This is EU public affairs in the age of transparency

Brett Kobie

Brussels has changed and the public affairs profession has changed along with it.

If the act of interacting with and attempting to influence policy stakeholders was once simply a question of quietly getting to know the right people, it may now be considered a much more complex practice during which one’s motives, reputation and relevance are constantly called into question by a diverse group of decision makers, competitors and NGO watchdogs.

At the same time, groups face ever-decreasing policymaker attention spans and must compete daily to maintain their share of voice and with that their relevance on the EU policy scene.

This is the reality of EU public affairs in the age of transparency.

How we arrived in the age of transparency

For many, the notion of “transparency” in Brussels was for years little more than a fleeting Eurocratic buzzword, with little bearing on how they conducted business.

But times have changed. Rarely does a week go by without a story in the Brussels, national or pan-European media about a scheming lobbying force with the most evil of intentions to swing the policy pendulum in its favour and make a bundle of cash in the process. Even the youngest of PA professionals can expect to be named as “lobbyists” in Brussels media, often because they are on record as holding access passes to the European Parliament.

Being listed on the EU transparency register has become a must for most groups and the excellent advocacy work of Brussels’ lobbying watchdogs has led to a collective acknowledgement in Brussels of the need to be open and honest about one’s motives and financial ties.

Coupled with this emphasis on transparency is a global shift in how media is consumed. We now turn to a few select (often social) channels to discover the news relevant to us – we (policymakers included) prefer to ingest information in short snippets over time rather then lengthy articles we might make time for only once or twice a year. Policymaker attention spans are shorter than ever and competition for their valuable time is fierce.

How are Brussels operators adapting?

Interest groups have shifted their approaches away from traditional short-term thinking which often led them to approach policymakers only with acute problems, asking them for help without providing much in return.

Instead, in this age of transparency, forward thinking policy influencers have realised the need to implement more comprehensive, long-term approaches to telling their stories and to articulating their policy asks in ways that build social capital and offer positive solutions instead of negative doomsday scenarios.

Generalizing about strategies in Brussels bubble is usually not advisable, but I think these three trends are clearly emerging:

  1. Clear and comprehensive narratives about who exactly the group represents and why they are relevant in a given policy context.
  2. Open channels for better storytelling and real dialogue that clearly break from the traditional one-way messaging that has dominated policy discourse for most of the EU’s history.
  3. A focus on increasing, maintaining and measuring share of voice in the policy circles directly important to them.

“Transparency” is the new normal in Brussels and that’s a good thing. It forces us all to think harder about who we actually are and what value we add.

Honesty and humanity will be rewarded in this environment, and groups failing to embrace those concepts in an increasingly political Brussels (remember that tighter transparency rules and POLITICO are on the way!) may find themselves pushed to the margins of the policy debates of the day.