So you think Washington is tough? Try Brussels!

An article aimed at US public affairs practitioners by Mark Dober

Effective public affairs anywhere in the world rests on getting the right information, to the right people, at the right time. The more international the assignment, the more complex these tasks become, and this is especially true if your work takes you to the European Union. With more than half the sales of American overseas affiliates taking place in the 27-member Brussels-centred alliance, U.S. companies increasingly find themselves required to implement pan-European public affairs programs.  The opportunities - and threats - are significant in what is now the largest economy in the world, with a GDP of over 16 trillion US Dollars and a population of 500 million people.

If you are going to try to sell a public affairs concept or issue within the EU, and across multiple borders, you will face multiple challenges. Here are a few of them:

Conducting public affairs responsibilities in such a complex, confusing climate will rarely be without problems, but there are steps you can take that can help you succeed in selling your position in Europe. Here are some below:

  1. Establish a presence in Brussels. It’s the natural launching pad for EU public affairs efforts. It hosts the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, more than 750 journalists and over 15,000 lobbyists.
  2. Maximize U.S. channels. The local U.S. Mission, state (e.g. California) representation office or American Chamber of Commerce may provide "free" or low-cost assistance. The European Council of American Chambers of Commerce has a combined membership of more than 16,000 American-European companies and lobbies collectively. There is an increasing exchange of information between U.S. and European Union policymakers in many areas, from drug registration to the environment. These issues and contacts should be monitored regularly.
  3. Show European "credentials." Your case or issue should be presented as providing a positive contribution to the economic and policy goals of the European Union, and its member states, such as social cohesion and competitiveness, or directly in terms of employment, R & D and investment.
  4. Use trade associations. The European Commission has said it "favours dialogue with European confederations," and in several member states, Germany, especially, the position of the national federation is of utmost importance and has considerable political influence with the federal government.
  5. Beware the media. The advent of online and social media means that the public has been given unprecedented access to events in real time. EU decision-makers are particularly sensitive to public opinion and the media. The European Commission, for example, circulates internally a compilation of wire agency dispatches up to six times a day!
  6. Do not accept "that will never work here" without good reason. A fair balance needs to be struck between being culturally sensitive and providing central -direction. Creative ideas often need to be carefully adapted, but Europeans tend to be so wrapped up in their national differences that they forget certain common principles. Techniques long used in the United States, such as grassroots campaigning, are increasingly employed in Europe.
  7. Know the rules. As in the United States, a recent wave of widely-reported scandals, combined with a general feeling of intrusion on the part of politicians, has led to the introduction of stricter official rules governing lobbying. The public affairs profession itself, it should be noted, has adopted a number of codes of conduct at the European and national levels.
  8. Choose a good local guide, a public affairs firm that has the breadth and depth of services needed to tackle the challenges of Europe. Again, as in the U.S., the quality of a consultant’s access, advice and experience is what counts, although in today’s Europe, what you know is now often more important than who you know.

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