April 22, 2016
- EurActiv and EU Public Affairs have been interconnected from past to present
- Three values have been key to success: substance, transparency and reciprocity
- EurActiv and Public Affairs professionals are [is] well-placed to add a new value for a successful future: responsibility
21 October 2015 was “Back to the Future Day” – the day to which Marty McFly time-lapsed in the legendary movie “Back to the Future Day” from 1985. Looking back into the past and forward into the future of EU Public Affairs and EurActiv is a similar endeavour, and just as much fun.
When EurActiv set up shop in 1999, I was a young political science student in search for a suitable master thesis topic. After reading and reading, I got hooked by the idea of networking and interest groups, and the issue of influence, at EU level. Out of this initial interest, a fascination developed that culminated not only in a master thesis, but also a PhD thesis, two monographs and a series of articles on EU lobbying – and eventually a career in EU public affairs. I am telling you this because my own development and the evolvement of EurActiv over the past 16 years personalise the story of where EU Public Affairs is coming from and what it is steering towards.
EurActiv has accompanied me throughout my entire career, first as a major source of practical information for my research, then as the platform where I could find the most concise case-study material for university lessons, next as job-seeker, and over time in different capacities as a marketing companion for publications and arguments. And – a major aspect in all networks – on a very personal level with many of EurActiv’s senior managers. And I’m not an atypical case.
Looking back at EurActiv’s service offer in its early days and comparing it with today, I believe that EurActiv has an open secret to success: it understands its readers and the “EU bubble” in particular – and has continuously managed to adapt accordingly.
Here is what you can expect in the following lines: Find out which three values connect Public Affairs work and EurActiv, how they have proven crucial in 1999 as today, and what is needed additionally to move safely to the future of 2020.
The first value I want to share with you is substance. Public Affairs professionals in the EU have been and continue to be information brokers – be they in-house lobbyists, associations, consultants or policymakers. Their professional success depends on how well they know their facts.
EurActiv emerged when the internet started to change the role of Public Affairs professionals from information brokerage to information filtering. The major benefit was twofold: EurActiv provided a concise overview over the most important policy developments at EU level – in a digestible format. Additionally, EurActiv provided something unique and extremely useful: a round-up of stakeholder policy positions for each policy issue – always presenting, but not taking sides.
Additionally, EurActiv has been an early adopter of social media – communication tools that only now conquer EU policymaking and Public Affairs. EurActiv established its presence on Twitter and Facebook in 2008, when the entire Public Affairs community as well as business at large was still wondering whether these tools would influence political communication at all.
Public Affairs officials in 2015 not only need to be fast in getting and filtering information, they need to be good at interpreting the vast amount of information, and focus on the important aspects. What makes EurActiv special today, is that with its social media activities: blogs, opinions, videos, extensive section coverage, and published positions, it offers more and more interpretative voices beyond mere information, and still keeps its concise style and journalistic independence.
The second value governing Public Affairs is, as paradoxical as it may seem to some readers, transparency. EU lobbying may be hard to understand from the outside – but it is utterly transparent. Why? Because it is so much about information exchange that secrets cannot be kept for long, and it is about credibility that can only be gained if arguments can withstand public scrutiny. Public Affairs professionals, who try to disguise their motives or even present false facts, suffer a major reputational loss and are often out of business. Lies are talked about in EU circles.
Whilst transparency has always played a role, the EU Transparency register has established a new quality level. When created in 2011, many Public Affairs professionals feared the register as a PR tool that would lead to lobby bashing rather than better information. Four years and a number of improvements later, lobbyists and many related professions register to demonstrate their integrity.
Public Affairs transparency is, in my view, at the very core of EurActiv’s commitment to the EU policymaking and public affairs business and shows more than any other aspect the self-understanding of EurActiv. The 360 degree coverage of stakeholder opinions is one aspect of it. The other one is a hidden gem, and I suggest you to have a fresh look at it: the “Public Affairs” section, dealing with lobbying ethics as well as Public Affairs stakeholders, was part of EurActiv from its earliest days.
The third value explains EurActiv’s business model and how free-of-charge content has become successful.
Public Affairs has been and continues to be a people and networking business. Networking leads to opportunities for influence – on all sides. Networks work best when they are reciprocal – especially in the EU where paradoxically information and support is so easily available (compared with many other public administrations).
In 1999 as now, Public Affairs professionals gather and inform each other of the latest gossip, trends and developments soft and hard facts that keep lobbyists on top of their jobs. There is no need to pay for such information, and alternative ways are always open and usually faster.
EurActiv never tried to contest this practice – its content was always free – without any fear of the imposition of fees. Consequently, EurActiv was quickly read widely, but everyone wondered what EurActiv’s business model was and how the idea of gathering sponsors around policy areas could work out. Well, the proof is here. By accepting how the EU works, EurActiv has early on embraced one of the most successful rules of modern online marketing: give and you get.
Back to 2020 – where next?
The quick glimpse back to the future of EurActiv and EU Public Affairs leaves many aspects uncovered. When contemplating about the future of 2020, I believe that one additional value will become important: responsibility.
Europe faces a severe backlash of nationalism, and a menacing loss of solidarity between member states. We witnessed humiliating communication processes around Greece’s financial collapse with damage to all participants. We currently follow a series of difficult, sensitive, hurtful and even aggressive debates between Member States on how to solve the refugee crisis. Such sentiments certainly always existed, the EU is not an altruistic charity organisation. However, solidarity amongst member states was and is vital for the European experiment.
Lobbyists have always been intermediaries. They have an important role to play in order to avoid communication disasters beyond repair. Public Affairs leaders do not limit themselves to the public policy domains but get involved in big politics. With EurActiv’s expansion of its services into 12 languages, is at a formidable place to contribute: no news is neutral news, and it is worthwhile taking a stand by making big politics a focus where it deserves it.
Irina Michalowitz, EU Public Affairs academic and consultant
Author : EurActiv: Pioneering Values in European Media