europe that by now have some form of representation here in Brussels, usually a person here managing an office. They are very often interested in providing services for those who live in the regions they represent. Again, that is another way ofwhere a contact can be built, maybe not necessarily only with these representations, but they can form another source of providing ideas for, “Oh you should probably talk to this and this person”.
It is difficult to give a clear answer because it all depends on the particular situation of the company or the organisation that we are dealing with.
In terms of the diverse coalition, the one in which I was not personally involved but I think is a good example of a diverse coalition is the one regarding the EU ETS backloading discussion which is around emissions trading where environmental and social NGOs came together with industries representing thus, a variety of organisations that in other circumstances would be opposed to each other. However, in this particular case, they joined forces and asked for the same outcome from the policy makers. That is a more recent example that comes up.
Avoid complacency, is basically a little bit of a warning, of an alert. Complacency, according to the Oxford dictionary, is a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements. This is something that can happen if a campaign goes really well. Your typical example is when you have been campaigning for an outcome of a vote and the Plenary of the European Parliament in Strasbourg votes and you get the results that you were hoping for. Everybody says then “Oh, now it is a done deal”. The Council will just have to adopt it and it will then be published and we will get what we want.
That is a very risky attitude and it is also very difficult to avoid it. You need someone to keep the team sharp and see the outcome through until the very end, constantly asking questions of what can still go wrong and what is next. One typical example that I have experienced is an outcome of a long legislative procedure for a European Directive that came to a conclusion through negotiations between the Council and the Parliament. That by itself is a less transparent way of doing things than under an ordinary legislative procedure but at the end we managed to see the text when it came public and it only needed to be formally agreed and translated by the lawyer linguists.
The text that came out was very good and it reached our objective only for us to find out that the translated text had been corrected in inverted commas in a trivial way to many people but which would have made a dramatic difference for the result we wanted. So, at the last minute, at the stage when no decisions are being made or about to be made, things can still change because of translation issues.
That was the moment when because we were on high alert, we managed to point it out and ask questions about it and finally, the mistake was corrected before the publication in the Official Journal. This example shows that things can go wrong even if it is just a hiccup. This is not intended to be a consolation if that means that your campaign is not getting the result that you thought you would have.
Therefore, always think what can still go wrong and keep checking it. Then get ready for the next cycle. What is next once you concluded the campaign? What are we going to do next? This is very much a warning; even if it all goes well; keep a close eye on the ball until it is really done.
(András) I think we could remind ourselves of the classic Murphy’s Law of whatever can go wrong will go wrong! I would like to refer also to another angle of this that occasionally, especially if a file has a regulatory aspect, when it comes for instance to what used to be called Comitology, even if a Directive or Regulation is adopted and everything seems very smooth, the nitty gritty technical details like emission levels and other thresholds or figures and numbers are done through a different procedure after the main Regulation or Directive has been adopted. So even if the main thing is a success, you still need to keep track of these details which can come at the later stage several months later, thus avoiding complacency.
That is absolutely right. You can have a very good legal text but for many companies and organisations you have to work with that legal text because the devil is in the detail and that is something that is being decided under delegated or implementing acts, which is a campaign by itself of a slightly different nature. Therefore, you need to see it through until the end.
I will come to the last point which is fairly self-evident but worth mentioning. In order to do a public affairs campaign, you need a team. I cannot think of many successful public affairs campaigns or activities that are done by a one single person. I think that is nearly impossible simply because you need a variety of skills and a variety of personalities.
If you look at the six previous tips we went through, you need an analyst who can analyse what would be the best outcome for the organization that is going into the public affairs campaign. You also need a good strategist but also someone who is very good on procedures and understands the details so that you have that resource and you do not have to spend time discovering it.
In addition, you need a strong networker or even more than one. You need subject experts so that you can quickly get information and reply to questions that may arise from decision makers, journalists or other interested parties. You need a very creative person -almost an artist- to help you come up with those original compelling stories, visuals, etc. You need to have at least one good storyteller, someone who can tell the story, who can make people listen so that your story comes across.
Finally, I think you also very much need a leader of such a team to keep the internal organisation aligned and also play the role of paranoia, constantly asking “Yes, it sounds that it is going in the right way but what can still go wrong? Have we checked this, and check it and check it again?”
The above indicate that you need a team with such a skill set and you need to organise it very smoothly, which requires a clear and regular internal communications to make sure everybody is aligned and keep the motivation up because nothing motivates like success. If you see progress that means you have set your objectives right and you track them appropriately. You can actually see that your actions do make a difference and that this motivates a team and brings it together, which only enhances the effectiveness of your public affairs strategy.
That would be my final remark on the 7th tip. As I said before, I am sure there are other aspects that people would rate more as a tip. I think these are seven very important aspects to keep in mind if you want to do your public affairs in an effective way not just in Brussels but also elsewhere.
(András) One comment on the 7th tip is that I completely agree with you based on my experience on how important is to have the subject matter and the procedural expertise, which relates to the substance of the matter. However the communication aspect is often underrated. You mentioned storytelling several times, which might be counter intuitive when it comes to EU affairs that are often perceived as gray or boring. I tend to disagree with that and I believe that you need to cut through the noise and make sure you get the attention even on a technical and very complex topic. Therefore, the communication aspect is not to be underestimated in terms of how you gain attention and try to pass that complexity to the decision makers, ultimately making your voice heard in the best possible way.
We have come to the end of today’s webinar. Thank you very much Diederick for being here and sharing your insights with us.