As a consultant in the public affairs sector here in Brussels I am beginning to sound a lot like many representatives of other industries I meet. The recent furor in the UK over ex-ministers allegedly seeking lobbying jobs with journalists posing as fake companies made me let out a cry of desperation and exclaim “they just don’t understand what we do!”
Before I start don’t get me wrong, the ministers concerned may or may not have broken any rules but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe that they were just a little bit naive. Rather unhappily, they are not alone. I can’t speak for Westminster (having only ever worked here), but I would venture that any organisation that seeks to employ a public affairs professional in Brussels on the basis of their “access” is as misguided as our retiring former ministers. Alas, experience suggests that such organisations do exist.
Most policymakers in this town are reasonable people, who understand that they need input from the outside world on what they are discussing if they are to make good policy. Given the correct approach, most people of all levels will take the time to meet with you and give you a fair hearing. It is after all in their interests to hear your views. They are also intelligent people who will weigh what you say up with what they’ve heard from representatives of five other organisations that day, their own political stance and the people they represent. Securing a meeting with policymakers is as much about knowing who is working on a dossier, having something that is of interest to them to talk about and ensuring that you pick the right time to go speak to them as anything else. A good public affairs person in Brussels is going to be able to guide you on this through their knowledge of political process and their expertise in political communication.
Existing relationships are of course useful and if you’ve been doing this any time you shall have them, but experience of working on some of the most bizarre dossiers in our legislative process suggests that they can be built relatively easily as long as you are giving useful insights. Indeed, sometimes having relationships work the other way round. As a former staffer of an MEP who I regarded as a friend, I have to admit on being harder on clients wanting to go see him than I would be on the same clients wanting to go see other MEPs. After all my friendship was at stake. Come along with people who wasted his time and our friendship may not have lasted very long.