In a town known for its red wine lunches and evening receptions, the coronavirus has put traditional networking and lobbying in Brussels on ice.
“Brussels is a center of networking,” said Mette Grolleman, general manager of FleishmanHillard’s Brussels office. “We all live off networking, and we all put trust in each other … And it works if you are with that person.”
The long-term impact of the pandemic on the EU lobbying industry will depend to a large extent on how much Brussels is able to legislate and regulate through a period of Europe-wide lockdowns and economic slowdown — and how willing and able policymakers are to continue engaging with outside stakeholders during that time.
For now, with formal and informal meetings on hold, influencers are practicing telelobbying — trying to keep in touch with contacts, strategize and advance agendas through phone calls, video calls, webinars, emails and instant messages.
This will be “a period of innovation in our industry in how you advocate,” said James Stevens, managing partner at Rud Pedersen Public Affairs. It will “force us to use technology that we all have but never use.”
The European Commission insists it will press ahead with its broader agenda, even as it also seeks to play a leading role in fighting the coronavirus. A Commission spokesperson emphasized on Tuesday that work on the European Green Deal, for example, “is continuing underway through our colleagues who are teleworking.”
But if decision-making in Brussels slows down or some files are set aside, consultants could find clients questioning whether to maintain their lobbying spend.
Some in the lobbying industry, however, are taking the opportunity to take stock after a busy first 100 days of the new Commission’s term, which included a major new climate law and the unveiling of its digital agenda.
Stevens said he feels there’s more time now for “strategic thinking.”
And when it comes to reaching out to contacts, Karen Massin, CEO of BCW Brussels, said video calls have relatively easily replaced scheduled meetings.
“Officials and politicians have more time than before,” Massin said. They’re “also more online so we can influence them through all online channels even more than before,” she added.
But if events — a go-to tactic for spreading messages in the Brussels bubble — remain off the agenda for a prolonged period, lobbyists will likely have to get creative.
“There’s going to be, before too long, an appetite to talk policy again and we’re going to have to find the way to do that,” said one Brussels consultant.
Rud Pederden’s Stevens said: “It’s not just the traditional-handshakes lobby shops that will do better in this period … People who are more nimble might be in a better position and in the end, be more resilient.”
The crisis is already forcing lobby shops to reflect on what really works when it comes doing business in the long term.
“I think we’ll certainly be much more technology-friendly and use all different technologies,” said BCW’s Massin. “Even for lobbying, in a way, it can be very efficient. So we will definitely end up being much more modern.”
Still, there is a certain je ne sais quoi about meeting people face to face and some admit they’re no great fans of telelobbying.
“It’s a completely different game and one I don’t enjoy so much,” said Stefan Borst, partner at Avisa Partners. In Brussels’ diverse bubble, crucial cultural differences and nuances can be bridged in person in ways not always afforded via the telephone.
But Borst said he is confident that clients know “this will at some point blow over. If anything, this has shined a spotlight on the need for European coordination and the need to be present at the EU level.”