In Europe, Digital Advocacy Shows No Signs of Slowing
In September, the U.S. rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita outpaced that of Europe by 3-to-1. That’s when the White House announced plans to soon welcome European visitors again and also when European governments “were plotting their roadmaps towards normality,” as CNN reported, and America “was consumed by a COVID-19 surge that far outpaced Europe’s.” By late October, however, these trends were reversed, with Europe “now the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic once again.”
Whatever else these sobering developments portend, this much seems clear: There’s little likelihood that European governments and businesses will be relying again on pre-pandemic advocacy tools — read: in person and face to face — any time soon.
“In a sense, things weren’t going to get ‘back to normal’ anyway,” says João Sousa, managing director of the Council’s European office. “Many organizations have found that virtual and digital tools work well, offering more opportunities to connect. The pandemic only accelerated the use of these tools. The traditional methods are by no means dead, and some of the most successful are the usual suspects still in use: direct emails, direct calls, written position papers and the like. What we’re seeing, more and more, is the need for public affairs professionals to integrate the virtual and the traditional, and that is an ongoing challenge.”
The current surge in European COVID-19 cases, while distressing in itself, also makes the Council’s 2021 European Digital Advocacy Summit from December 1 to 3 in Brussels — presented in a hybrid format — especially well timed. The summit features two days of virtual panel discussions followed by a third day of skill-building training sessions. These exercises will be face to face in the Council’s Brussels office — COVID-19 restrictions permitting, of course — as well as livestreamed.
In late 2020, the Council’s European office issued the results of its “Lobbying Through the Pandemic” survey of 50 organizations, which found that 87% of participants expected videoconferencing to become more prevalent, with the same percentage seeing a decline in traditional lobbying techniques. In addition, 74% said it would become more difficult to meet in person with European Union policymakers.
“Everything the survey predicted seems to have been correct,” Sousa says. “Digital advocacy has become the norm, but not just as a way to respond to new difficulties. We’ve discovered, for example, that digital advocacy is especially well suited to global public affairs because it allows for groups to meet in other parts of the world, so they don’t have to be in the same physical space. There’s less need to travel, and you can meet more often. The shift has also made for a great way to connect speakers with audiences, because you don’t need to deal with all the logistical challenges involved in in-person presentations — providing transportation for the speaker, for example.
“In the old world — of last year — events were much more exclusive,” says Dan Sobovitz, who is the founder of spreadable.io, CCO of the EU Startup Prize for Mobility, and a senior adviser at BCW Brussels, speaking here at his personal capacity. “These in-person events meant participants had to have the time and resources to travel, and their physical capacity was limited to a certain number of participants. Now that events are virtual, I can speak at or attend any event around the world. Physical location has become almost entirely irrelevant.”
An unanticipated benefit of virtual events, Sousa says, “is related to what Dan says about ‘exclusivity’ and participants needing the resources to travel. We can now embrace a greater diversity of viewpoints and perspectives, which is increasingly important. We can include people who otherwise might not be able to attend because of the cost. This is increasingly important for discussions and debates.”
But this, too, requires new skills, as Sobovitz explains: “We’ve had to deal with a radical change in how advocacy is done in a very short period of time, without prior preparation — a revolution in the fundamental understanding of how humans meet on a large scale, requiring new skills and a new level of creativity and innovation. And most of us haven’t really figured out how to do it right. Unfortunately, most digital events are still simply broadcasting in a one-way communication. At most, they allow the audience to ask questions, which I find to belittle the audience rather than empower it. When I do an event, I prefer to allow the audience to pitch ideas and offer solutions — to brainstorm with the panelists and provide concrete input.”
Such give-and-take, Sobovitz says, “works very well, especially in a policy context. The audience comes in not only to learn, but in order to influence and shape the debate. When I produce and moderate events, I make use of tools that allow the audience not just to listen, but to pitch ideas and even vote on each other’s ideas, so we discuss the most important ones.”
Still, Sousa agrees “we’re still missing the face-to-face aspect of a lot of what we’re doing as we’ve moved into this new area, and that presents challenges.
“We can have global teams more easily now, but we’re all aware of situations where people have joined the staff of one of these teams and never actually met their colleagues in person. So we’re missing that human element of teamwork. This means managers and organizations have to figure out ways to offer comparable forms of contact and communication. And we’re still figuring all this out. Fortunately, the presenters at our summit will be able to speak from their own experience and offer insights into how they’re handing these situations.”
A very different challenge involves determining how effective advocacy efforts are in this era. “It has never been easier to develop data about what we do,” Sousa says. “But it is an illusion to think this access to more data makes it easier to track our effectiveness. It has never been easier to put numbers on things — ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and all of that — but harder to determine whether any of this information really tells us to what extent we are achieving our goals. Did people actually respond to our call to action? Did we change anyone’s mind? Have we presented the right information to the right audience and made our arguments in terms that are relevant to them? These aren’t easy questions to answer.”
This is especially true, Sobovitz believes, when it comes to virtual events. “Mostly we tend to measure them by the number of views, but this is a very narrow prism,” he points out. “KPIs should be determined by something more substantive than that and should be derived from the event’s strategy. If the purpose is to influence policymakers or raise awareness among a certain demographic, the measure should be qualitative and not only quantitative. Of course, that is much more difficult to do.”
A Matter of Trust
Sousa believes the pandemic has also made us question how, as organizations, we communicate in the deepest sense. “This goes beyond public affairs per se,” he says. “We’ve made great efforts as governments and as corporations and nonprofits to persuade people of the importance of wearing masks and getting vaccinated, for example. But it seems clear by now that for all those efforts, we’ve not been as effective at persuading people to take action as we’d like to think. We have to convince audiences every day of the importance of these actions, and as we try to do so, we’re up against conflicting narratives. So it all comes down to the level of trust they have in us and what we say — the trust that we have built in the organizations we represent.”
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