The COVID-19 Pandemic and EU Public Affairs – Lessons From the Experts
By Claire Berringer, Quorum
It would be fair to say that the first year of the von der Leyen Commission turned out to be quite different than expected. The focus on building a “fair, climate-neutral, digital Europe,” with priorities such as the European Green Deal or on the digital economy, suddenly shifted as the COVID-19 pandemic set in across Europe and across the world in March 2020. It posed the question of how to ensure that the EU institutions could continue working as much as normal in this new environment. Of course, it was not just the EU institutions that were affected by the pandemic. In a city like Brussels where networking and information sharing almost exclusively relies on in-person interactions, how can public affairs continue effectively?
Quorum asked three public affairs experts their views on what impact the pandemic has had on EU public affairs:
- Alessandro Da Rold, Managing Director at EU40
- Elizabeth Krahulecz, Associate Partner and Head of EMEIA Public Policy Brussels Office at EY
- Géraldine Kutas, Director-General at the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA)
Digital engagement gives you the opportunity to reach a wider audience
Most organisations switched to holding virtual conferences and webinars to ensure that engagement with stakeholders could continue. Before the pandemic, events were limited by seating capacity or whether the speakers could fit the conference into their travel schedule. With digital, more people can watch an event online live – or on replay. It also means that the audience can be more international and diverse. Crucially, it allows greater access to higher-level speakers for such events. Digital also means that events in Brussels can be held any day of the week now – before it was just Tuesday to Thursday as EU officials would often be traveling on Mondays and Fridays.
“We had to make vast changes to [EY’s flagship Corporate Governance conference] agenda and format to make sure it was as engaging for our speakers and stakeholders as possible digitally… In a normal year, we would have 200 or so participants in person, whereas this year we had 600 on the day with several hundred who followed it later on replay. We had more international speakers and higher-level speakers. That had a significant and positive impact on the quality of the discussion.” — Elizabeth Krahulecz
“Now you don’t have days anymore, you can organise an event whenever you want because people are online.” — Géraldine Kutas
Digital technologies are an integral part of the public affairs professional’s toolkit
From preparing for meetings, to organising how the team shares information while working remotely, to understanding what an official is saying about your issue – digital has become essential to public affairs in these times. By having one place, like Quorum, to store all this information in a team-wide accessible way, you can spend time on what counts most — analysing the issues in order to make an impact for your organisation.
“Teams need good digital tools for virtual meetings, but also need something like Quorum in terms of software. Why? Because you no longer have your informal network around, you can’t just bump into someone and ask a question. This is really where we see the value of the platform: one place to keep information that’s easy to access, meaning you can have answers very quickly.” — Géraldine Kutas
“With regard to Quorum, what has been very useful for us is the way we prepare. We are better able to target our stakeholder engagement using data. We are finding that our stakeholders are more visible on social media now. The Quorum tool is a good way to search and organise this data in a meaningful way that we can use in our daily engagement.” — Elizabeth Krahulecz
The three EU institutions reacted differently to the COVID-19 crisis
The European Commission has been keen to continue its activities and policy programme. However, engaging with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) has been more challenging — some have embraced the shift to digital, others less so. This means that, for lobbyists, it’s essential to capture a policymaker’s attention with a more considered and concise approach.
“The first impression is what counts — so the better your first event or meeting the more likely they are to come back. It is important to build a relationship based on facts — start by being concise, put everything on being short, and target your message.” — Alessandro Da Rold
“We need to be more concise, we need to go straight to the point and have clear asks when we meet politicians. We don’t have a lot of time with them — and we need to be clear on the objective of the meeting and what we will ask. The pandemic also forced us to tell better stories — it requires a lot of creativity on our end, but if you tell a good story you can also create new connections. — Géraldine Kutas
Digital poses both a challenge and an opportunity when building new relationships
The shift to digital means that the opportunities for informal networking have diminished, making it harder to build meaningful relationships with new stakeholders. However, these challenges push organisations to find new ways to connect with stakeholders.
“There are no informal places to meet now. You can’t just go for a drink after work or meet your network in the parliament to exchange information on an informal basis. . Therefore, if you had an existing network before you really have to work hard to maintain this network. If you didn’t have this network, it’s really very challenging… We do realise that meeting online has advantages. But digital will never replace the value of face-to-face meetings.” — Géraldine Kutas
“The shift from physical to digital gave a huge head start to those who had previous connections. Inviting an MEP or assistant to have a discussion on Zoom was much easier for those who had previous connections. With time as the external world adapted so too did public officials adapt.” — Alessandro Da Rold
“We really feel the need to share experiences now — peer-to-peer learning has become so important. You can build trust by providing good quality thought leadership. Trust will mean you can continue engaging with your network. What will be interesting is how do we build on what we have achieved since COVID-19? We have learnt that building stakeholder alliances is crucial – the more we share with other professionals, across sectors outside of public affairs, the better the shared experience and outcomes.” — Elizabeth Krahulecz
It’s clear that there will be a long-term impact of the shift to digital on EU public affairs, even once meetings are in-person again. Whether that’s using online events to attract a wider audience, deciding not all meetings need to be face-to-face, and ensuring that messages shared with policymakers are better-targeted and better-prepared, the pandemic has forced public affairs professionals to think more creatively. That said, perhaps the most positive long-term impact will be the human experience — broadening our horizons, investing time in peer-to-peer learning across sectors, finding new ways to build trust, and realising the value of our informal networks.