Digital Lobbying in the COVID-19 ERA
There is no denying that the arrival of the Coronavirus to our continent has hit our economies like a ton of bricks. Most shops, restaurants and other (small) businesses have been ordered to close, and many more are suffering great losses. Whilst consultancies and lobbying firms have not technically been told to close up shop, between the significantly slimmed down legislative agenda and clients pulling out – at least temporarily – the Brussels bubble certainly is not immune to the instant downturn. The European Parliament has instated a ‘pseudo-recess’ in April and most of their colleagues in the other EU Institutions are working from home.
Does this mean we cannot adequately represent our clients during this time of crisis? I think not. Having absorbed the first ‘shock to their systems’, officials and politicians have taken to their webcams and keyboards and are slowly picking up their work virtually. The European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission are all discussing their key files during e-meetings, and priority issues are being dealt with remotely. The European Parliament has even managed to agree on emergency measures within a timeframe of weeks and voted them through via email (!). Now that they are getting used to this way of meeting and debating, officials and politicians are also using the technology available to them to meet non-Institutional stakeholders, including lobbyists, to discuss their files.
Reading the views of fellow practitioners over the past days and weeks, it seems that not all of us are ready to embrace this new way of working. I was quite surprised to read the views of a partner at one of the leading public affairs consultancies in Brussels, who said: “I don’t believe, and I’ll never believe, that this kind of communication will make a difference in the impact of a public affairs campaign” and “Public affairs is about human beings, it’s not about computers” (Source: Politico). I categorically disagree.
Whilst most of us will agree that face-to-face meetings have our preference, I could not disagree more that lobbying remotely cannot be at least as effective or human. I would even argue that, in some ways, lobbying via technology can be even more human than meeting face-to-face. There is something quite intimate about having a webcam meeting with an EU official at their kitchen table, wearing a t-shirt in the comfort of their own home. Sharing frustrations of having the kids at home 24/7 offers an instant bonding experience and an ideal icebreaker before moving on to more serious matters. I will take that over sitting across from one another, in one of the Institutions’ many uninspiring meeting rooms, wearing even more uninspiring black suits, any day. Moreover, this whole health crisis has made us all more human to begin with. I have never seen so many politicians and officials drop their last names in the very first email. We are now more concerned with the other person’s well-being than their title. We listen better and consider more.
Thinking that the EU legislative process has come to a halt would be naïve. Files are still moving, and decisions are being made. If anything, us lobbyists should be hyper-alert, now more than ever. Some players will try to use this crisis to finally get the EU to push though those measures they have been lobbying for, for so long. It is our responsibility to be vigilant and to protect our clients’ interests, especially in these volatile times: You snooze, you lose!