Chief Executive and Regulatory Officers, are you occasionally wondering which planet your Brussels staff is from? Probably because they just provided you with absolutely useless information about a reception someone went to? And at the same time, they just would not deliver a useful risk analysis for your business forecast?
Brussels Public Affairs teams, have you ever despaired when your HQ asked you what exactly was going to become law? Preferably when you had just mentioned a new rumour roaming through the Commission corridors?
Company headquarters and Public Affairs satellite offices are one family, and at the same time two very different worlds. Headquarters are driven by business results, numbers, the stock exchange – Brussels satellite offices deal with political friends and foes, rumours, proposals and amendments.
Why is it so difficult to talk the same language within one company?
Here are three reasons why:
1) Education and in-house experience: politics vs. business interests
You may see your public affairs office as an integral part of your company, and that’s certainly right. However, you hired these people to do something that differs significantly from the tasks of the rest of your company. Chances are therefore that your staff has a different educational background than your average corporate team – political science, history, law, social science or even philosophy, mathematics or any other non-business subject topped up by a Master of European Studies degree are examples of a typical educational background of a Public Affairs professional.
Whilst you may find such backgrounds in core business teams as well, people develop their skills by applying them. Your Public Affairs office is dealing with your political framework conditions on a daily basis, and far less with how your company earns revenues.
Their skills-set and what they acquire on the job therefore also differs. Languages, knowledge of politics, developing and framing arguments, quickly grasping context, and contacts count most in Brussels. That’s what they predominantly train.
2) Satellite offices endangered to turn native in Brussels
You may think these issues do not need to worry you – because you have installed someone from within your own ranks as Head of Office. Whilst that indeed offers the opportunity for closer connections between Brussels and Headquarter, this Head of Office may struggle with understanding how Brussels works, and how the team interacts. You are just delegating the problem.
Whatever your set-up is, you will have to put effort into maintaining the connection to your satellite team. Same issues as in any long-distance relationship: quality matters, and frequent meetings are important.
And you will have to take care of in-house staff sent to Brussels just as much as of locally recruited Public Affairs Professionals. These people are human beings and need a certain level of attention.
If they don’t get it from you – they will get it in Brussels.
Work is not just about work. It’s about achieving something together with others. That’s one reason people get up every day and engage in their work. In Brussels, there is this additional incentive to build Europe and make it a better place. If you ask lobbyists or policymakers what their opinion is on Brexit, the Greek bailout or Europe’s role in the refugee crisis, you will hear surprisingly little variation.
They are one „crowd“. And your satellite office is likely to become a stronger element of that crowd than of your company if the contact to the headquarter is not sufficiently intensive, regular and strong. Unless you ensure your Public Affairs staff are trained the values and goals of your company, are brought to the Headquarter for important meetings and to show their faces, and are integrated into your company culture, they will remain or become aliens. That’s not what you want to happen with a team that is your face and voice vis-à-vis EU policymakers.
3) Lack of exchange of views – wrong questions asked on both sides
Whenever headquarters and Brussels offices do not understand each other, the problem is on both sides. Many companies don’t know how to handle the input: wrong questions are asked, the intelligence that is gathered is not processed correctly, and the internal pipelines to feed information into the Public Affairs office and extracting useful information from it, are missing.
Where most of the misunderstandings occur:
The evaluation of risk this means something different for a controller than it does for a Public Affairs professional. Whilst the controller needs numbers and probabilities to calculate concrete forecasts, the world of Public Affairs professionals consists of many interdependencies and flexible timelines. Whilst probabilities can be estimated to a fairly useful degree, controllers and Public Affairs staff need to discuss this in order to come up with a meaningful forecast.
Talking about forecast: many companies do not forge a link between their strategy departments and their Public Affairs professionals. As a consequence, these tend to be used as fire-fighters rather than to influence political framework conditions in ways that they can open up business opportunities in the future. Coordinating strategy and public affairs will lead to a growing understanding of the business goals within the Public Affairs team, and this will also lead to better and earlier fire-fighting.
Misunderstandings also occur the other way around: for instance, the speed at which lobbyists need to receive feedback on altered amendment proposals within the European Parliament often stretches the willingness of technical experts to engage with their Public Affairs colleagues. They have a hard time understanding why and when they should make feedback to Public Affairs departments a priority.
At certain stages in the legislative process, Public Affairs officials need to choose between getting information quickly out to their company experts – or to take the time to break information down to a digestible level. The downside is that deadlines can get very short. There is nothing they can do about it. The Brussels process proceeds, no matter how little time anyone inside the company has to react.
How to do it better
For a better understanding between headquarters and public affairs satellite offices, both sides need to have
- a clear vision on how to cooperate with each other
- an understanding of issues arising when contact is scarce
- processes established to ensure information flow goes to the right places – and can be processed.
Both in the headquarter and in Brussels.
A strong onboarding process and continuous business training for public affairs staff within a company can work wonders. Intelligent integration of political knowledge within your company, not only, but also in units that develop your business strategy, even more so. Politics may become your number one business opportunity, so do put a focus on it!
And if you want to learn more about how to actually set up your processes, of if you have issues to solve between your Headquarter and your satellite public affairs office, get in touch with IMConsult. We can provide strategic consulting or coaching for you.