Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lobbying and communications in the Brussels bubble: the missing link

It all started once, while I was making myself a coffee in the kitchen of my old office, when a colleague asked me: 'How come, Virginia, that your clients are always the most difficult?'  Before then, I had never really thought about it. When a client was being difficult, I typically blamed myself and my relative inexperience in Public Relations. But her question got me thinking; the agency I was working for was, and still is, predominantly a public affairs agency (which is a rather confusing way, I find, of saying lobbying firm). She had been working with me on a couple of projects to develop communications tools for a lobbying objective. For these kinds of projects the client was generally the communications director of the company rather than the director responsible for public affairs. Conversations were often challenging, to say the least. So, was the conclusion that comms directors are, to put it nicely, more exacting? I was not convinced.

Then I got it. The big difference between communications and public affairs is that, when dealing with the former, everybody and his dog has an opinion. Everybody thinks they know enough about it; they think they know how to do it effectively i.e. they know what works and what does not. The only reason to hire an agency is to use the agency's wo/men power. They want someone to implement their communications strategy rather than someone who might propose a different one, which is why they may become 'difficult' if you dare to make even the smallest suggestion or criticism.

Public affairs is a different story: senior consultants in public affairs agencies in Brussels have got not only the know-how but also the contacts. They can open doors, or certainly they claim they can, that for many corporate clients - especially non Europeans- are closed. But to open these doors for you, the agencies need to develop their own strategy - based on an expertise they assertively say is unique - and help you implement it. Maybe lobbyists are better at...lobbying for themselves!

But I actually think it is more than that. This idea that everyone knows about communications is probably at the heart of a key problem in this city and it has permeated everything. I remember a very senior colleague in my office, when asked why there wasn't more time - which obviously meant more money - spent on learning about digital communications saying: 'We all know about digital communications: we all Tweet!' No further questions, Your Honour.

The reasoning, following almost an Aristotelian logic, goes like this:

"I know how to communicate, hence I do not need any help. If I know, everyone else knows as well, which means that in the end communications is not that important or rewarding".
The consequences are pretty obvious: in agencies, the communications teams are squeezed, overworked - as their budgets tend to be smaller- and very often demotivated; in the corporate world, companies that cannot or will not afford an agency, will use their communications people mostly as press officers; and in the institutions, as communications is totally undervalued, when there is the need to get rid of someone that is not that good, he or she will be 'promoted' to a post in communications.

The results are painfully clear: the material coming out of public affairs agencies is often mediocre, not to talk about the material coming out of the institutions. And wouldn't some Commissioners - not to name names - have benefitted from investing more time in developing a communications strategy and then sticking to it? I remember asking this exact question to a senior member of Cabinet and was told that the Commissioner in question had to deal with too many things and had to prioritise! There you go!

I understand that Brussels is, to most agencies, quintessentially a lobbying town. But what I find striking is the inability to see that lobbying and communications are two different aspects of the same thing: what else is lobbying (in the good sense of the word) if not communicating your point of view in such a convincing way that it will influence the legislation you are concerned about? Using ALL the tools at your disposal, not only increases your effectiveness but also makes you more transparent hence less subject to criticism. And even talking about the institutions one could use a similar argument: the positive effects of all that the EU does or claims to do are lost on the majority of people because nobody has bothered communicating it in a decent way.

To be fair, some consultants and some EU officials have understood this a long time ago. They attach a central importance to communications and try to do what they can, to spread the word. But in my conversations with them, I have sensed a deep frustration every time I mention this issue which shows that there is still a long way to go.

In the end, it is difficult to change the shape of a bubble without bursting it, which is why for many in Brussels it is probably better if things stay this way.                

Friday, January 25, 2013

European Citizens' Initiative: how are WE doing? And how do you say 'initiative' in Esperanto?

One of the obvious ways to get Europe to do what its citizens want is the relatively new European Citizens' Initiative.  Nearly one year on, I wanted to check out the ones that have been launched so far, to get a sense of who is active at European level and what are the issues that proactive people in Europe consider important. And also to have a look at the initiatives that did not get the authorisation to register and why.

For those of you who are not familiar with it, the homepage of the ECI says:  'A European citizens' initiative is an invitation to the European Commission to propose legislation on matters where the EU has competence to legislate. A citizens' initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 out of the 27 member states. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those 7 member states'.

