7 September 2022

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Takeaways from The Good Lobby Summer Academy

by Lorenzo Canu - TGL Ambassador

 

 

There is a UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Health, a Balkans and Caucasus Observatory Director, a POLITICO Chief Policy Correspondent, and an M100 Sanssouci Colloquium Newsletter Editor trash talking WhatsApp groups…..

 

 

 

Sounds like the beginning of a bar joke, doesn’t it? Yet that’s how the story of an unconventional collaboration began.

Let’s rewind a month to when a select group of leading thinkers, practitioners and academics working on new forms and policies of influence, mobilisation and lobbying from around the world gathered at the 2022 edition of The Good Lobby Summer Academy.

 

Governed by the Chatham House rule (under which anyone participating is free to use the information that emerge, but cannot attribute to anyone in particular), the event gathered leaders coming from well-established entities such as research institutions like Georgetown University, not-for-profits such as Euroconsumers, foundations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Global Innovators Group, and grassroots initiatives like Europe Must Act

 

Thanks to the financial support provided by the Transnational Political Contention in Europe (TraPoCo) network,  I was able – together with Harrison, Antonio, Sébastien, Michelle and Allegra, to attend the event free of charge and begin the journey of The  Good Lobby Ambassador. 

 

Among the many takeaways, which ones to choose if you are interested in PR and communication?

 

Thinking back on the journey, I have marked key takeaways (plus a bonus one as a birthday present):

 

  1. The table is never too short to give everyone a place – we need more unconventional coalitions 
  2. ‘Lobbying’ isn’t a bad word – anymore, as lobbying and interest representation are entering a new phase of development) 
  3. An act of #kindness and a smile can work better than a job title when building relationships –give the unconventional ideas’ a chance)
  4. Communication is not a priority – but it allows you to use plenty of nice buzzwords
  5. Highlighting your sustainability in lobbying helps companies – inputs from a forthcoming research
  6. How to organise a good in-person event – bonus, as it was just my birthday

 

 

1. The table is never too short to give everyone a place

 

Whether we are talking about informal collaborations or structured partnerships, the 21st century is the century of the social weaver: a relationship entrepreneur who creates value by integrating the relationship systems of private, public and social actors around a shared goal and evaluation methodology.

What did we learn at the Summer Academy about fruitful collaboration between civil society and elected representatives, and between public and private sectors? Mainly: that everyone can benefit from cross-sectoral collaboration.

An example? Europe Must Act (EMA): a grassroots movement that engages in advocacy, awareness-raising, campaigning and dialogue with political authorities on migration and refugee rights.

Allegra Salvini, EMA’s EU Advocacy Coordinator, invited us to reflect on what the rewards and challenges such informal coalitions. Companies can benefit from training on concrete issues and engage directly with those active on the ground, while grassroots movements can benefit from greater media exposure for their campaigns. Yet, Allegra still warns about the potential risks for grassroots NGOs like EMA when engaging with the private sector (such as “whitewashing”). 

Regardless, we need more of this type of collaboration to address the complex policy issues of our time.

 

2. ‘Lobbying’ isn’t a bad word

 

What do you think of when you hear the word “lobbying”? Odds are, it might not be the most positive image. Speakers at the Summer Academy challenged these negative perceptions through data and dialogue. 

One panel “How much lobbying is out there? The largest global comparative study of de facto lobbying data presented useful reference points to those interested in a quantitative view of the lobbying landscape

The combination of the findings of the OECD report “Lobbying in the 21st Century : Transparency, Integrity and Access” and the Open Government Partnership’s (OGP) first global outlook at disclosure of lobbying data, pictured an imperfect yet evolving situation.

The OECD report notes how improving the transparency and integrity of public decision-making remains a priority for many governments, which are considering introducing new lobbying regulations or revising existing ones. This, in addition to the OECD’s review of the 2010 OECD recommendation on lobbying, will highlight the positive potential of lobbying and help countries address emerging risks.

The global study by the Open Government Partnership (OGP), drawing on data from the first edition of the Global Data Barometer, a global collaborative project led by ILDA, confirms among other things a lack of data on lobbying activities, and where data is available, it is not always useful or easy to use. I look forward to the official release of the study in September to get a more coherent and cohesive view.

