I often find myself explaining the current political climate in Europe to friends, family, and clients with this: “If you think the United States is crazy right now. Europe is at least as crazy as the U.S.”
My observation tower for Europe’s current environment is Brussels, where I head the digital public affairs offering for FleishmanHillard across the EMEA region. Yes, Europe’s current politics can rightfully be described as “crazy” but in that environment, we’re seeing something both interesting and exciting taking place.
Once apolitical and disengaged, a new class of what I term European everyday activists has emerged. These are people who are ready to fight for the values they hold dear, and political institutions, NGOs, companies, and trade associations have an opportunity to channel their mounting energy, online and off.
While their precise motivations will, of course, vary widely, my sense is that three things are generally true of this critical mass of this new activists:
- The current political climate has woken them up and they suddenly give a damn.
- They are more aware of their own personal values than ever.
- They want to do something to make change happen, but are not sure what.
And it’s the last point that’s critical. It means these newly engaged activists need to be pointed in the right direction (ideally by something they see online).
So what does that look like? One approach with a growing momentum is the ACE Framework put forth by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heiman in their recent book New Power. It suggests ideas spread when they are presented in ways that are “actionable, connected and extensible,” meaning that organisations need to present activists with a clear, simple action to take and ensure they can easily “remix” a message or campaign to make it their own.
What does this mean for EU institutions?
With Brexit negotiations front and center in the European news cycle, the constant hum of Euroscepticism across the continent, and hot-button issues like migration unlikely to go away, the EU itself has become a polarising entity. Indeed, on top of the myriad cultural divides one might expect to find across the West in general, in Europe one’s belief or non-belief in the European project has become a question of personal identity and values.
This means that EU institutions will continue to evolve their communications approaches to defend their decades-old project while candidates for the upcoming European parliamentary elections will be forced to articulate not only what they’ll achieve for their constituencies should they win office in Brussels, but also the very utility (or lack thereof, if it wins them votes) of the European Union itself.
And the European everyday activist will be there to add fuel to the fire in both directions, perhaps in the form of an anti-EU Twitter troll or a self-ordained #FBPE champion.
With campaigns like #EUandMe and the EU road trip project, we’ve even seen the European Commission embrace the knowledge that it needs to take a lighter touch in pushing an EU narrative, going for a soft-sell approach that leaves third-party collaborators the space to remix the campaign and articulate what “Europeanness” means to them.
NGOs and non-profits are upping their fundraising game
NGOs and non-profits will experience an uptick in support around the key issues dominating public discourse. They have a huge opportunity to channel the passion of the everyday activist and are likely to use technology to further their efforts to build grassroots support and raise funds. New groups will be able to mobilise new communities on specific issues and grow faster than was previously possible in Europe, and for many European umbrella organisations fundraising will become an absolute must given the already apparent Commission funding cuts brought on by the disappearance of the UK’s contribution to the EU budget. This has yielded a new wave of enablers ́who are pioneering technology-driven grassroots solutions in a uniquely European way.
What companies and industry associations should be thinking about
Corporate activism, purpose, CSR: these are terms that have made the rounds in the communications world for years, but today they take on new importance as companies start to weigh more seriously the business consequences of standing for something.
For instance, the Fleishman-Hillard Purpose Survey found that 75 percent of UK millennials would take a pay cut to work at a purposeful company. Ninety-three percent say they base their product preference on whether they believe a brand is purposeful.
As issues heat up, companies will increasingly have to take big bets: do they continue to be apolitical and keep customers or do they articulate their values and keep top talent? As Nouryon public affairs chief Marcel Halma said at a recent talk in Brussels, we need better research in Europe to demonstrate the business impact of corporate activism if we want to see real movement on this in the short term.
On the EU lobbying front, we can expect similar waves of disruption even if they do arrive quite slowly and steadily in the way trends often do in Brussels. If candidate members of European Parliament are held accountable by constituencies which are hyperaware of their values, why then wouldn’t these MEPs expect in turn that the companies and industry associations lobbying them would also stand for something?
The old lobbying narrative was very much one of “here’s how our industry will create jobs and growth.” The new narrative will inevitably need to include not only that bit, but also a clear demonstration of how industry is helping tackle other issues MEPs will have campaigned on.
Above all, they will need to have an opinion about the European project itself that aligns with the MEPs they are lobbying and they’ll have to be prepared to share that opinion out in the open. Lobbyists who fail to bring a relevant message to the party may well be quickly shown the door.
Brett Kobie leads FleishmanHillard’s digital public affairs offering across the EMEA region. A seasoned transatlantic public affairs professional and strategic digital communicator, Brett has split the last 15 years across private sector, government and non-profit roles in Brussels and New York.