There was some criticism over the fact that a minimum number of signatures in different member states is needed (for example for Italy you need at least 54,750; could they have said 55,000? Of course not, we are not playing with numbers here!); personally, I don't have a problem with it  because I think that if it is a European Initiative, it needs to be truly European! And for once, on the website it is all very clearly explained...Ready for this? The site is very good; ok, it does not look incredibly exciting, but it is really well done (you did not expect that from me did you?). In it, you can find all the information you need about the Initiative: what it is, how to find existing ones, old ones and not accepted ones, how to launch one yourself and what happens once you have collected enough signatures.

So, among the ongoing initiatives, an eclectic mix of causes: one pushing for the 'protection of human life from conception' (One of Us), sponsored by an Italian Foundation; one suggesting a 30km/h (20mph) EU-wide default speed limit for urban/residential areas (30kmh - making streets liveable!); a classic one against vivisection (Stop Vivisection); and a more unusual one for the 'termination of the contract of free movement of persons with Switzerland' (K├╝ndigung Personenfreiz├╝gigkeit Schweiz);
this is one of the few initiatives, by the way, to have a  - relatively simple - video prominent on their site, here below:

The video has been removed because, as you can read on the site:  "As our demands are met, we have, as of 4th February 2013, withdrawn the Citizens' Initiative from the auspices of the EU Commission". That one is gone then! (March 2013)

Actually, there is another video that I should add that was made by the ECI on Media Freedom and Pluralism (European Initiative for Media Pluralism), an issue I care deeply about:

It is worth checking the site yourself to have a look at all of them - not too many in fact. More importantly we need to see, once the first initiative collects all the signatures, the timing of the response from the institutions. Will they pick up on the invitation - as they call it- in a convincing way?

My personal favourite, though, has unfortunately been rejected by the European Commission; not only it is a real a pity, but what a difference it would have made to Europe if it had been accepted and had collected enough signatures! Here is the title of the earth-shattering initiative: 'Recommend singing the European Anthem in Esperanto' (I have linked the title to the reply the Commission gave to state its reasons).  Gosh, some people have got time on their hands! Looked for it and of course found it on YouTube (as my Esperanto is quite rusty these days, I could easily have been fooled, so let me know if it is not Esperanto at all!!). What would have Ludwig said about this version?   

Friday, January 18, 2013

My blog, David Cameron and a self-destruction button

If you type the word 'European' in the Facebook search box, the first result is the "European Parliament", followed by....."European Pornstars" (obviously very sought after! Quite relieved though that it is not the other way round!) and then by "Europeans against the Political System" (good luck to them, I say)! It could not have been a more disparate mix.

If your search is a bit more specific and, let's say, you are trying to assess the number of groups, associations, blogs, movements, publications dealing with Europe - with the EU directly but also with issues that would interest the "European Public" - you are likely to find a myriad of different results, and you might soon get lost and probably give up.

There are kind souls attempting to give some sort of order and to structure this huge amount of European material.

Blogs such as mine, for example, (i.e. blogs that talk about the EU, in all its facets, or that are written by European officials and by journalists based in Brussels) are all (probably not all actually!) collected in a BIG web portal (bloggingportal.eu). Do you know how many they have so far? 1033!!!!! Granted, not all of them are still active but, my Goodness, more than one thousand blogs talking about EU politics? How is anyone supposed to select what to read or have a clue of what to look for? To be fair, the portal does divide the blogs in different categories, to make it easier to find the one/s you might be interested in, but still....1033?

Of course if you are fascinated by all that is European, reading all the new posts on this web portal every morning must be marvellous; but this is, as usual, the problem. If you are NOT fascinated, if you are a bit wary, bordering sceptic; if you just don't know much and want to know more; if you actually are not that interested but would read something if it were  interesting, well written and you stumbled upon it; then, would you go through this immense portal - if (and that is a big if) you had found it - to see what is on offer?

I know that by saying it looks as if I were, how can I put it?, pushing some sort of 'self-destruction' button: the fact of the matter is that this portal contains a lot of good stuff - little moment of self publicity before the self-destruction: 'OBVIOUSLY THIS INCLUDES MY BLOG!' ok, done - but the sheer volume of content is simply frightening and will inevitably put people off.

On the other hand, I tell myself that this represents a small vignette of what the Net is all about; if you let yourself be scared by the size of the content, you will never use it at all and what a great loss that would be. So I guess the answer - I have only mentioned blogs but this applies to all the different formats of 'European' material - is not to give up, but to learn selecting (another self publicity moment - read sentence in capital letters above!), which is exactly what everyone of us does online every day.

