Image: Angela Pauly (left), Craig Winneker and Natalia Kurop

At a tightly packed Press Club on Thursday 26 October, communicators gathered to  discuss the role of communications and media relations in EU association advocacy and driving industry growth. Moderator Natalia Kurop set the context of the session by providing three key themes to be addressed by the speakers, and in the audience Q&A session:

  • To communicate or not to communicate?: The role of communications and media relations in EU association advocacy.
  • Feeling the fear and doing it anyway: Why is media relations important to advocacy
  • Working in the Twitter world: Policy in 280 characters or less.

Natalia opened the discussion by painting a picture of the world that communicators operate in today. She made reference to the rise of populism within Europe and beyond, the risks posed by Brexit, the effects of climate change, and the increasingly dynamic and disturbed news cycles, thanks to social media. She stated that these factors affect the ways in which communicators in EU associations must engage in order to be effective. Click here to download Natalia’s presentation.

Natalia discussed how important the reputation of a sector is in achieving favourable policy outcomes in the EU. She underlined that if the sector has a poor reputation, it is more likely that EU decision makers would not take that sector’s opinion into account. She then referred to Ellwood Atfield’s recent research on reputation, which demonstrated that 74% of the 200 respondents of senior association leaders and members all agreed that reputation was essential to achieving public affairs goals. Another finding from EA’s research pointed to NGOs and activists as representing the greatest risk to a Brussels industry sector’s reputation. Natalia noted that journalists could write negative stories, but also quoted a senior policy person who was more afraid of the reaction of association members to a press release than any risks posed by a journalist. On the challenges of dealing with time constraints, she pointed out that it takes some European associations between 2 to 7 days to get a press release approved, whereas 1/3 of journalists working in Brussels might have 2 hours or less to deal with a story. To conclude, Natalia reported on original EA research which showed that the top 3 issues for association communications in the next three years include: addressing more audiences despite resource challenges, building and maintaining trust, and linking industrial strategies with effective communications.

Craig Winneker began his presentation on “How to cut through: effective messaging for associations” by stating, “Get to the Monkey!” meaning “get to the point”. He stated that an industry position is not “news” and that a short message will always have a greater impact. He mentioned tips on how to draft a press release and went on to provide examples of “bad” and “not bad” press releases. Finally, Craig asked participants whether, in the age of Twitter and LinkedIn, if anybody still read press releases. Click here to download Craig’s presentation.

Angela Pauly spoke of a case study in which a purely public affairs effort was turned into an advocacy victory. She described how she had been asked to edit a document prior to it being sent to an initial group of signatories. She noted that this was an opportunity to launch a campaign that would have the advantage of using the social media platforms of however many associations that joined in. In the first outreach of the “Industry for Europe” campaign, over 90 signatures were added to the joint declaration.

Angela then sought to leverage the Twitter accounts of the signatory organisations by drafting over a dozen tweets and about 5 different visuals that could be uploaded along with them, to be used by the respective associations. Importantly, she also provided the campaign multipliers with the Twitter handles of key decision makers and a suggested timeline. Within the first week after the launch of the campaign, the hashtag “Industry4Europe” had accumulated over a million impressions on Twitter. President Juncker mentioned the industrial policy in his State of the Union address a few weeks later. This was a prime example of how both the public affairs and communication teams were successful in working together for a common cause.

Natalia then engaged the audience by asking questions on which social media platforms they used and how to frame advocacy messages. She underlined the challenges of creating this framework in 140 characters. Participants shared experience on the use of LinkedIn as a tool for growing industry sector networks. Facebook could also be used for highlighting events linked to the sector. An audience member questioned whether Twitter figures really told the truth about the real impact of the message leading to a discussion about how to measure the impact of a campaign in public policy terms. Key Performance Indicators were considered elusive in terms of communications, but the speakers highlighted the selection made by decision makers in their choice of what to re-tweet, their reference to campaigns in their public statements, and the number of mentions of a campaign in traditional press articles. They also agreed that the Members of the European Parliament welcomed Twitter as an awareness raising tool whereas Commission officials might favour longer messages to be found more often in press releases.

Magdalena Wawrzonkowska aptly summarised the lively debate at the close of the session. She first reiterated the importance of the inclusion of the communications team in discussions about shaping, formatting and distributing public affairs messages. Whilst the communications roles in associations tend to be lower in number than their lobbying counterparts, working together to achieve common goals from the outset could offset the lack of staff.

Magda confirmed that there was indeed still a place for press releases and urged participants to follow the advice of Craig, in particular, keeping to the point, providing real news, and using the active voice.

Finally, Magda underlined that although the role of association communicators had become more complex use of social media, she pointed to this diversity as an advantage since it provided the means with which to reach a wider audience.

Rachel Barlow is Senior Advisor at executive search firm Ellwodd Attfield, This article originally appeared on ellwoodatfield.com.