On the topic of participation of civil society and decision makers, an interesting example is the campaign for the approval of the new law on lobbying and interest representation in Italy. This campaign, led by The Good Lobby Italia’s office and supported by the #Lobbying4Change coalition of more than 40 organisations, which can be seen here, aims at equalizing access to policymakers, by ensuring everyone gets a seat at the table.

Finally, to better understand the process of evolution happening in lobbying and its regulation, it is interesting to keep a ‘behavioural’ perspective alongside the ‘regulatory’ one we have just seen. Arco Timmermans, Professor of Public Affairs at Leiden University, suggests that many instances cloud the view and awareness of what is happening in the lobbying process, starting from the receiving end of lobbying, i.e. all those who are target for the lobby activities. 

The first, and in my opinion very important, factor is the cultural bias from which lobbying suffers: seen as totally negative actions aimed at polluting decision-making processes and working around the laws, lobbying and advocacy are perceived as the same thing. Although ‘bad lobbying’ exists, it would be wrong to generalise this aversion. To learn more, you can watch Kelsey Beltz’s talk at the EUPRERAtalk Public Affairs and Lobbying – what is it good for?, where the cultural factor of this bias was discussed.

As far as the relationship with public decision-makers is concerned, then, the lack of enforcement and sanctions, as well as the need to report information to policy-makers, produce a Wild West in which the only compass is everyone’s moral one.

To know some more pro tips on how to better reach out to EU institutions and other international organisations, coming directly from Xavier Prats-Monné, Special Advisor at Teach for All and ex director general of DG SANTE, read Sarah Wheaton’s, Chief Policy Correspondent, POLITICO Europe, article.

 

3. An act of kindness and a smile can work better than a job title when building relationships

 

As much as relying solely on job titles, lengthy proceedings and long email threads can give middle and senior management confidence, I think now is the time to give the freshness of unconventional ideas a chance.

The potential of young people, who by enthusiasm or naiveté tend to express themselves unconventionally, should be nurtured, not rejected.

Much is possible by undressing (temporarily, don’t worry) titles and formalities and replacing them with kindness and horizontality.

Personally, I was able to breathe in the relaxed atmosphere of the Summer Academy, where it was almost natural for me to interact with a UN representative or thought leaders such as Professor Alberto Alemanno. I was able to ask them, almost as I might with my colleagues over a beer in Plux, for their opinion on subjects like the destination for the second semester abroad of my Erasmus Mundus Master’s program. 

To confirm this, chatting with a EU Commission Director General in front of some criminally good pastries showed me how it is always possible to maintain the enthusiasm of when you first start out – even after years of working in the field of European Public Policy strategies.

 

4. In the economy of reputation and intangible assets, communication is not a priority

 

The importance of communication is one of the best (or worst) false myths in the world of work. But hey, at least it allows businesses to use many fancy buzzwords.

As much as celebrating the importance of storytelling is trendy nowadays, the role of the communicator, rather than communication itself, is not prioritized enough within a company (that does not want to keep up with the times).

The communicator is always a technician, someone whose task is to ‘put out’ a message designed by the decision-makers in a company.

It is exhausting for a professional and demoralising for a passionate student to witness the vertical and hierarchical, and not horizontal and strategic, situation of the communicator. (For professionals, this binomial makes even more sense when renamed symbolic-interpretive vs. strategic-behavioural).

But why should this be of interest to companies, institutions and NGOs alike?

In the panel “Corporate political accountability as the ultimate sustainable business practice?” of the Summer Academy, a new interpretation of corporate social responsibility particularly struck me, that of corporate political responsibility. Having done my thesis on the former and still having another one to write, it represents a takeaway not to be missed (if only so I can copy and paste it later when I will be writing).

At a time when people are becoming more distrustful of the media and the government, employees and consumers have become the driving force for corporate control.

As public affairs, lobbying and public relations actors, we should move from the concept of a corporate social footprint (or responsibility – CSR) to that of corporate ‘political footprint’ capable of demonstrating companies’ real commitment. This as the main factor behind the lack of progress on most critical issues is the mismatch between what is said and what is done by companies on social issues. In fact, today, even the most sustainable companies continue to block legislation that promotes progressive goals.

How to? Historically, one of the earliest functions to be involved in defining CSR is that of communicators, the first to talk about it and put it into practice.

Although the CSR function presents complexities that go beyond the Public Relations function alone, in their role of listening to stakeholders and their expectations PR professionals are the one bringing the society demands into the company.

Toolkits such as the Global PR & Communications Model can help communicators of all realities improve their position and find the tools to ‘lobby’ their position in the C-Suite.

