5th Feb 2023

Fancy lobby receptions don't work, say Brussels politicians

If you are a lobbyist in Brussels and you want to win over a public official to your client's point of view on a new law, whatever you do, do not invite the politician to a fancy evening reception.

It just won't work.

Read and decide

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  • Decision makers do not find evening receptions useful (Photo: Chris Chapman)

Such is the counter-intuitive and startling conclusion of a survey of European political elites on what sort of lobbying works and what does not.

Just two percent of decision-makers in the European institutions think that going to an after-work gathering with smoked-salmon triangles and tepid chardonnay is in any way useful in providing information on laws they are working on, says the report.

In what will come as a goodly shock to the European capital's powerful croissant, rubber chicken and light-nibbles industry, breakfast, lunch and dinner briefings are also all considered something of a waste of time in comparison to plain old one-on-one meetings and written reports, according to the Guide to effective lobbying, published on Monday (12 October) by Burson-Marsteller, one of the largest lobbying, public relations and crisis management firms in the world.

Which suggests, given how popular such refreshments-and-comestibles-oriented events are, that the politicians who turn up are just there to forage for free grub.

In the report, which surveyed the attitudes of policy-makers - both elected representatives and civil servants across 15 European countries and in Brussels - towards lobbying, some 40 percent of respondents felt that it was face-to-face meetings that were useful, and some 37 percent found written briefing materials of value.

But evening receptions were welcomed by just two percent; dinner and lunch receptions by eight percent and breakfast briefings, somewhat more popular, by 13 percent.

Exhibitions and DVDs were also seen as being fairly futile, on four percent each.

There was one exception to the finding. A solid 30 percent of French decision-makers still like their evening galas, while 37 percent are up for breakfast-time policy promotion and 27 percent are happy to make room for a side-dish of public relations alongside their lunch or dinner.

Transparency, financial disclosure

On a more serious level, the poll found that across Europe almost half of elites (48%) feel that lobbying makes a positive contribution to the democratic process.

The sharing of expertise was also widely thought of as one of the sector's most useful roles.

However, this high regard is not maintained right across the continent. In Poland in particular, lobbyists are held in very low regard, with just three percent of those surveyed viewing lobbying as a constructive part of the democratic method.

Transparency is the single most important factor in making up an official's mind to speak to an interest group.

At the same time though, politicians and bureaucrats are not particularly worried whether a lobbyist is listed on a public register, such as the European Commission's Register of Interest Representatives, also known as the lobby register.

Burson Marsteller however is one of the few lobbying companies that publicly backs a mandatory lobby register, something the European Commission has long resisted.

Jeremy Galbraith, the CEO of the firm for Europe, the Middle East and Asia, said that the disinterest of public officials as to whether lobbyists had signed up to a registry showed that such listings, notably in Brussels, should be made obligatory.

"We have always preferred a mandatory scheme so as to ensure a level playing field," he said, criticising the "one third" of his competing public relations outfits in the European Public Affairs Consultancies Association (EPACA) - the trade body for the sector in Brussels - who he said had not signed up to the commission's registry.

He also took a swipe at law firms and think-tanks, who are boycotting the commission's scheme.

"I don't see a problem with more strict financial disclosure," he added, calling the current EU executive's rules about reporting who has spent what on behalf of whom "impossibly wide and vague."

"We'll support as much financial disclosure as you would like to see," he said.

The problem is that while some firms have opted to embrace the registry, seeing the battle against transparency as a losing one, many of their rivals have yet to come in from the cold, which companies such as Burson Marsteller say is "not equitable".

Anti-fraud commissioner Siim Kallas, responsible for the lobby register, was also in attendance at the launch of the survey, having written its foreword.

He sided with the consultancies that remain opposed to mandatory disclosure, and maintained the Brussels line that the registry was working fine as it was, although a bit of polishing "of the details" was necessary.

"If we had taken a mandatory approach from the beginning, we would not have any register today," he said, although he conceded that "this option has not been abandoned."

Stricter, but how strict?

Lobbying transparency campaigners gave Burson Marsteller's call for more stricter financial disclosure a guarded welcome.

"This is good news if Burson-Marsteller are genuinely breaking ranks with the rest of EPACA," Olivier Hoederman, of Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based lobbying watchdog, told EUobserver.

"But only if they are willing to disclose the size of their contracts and precisely what they are lobbying for on behalf of a client. Under the current rules, we don't know what they are doing for clients, whether it's a multi-million euro contract or a tiny consulting job that takes a couple of weeks."

EU lobby register still riddled with errors

The EU's lobby register remains riddled with errors, with pro-transparency campaigners demanding better data and mandatory rules. The latest findings come amid a raft of proposals by the European Parliament president to weed out corruption in the wake of Qatargate.

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