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.