In the five Building Blocks, the Model seeks to respond to major new challenges for an organisation, such as the need to strengthen social and relational capital through better engagement with all stakeholders, thereby generating advocacy and building trust and social legitimacy to expand its ‘licence to operate’. To do this, the Model prescribes concepts, tools and roles that ‘PR directors must lead to achieve an internal strategic position’, thus legitimately becoming part of the organisation’s C-Suite and effectively moving from being a technician with an advisor role to a strategist.

You can find the text together with translations here (I have worked on the Italian one, and we are working on the French one), and my Bachelor’s thesis on its application and applicability in Italy here.

Outside of companies and organisations, there is an emerging ecosystem of corporate accountability where corporate political watchdogs like Progressive Shopper and tools like the Ukraine Corporate Index can easily prove (or disprove) the political stances of companies.

Using data collected and made available by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Progressive Shopper lets consumers know which companies they support and how they compare to their competitors. In this way, it ‘passes the turn’ to consumers who can make their purchasing choice aware of the companies’ positions. As stated by Mark Hanis, founder of Progressive Shopper, “it is not enough to do no harm, you have to be proactive in doing good. There is a shift whereby younger people expect more responsibility from companies on current issues like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ rights, but in reality many things are not consistent’.

In addition, The Good Lobby’s Ukraine Corporate Index regularly tracks companies’ positions towards Russia in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine. It aims to inform investors, customers and citizens about whether and how their companies and brands are positioning themselves in the ongoing conflict. The goal is to get these stakeholders to re-evaluate their investment and purchasing decisions, praising responsible companies and downplaying irresponsible ones.

 

5. Highlighting your sustainability in lobbying helps companies

 

From the University of Glasgow comes some very useful data from research carried out by Favotto, Kollman & McMillan (forthcoming, 2023) on the relationship between CSR reporting and the quality of lobbying. Their research follows on from findings that show companies with a greater commitment to CSR reporting in impact reporting benefit from better access to decision makers (Werner 2015; Favotto et al 2022). There are four main takeaways from this research:

  • High CSR companies lobby differently from low CSR companies.
  • High CSR companies are more likely to argue, to support government policies and market regulation and to offer more elaborate justifications for their positions. 
  • The rhetorical quality is not significantly different (the differences concern more the way of acting and less the way of speaking).
  • Accountability is still rather limited even for the ‘best in class’. They still say too little about market regulation and how their lobbying relates to the public good.

Having said that, it is clear how, for reputational opportunity or sincere values, focusing on CSR, reporting on it, is a unique opportunity for companies that want to stand out from others.

 

6. How to organise a good in-person event (Bonus, as it was just my birthday)

 

Two years of a pandemic have accustomed us to net-iquette (mute the microphone if you don’t speak, watch out for catlike filters, don’t ask if ‘you can see the shared screen’, etc.).

With the return to in-person events, it would be good to take some changes (in etiquette and otherwise) into account:

  • Zoom, Teams, and other apps that keep us glued to our electronic devices have led to Zoom fatigue, as intense as the additional eye and mind fatigue caused by the continued use of video chat platforms. Now instead we are gradually returning to a need for human (human, not climatic) warmth. (To find out more about what Harrison Ashangwa, Executive Director, International Student Environmental Coalition is doing to combat global warming, click here).
  • If you are organising an event, don’t forget to offer plenty of networking space for guests. In-person events are great for allowing participants to loosen up and put aside the rigidity of emails, kind regards and dinners. Since you can’t always enjoy sunset pintxos, some fruit, a walk in green spaces and pastries can work just as well.
  • Similar to the previous point, in-person events are in-person. There is no longer the option of following them in your pyjamas from the sofa, eating tortillas and hummus (the same as breakfast, lunch and maybe even dinner). Nor is it possible to record sessions to watch them in a few days’ time (raise your hand if you have done so only to have to delete them to make room in your memory to download Candy Crush). Participants need moments between panels to metabolise the content. By offering these moments, the interaction with the panelists and in the audience itself will improve.
  • If you get the microphone to ask a question, use it for that purpose. Long digressions and stories, however interesting, risk taking away time from the other (young) participants to ask questions.
  • The said microphone: Close. To. The. Mouth.

 

Hoping to see you all at the next edition (call opening in December/January), I can be reached on LinkedIn and by email for any collaboration – the less formal, the better.