Talking of selection and self-destruction, as we are approaching the long awaited speech on Europe by the UK Prime Minister Cameron - as I write, there has been a new postponement so who knows when he will actually deliver it! -  here is a Taiwanese animated take on it, that I have selected for you! European policy like Tantric Sex? Baby Clegg! Need I say more? Enjoy. I will postpone self-destruction for a while, what do you think?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Eurobubble: the new West Wing?

A brave video producer and screenwriter (who in real life trains people to help them speak in public!) has started working on a new series, a comedy series I need to add, about........Eurocrats! The series will be called Eurobubble and the first episode should be ready in February.

Here is the trailer:

Let's start by saying that political series are absolutely my favourites. I must have watched all the 7 seasons of  The West Wing at least 5 times! And I have managed to go through two seasons of Borgen watching them in Danish with Dutch subtitles! I mean, how is this for commitment to the genre?

So, I am totally thrilled that there is someone out there willing to make a new series based in Brussels. The fact that it is going to be a comedy makes me happy and worried at the same time: happy because inevitably if you want to grab some audience talking about the ins and outs of working in and around the European institutions, you will desperately need to inject some sense of humour. And here comes the worry: will it be funny enough? Will it highlight some of the absurdities of the European capital or simply make fun of it all? I am not going to put the cart before the horse by starting with my negativity and I am hoping to meet the creator Yacine Kouhen to ask him directly, so will keep you posted. Instead, I am welcoming the initiative - in light of the repeatedly mentioned need to connect the EU with the European public, especially the young.  And I can actually think of a few interesting examples myself for possible ' lobbying' episodes! And for those who wanted to know a bit more about the producer and the series, have a look at the article published in the magazine Europe & Me, another worthy initiative that tries to create a truly European young public. Come to think of it, I can actually already see the subject for the next post: are there perhaps too many initiatives that get lost in that huge cauldron called 'doing something for Europe'? And am I in it as well? Oh dear.

Ps: Ah, and before you think I am mad, I do speak a bit of Dutch!
Yacine Kouhen

Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Year's Resolutions!

According to a survey conducted by psychologist Richard Wiseman, eighty-eight per cent of all New Year's resolutions fail. So the following resolutions are bound to end in the same way....but you never know....we might be lucky!

So here goes, my three resolutions for a good 2013:

1) Focus on what really matters
2) Prioritise only what you can realistically achieve
3) Push to achieve more

Am I talking about me or the European Union? Not really relevant here.

What really matters (you see? I am already implementing resolution number 1!) is that if we want 2013 to be a year to remember we need to....have something to remember!


1) We all know it will be another year of crisis and there will be many things worrying Europeans, So the EU should FOCUS on those from a communications point of view even if the working agenda is much broader than this.

A couple of examples? I have three that spring to mind: the euro and the debt crisis, unemployment especially among the young, and the lack of fairness (why is not everyone sharing the burden of this crisis?). There might be many more issues and themes but the key thing is to chose, then focus your actions even further and, above all, stick to your decisions. Hammer it into people's heads until they understand you are doing something that will benefit them.

2) There are also unachievable things the EU should probably stay clear off (again, I am talking in communication terms!) such as convince the UK people that it is actually in their interest to remain in the EU; better leave that hot potato to their politicians!

And then the EU should realise that some initiatives are no doubt well intended but in the end not really effective. An example? Well, 2013 is - as I am sure you all know, right? - the European Year of Citizens. I have been saying that there is a terrible disconnect between the EU and its citizens so in theory this should be a great initiative. The homepage of the website has a big banner that says: IT'S ABOUT EUROPE, IT'S ABOUT YOU! JOIN THE DEBATE! Agreed. The problem is: who is going to join the debate? Who is going to take part in the many consultations if not the ones that are already aware these consultations exist? Who will write to their MEP if not the ones that actually can name him or her already? And who is really going to check the Facebook pages of the EU institutions, (the irresistible page below notwithstanding!!) if not the ones that have already done it before - either to insult or to praise!  Believe me when I say that I really would like to be wrong on this one, but in my experience, there is little chance of this kind of initiative gathering a substantial number of new supporters to add to the existing ones. But please, please, do prove me wrong!

Want to join the Debate?

3) Finally, no matter what everyone, me included, will say, the EU must continue to push throughout 2013, for more Europe, for a better Europe, but also for a more understandable Europe and an in-touch-with-its- people-Europe because frankly if the EU does not do this....nobody else, in the current climate, will.

Happy 2013!