A year with COVID-19 : How did EU advocacy change?

At the beginning of 2020, we were still having bilateral in-person meetings, we could still meet
informally during the numerous Brussels events and we never thought an informal coffee could be
something you would do online. In many ways, public affairs in Brussels have been mostly based on
face-to-face interaction and we never thought this could be replaced.

Where in March and April you would still hear policymakers say “let’s meet and discuss in person
after COVID-19” that has now changed, and in a bizarre way, face-to-face meetings have been
replaced with a series of Zoom, Teams, Skype and Google Meet seances with the European
Commission, Parliament and Permanent Representations. It works to a large extent as it was forced
due to circumstances but it is not going to be disappearing after the pandemic.

Our experience is that after a bit of lock-down blues in March and April 2020 the EU machinery
started to work again. It took a while to get everything online, but after the first round of difficulties,
the experience is that it is the same or in some cases even easier to get meetings with policymakers.
Something so old fashioned as picking up the phone and call a policy officer, assistant or MEP has
also increased during 2020. You do not accidentally bump into people anymore, so you need to be
much more active to get your message through.

But there are some downsides too. Whereas online meetings work well with policymakers you have
met before, developing relations with a new stakeholder or extending your network can be much
harder. At least you need to be much more aware and attentive to how you can grow your network
via e.g., social media.

Has the small talk from when you walked from the elevator in Berlaymont to the meeting room
disappeared? Not really, as small talk exists online. Who has not experienced the first 5-10 minutes
of a Zoom meeting when not everybody has joined and some are testing sounds? People start
talking, commenting the background of those that have moved their working environment to the
exotic setting of a nice cottage. In the beginning, it was hard to small talk, but it grew along with
people’s acquaintance with online meetings – however more with people that you have met before
than with people you meet for the first time.

There are advantages to online meetings. They are cost-efficient and you can be more flexible in
terms of agenda. To a larger extent you can also involve several people in the meetings like e.g.,
scientific expertise both in-house and external. That is something that brings value to the meetings
and can help to bring more facts into the political debate. That is something many of us have felt
lacking in the past years and much harder to get across. Maybe the pandemic can help us with
raising the level of science-based and factual information spreading with help of the scientific
community – bringing them closer to the Brussels bubble.

The online meetings works well when it comes to information sharing, meeting where you agree on
the topic, outcome and next steps. However, they are much more challenging when it comes to
negotiation, when you have to agree on a common position, find a compromise. It works, but here
the in-person meeting just brings more value as you can see people’s reaction better and get a
better feeling of whether you are closer to a compromise or not. We have a lot of respect for
policymakers – especially those in both Council and Parliament who have negotiated policy frames
and deals on creating (new) tools to fight the pandemic. It has been impressive to follow and yes
there are mistakes and difficulties, but to a large extent many of these deals have been made online
and that just shows that it works. However, whereas many meetings will still be online postpandemic
we still believe that negotiations are one of the things that will go back quickly to be inperson.

A series of webinars has replaced the Brussels events. In the beginning, you saw (and still see on a
smaller scale) events being copied from an in-person format directly to an online-format. Who has
not been sitting in a day-long conference and had to drink numerous cups of coffees to keep awake
during endless speeches? Speeches that no-doubt are interesting, but keeping people’s attention
online for a longer time is even harder than in person. People are drawn by emails, phones etc.
Those that have success with webinars are those that have realised that it is much better to arrange
a meeting of a maximum of 2 hours and make sure that it is more engaging than when you sit
together in a conference hall. The webinars we have enjoyed the most are those where the audience

is actively engaged – that being asking questions for debate, participating in polls, using a mixed set
of tools of speakers, videos and debate.

The pandemic has also led industries and public affairs professionals to be more creative in their
communication. Whereas we had already seen an increased use of videos and infographics, this has
become the norm during the pandemic. Short campaigns online on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn
are something almost everybody in the Brussels bubble now uses. It is a refreshing supplement to
the policy debate and a much more engaging tool than just the traditional reach-out. However, while
the rise in selfies and self-made videos that we have seen much more of in 2020 aimed to reach both
an internal and external audience, maybe they should be reconsidered. Even if the aim is to provide
simplicity and a personal touch, we believe that quality should win over quantity here. They can be
useful complements but cannot substitute the substance.

We still do and should do policy papers and longer written contributions to the debate to help
policymakers, but getting attraction on social media and having an engaged debate there has come
to stay as an important part of public affairs.

What will then happen in 2021 when we are post-pandemic? We believe that we will see a slow
start. It will to a high extent be individual and employee safety-driven as opposed to market-driven,
when lobbyists and policymakers will feel it is time to meet in traditional office environment settings
again.

I believe that webinars are here to stay. The format can continue to improve, but it is an easy way to
engage key stakeholders. They will not replace physical events, but they will be a shorter format and
in time we will learn how to engage the audience even more.

Lykke Advice has made a training partnership and will in 2021 make courses in public affairs with a
special focus on digital public affairs. More information will follow soon, so stay tuned.

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