Ask silly questions in Brussels, get silly answers

An interesting article in this week’s Economist Charlemagne column on moves to increase the use of the public opinion polling comes to the opposite conclusion of our own thoughts on the same matter last year (when the move was mentioned in a Wallstrom communication). Perhaps journalists are more cynical than the bright eyed bushy tailed consultants round these parts? Or maybe we got misty eyed about the public affairs opportunities it could present , rather than distracted by the potentially opaque impact it may have on the EU’s often overplayed democratic deficit? (granted we were in DC at the time)

In any case, we too can suffer from a healthy dose of scepticism sometimes. We often get approached by organisations with regard to polling Brussels public affairs audiences for their views. Some want us to undertake a “perception audit” on their behalf, others want to sell us their own ability to poll MEPs through digital means no less. Some not too misty eyed thoughts follow.

Taking the first case, “perception audits” of Brussels public affairs can of course be extremely useful as a benchmarking exercise in measuring how effective your communication activities have been. Unfortunately, in many cases the “perception audit” is sought for all the wrong reasons. The objective is often unclear. Sometimes it is merely something to do for a lack of a clear direction. On other occasions because someone needs management “buy-in” for a course of action they already know to be correct.

If objectives are unclear so are the questions. When the perception of your organisation begins with how you conduct your perception audit this can be disastrous. Polling irrelevant MEPs on subjects that don’t interest them is only likely to lead to your reputation diving to new depths rather than ascending to dizzy new heights. Of course, unclear objectives and opaque questions lead only to confusing answers that move you along not one jot. We would advise against.

In the second case, polling MEPs sounds like a great idea. Especially if one had a panel of 100 MEPs all ready and willing to answer any questions asked, as one vendor has promised us recently. However, here our scepticism kicks in. Perhaps it’s just the issues we work on but in most cases our client’s issues are likely to be top of mind for anywhere between 5-15 MEPs. For the other 770-odd, it’s largely a matter of following the voting list. As Parliament is reliant on MEPs that specialise, do we need to know what a representative sample of MEPs think? The same holds true for corporate reputation raising. Do we care if we raise the reputation of our clients with decision-makers who are unlikely to ever take decisions affecting them? Probably not.

Interestingly for a company that does consumer PR as well as public affairs, MEPs do of course provide an interesting pan-European if somewhat unrepresentative sample of “opinion formers” or “elite consumers”. Perhaps our colleagues would like to survey them over their preference of washing powder? We can recommend a vendor who does it digitally at a reasonable price.