TTIP: Winning the regulatory battle, losing the communications war
Debate on major policy issues is not about black and white arguments where the “true” one wins. Discuss food safety or the quality of democracy and there will be strong views on each side.
The art of persuasion blends with the art of political campaigning. It’s frustrating to see how most supporters of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the free trade agreement and regulatory cooperation between the EU and the US, forget this.
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TTIP itself is no small issue: it has the potential to increase GDP on both sides of the Atlantic by 0.5 percent, create hundreds of thousands of jobs and make the transatlantic alliance a global standard-setter for chemicals, cars, air quality and so much more.
A neat idea. But as things stand it will die before it’s born.
In the anti-free trade camp, a campaign group has created a populistic yet highly visual and easy-to-understand video featuring well-tested fear buttons (chlorine chicken, states overruled by shady courts etc.)
On the pro side, European Commissioners have written in The Guardian that “[t]he European Commission that took office at the beginning of November has two overriding priorities: jobs and growth. In pursuit of those goals, increased trade is a no-brainer.”
You can read that as “how dare you not support our goals”. How exactly will this win over the undecided, let alone opponents?
Increasing outreach and multiplying the channels through which the Commission, private companies, institutions or individuals who support TTIP, speak, will not do the trick. What might though, is when the content and quality of the messages are radically rethought.
Advocating for, or campaigning against free trade is an important part of anyone’s identity and political conviction. Therefore rational, cold and distant arguments like GDP growth will fall flat.
Messages, not arguments, must be created. Made to Stick says it all: any message that wants to be memorable should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional…and be a story.
The chlorine chicken approach certainly ticks many of these boxes but would often be dismissed by corporate communicators as populistic, inaccurate and missing the point.
All of that is probably true. But how does anyone expect active support for TTIP by promoting it with the worst gobbledygook you can find, such as “economy of scale”, “cutting back customs tarriffs”, “helping emerging economies” and contributing to “jobs and growth”?
Where are the numbers, the life-like examples, the inspiring stories or outrageous frustrations? Where is that family business in Italy who have been making mozzarella for centuries but are virtually banned from exporting to the US due to “regulatory burdens”?
Surely the pro camp have better arguments than “forg[ing] new economic opportunities that will sustain and grow jobs in the face of significant global challenges”?
Increasing the transparency of the negotiations and giving access to documents is a good step in gaining credibility – though the business-sceptical NGOs are never going to be satisfied anyway. That’s fine.
Just like a political campaign, those favouring TTIP must speak first and foremost to those ‘on the fence’, not the solid supporters of the opposition party. The problem is that the number of ‘neutral’ stakeholders is shrinking at an alarming rate, as the communications vacuum is continously filled by the opponents of TTIP.
And when TTIP supporters do speak, a 12-page official document is not going to be effective. The message needs to be condensed into digestible chunks.
Debunking myths is tricky territory. First, it’s worth reading the Debunking Handbook, especially the part on how not to repeat distortions or lies in your efforts to bring the truth to light.
Tackling TTIP communication as an exercise in attitude change will be much more effective than putting forward dry numbers and figures hoping these will win over hearts and minds.
And finally, remember that you are talking to real people with fears, hopes and aspirations; they are the voters that Members of the European Parliament represent, and they are the ones ultimately benefiting from the deal - as long as you can convince them.
Andras Baneth is managing director of the Public Affairs Council’s European office and a strategic communications expert. This article represents his personal views.