How not to campaign in Brussels

New Europe have published a not-very-serious article I wrote about campaigning in Brussels. It started as a ‘how-to’ guide… but then it seemed a better idea to write a ‘how-not-to’ guide instead!

The link to the article on New Europ’s site seems to be dead, so here’s the full piece:

How not to Campaign in Brussels

Author: Simon Wilson

8 May 2011 – Issue : 934

For a town with so many campaigners, actual campaigning in Brussels seems to be very rare.  Well, perhaps I should say that effective campaigning is very rare, at least as I understand it.

Let’s try a definition.  Campaigning: to seek to create political change which supports your objectives. This is pretty difficult to achieve, which is why many organisations in Brussels adopt another definition. Campaigning: to spend money discussing why political change is hard to achieve.

Ok, so that’s a bit harsh (& I’ve not been immune to these failings myself), but I remain surprised by how few organisations – whether business or NGOs – adopt a reflective attitude towards their campaign activities.
The Internet is full of useful articles about how to campaign, so instead let’s focus on the top ten tips for how not to campaign in Brussels.

1.) Goals are over-rated.
Don’t bother with a specific goal, just a general sense of dissatisfaction or injustice will do. The vaguer, the better – that way you can avoid awkward questions later on about whether the campaign is a success (see point 10, below).

2.) Hire some staff
A campaign is nothing without a chance to employ new people on short-term contracts, to come in with no knowledge of the issues, people, or organisations involved. That way you can also get back to spending your valuable time on devising staff appraisal systems and coffee-making rotas. After all, campaigning is the most important function of your organisation, so make sure it’s the most junior staff who are doing it.  Remember, interns are basically free and can also fetch coffee.

3.) Write a position paper
Position papers are a wonderful way of re-visiting internal arguments and creating acrimonious splits over arcane points of no interest whatsoever to policy-makers. You can get your campaign off to a great start by producing a twelve page document which no-one will ever read but which will take six months of internal consultation to agree.

4.) Organise an event.
Events are great: they can fill your empty days with activity, and use up your campaign budget, whilst also sucking the life out of your campaign staff by ensuring that they spend their time choosing sandwich fillings and worrying about hotel bookings. Any event will do, just so long as you spend most of your campaign resources in bringing together some of your existing supporters for a discussion about how the rest of the world doesn’t understand you.
However, if you do have a choice, then go for an event in the European Parliament. You can then spend six months finding one MEP who already supports your objectives, get them to sponsor your event, wrestle with Parliamentary security protocols to get your supporters into the building, and then watch your MEP disappear 10 minutes after the event starts, leaving an audience of hungry Parliamentary interns, waiting for the free food and drink.

5.) Issue a press release
Four pages should be the minimum length for a press release – go for longer if your organisation has lots of members. If you didn’t manage to write a position paper, then a long press release can fulfill this function too.
Give it a good title, like ‘European decision-makers should take action now to obviate the inequities of the current policy-making framework by consulting fully with relevant stakeholders’. Then send it to all major news publications so that they can publish it in full the following day. Try not to link it to any issues which are currently newsworthy – that way you can be sure to set your own news agenda. Even if no-one else follows it. The best time to send press releases is 5.30 on a Friday. Don’t forget to follow up with a daily email to journalists, it makes them feel loved and involved. Every release should be preceded by and followed up with a phone call to each journalist.

6.) Campaign in public, don’t influence in private
Sure, you could meet the policy-makers before they take the decision, to explain your point of view. But it’s much better to wait until the decision is taken, then react with fury in public by publishing a letter in a major news publication. Or the European Voice.
Similarly, don’t worry about identifying who has the power, just focus on getting your message to as many people in Brussels as possible. The Economic and Social Committee is a great example. Ignore those who say its a pointless institution with no power, influence, or credibility. Meet with them, invite them to your events, send them your newsletters. Just remember: you are validating their lives, and giving importance to their days.

7.) Work to your own timeline
Don’t be bullied by the external time pressures of EU Institutional deadlines: you’re a campaigner, so work to your own time-frame. If it takes three months to hire a campaign coordinator, then plan to recruit three weeks before that crucial Parliamentary vote. If your position paper is only ready after the Council have taken their decision, then you can always re-frame it as a reaction to their meeting.  Similarly, Commission consultation periods are just indicative – feel free to send your response up to one year after the closing deadline.

8.) Communicate to your supporters
A campaigns newsletter is a good idea. The more frequent the better, particularly if the work of producing the newsletter actually stops you from doing the campaigning which you are reporting on, because you are too busy inventing success stories to placate your supporters.

9.) Devise a social media strategy
This is essential today. No self-respecting campaigner should ignore the opportunity to spend time and money in organising a dynamic, interactive, mobile-oriented social media campaign. Which is aimed at the active engagement of 50 year-old European Commission civil servants who still get their secretaries to print out their emails every morning.

10.) Life’s too short  to evaluate
OK, so you could end your campaign by evaluating whether it’s been successful. But luckily you didn’t set a clear goal in the first place, so that is not possible. Besides, evaluation will get in the way of planning your next campaign – which should have a substantially bigger budget of course, to reflect your new-found status as a campaign guru.

Simon Wilson is a Consultant…
and occasional campaigner


3 responses to “How not to campaign in Brussels

  1. Dear Simon,
    a colleague just sent your 10 points around – having lived through several EU campaigns I can only say that I have seldom seen such a spot-on (and funny!) set of recommendations……you may also add the following: never work with other organisations sharing your campaign goals (should there be any such goals, that is) – it is really boring having to talk to others and it is much more fun if you are the only one with a particular message…..
    with the best regards,

  2. thanks Delia – love the additional recommendation: that strikes a chord for me as well!!

  3. You dear.. Sir.. owe me a keyboard.. and a coffee….

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