The Rules of the jungle
WHO – First Rule: would you really try to climb a tree from the top?
You obviously could if you had a helicopter, a very good pilot, no wind that day and the guts to jump off in mid-air…
Many lobby strategies seem to assume that convincing the top people is enough, never mind the foot soldiers!
The problem is that the top people in most cases are politicians, and that politicians, well…do politics! And politics rarely end up delivering results at the level of detail required by businesses.
Moreover, the foot soldiers are often those that control access to the highest levels so ignoring them (or bypassing them entirely) can often result in them hitting the “delete” button when your email hits their boss’ mailbox…
Everyone in the food chain has their importance and the same is true in the legislative process, from the assistant juggling with the constraints of his or her boss’ schedule, to the Commissioner in charge of a portfolio affecting over 400 million Europeans: they all have a role to play. Understand it, respect it but more importantly, respect them.
Does that mean you should ignore the top and go for the lower branches? Not at all. It just means that every branch is important and that you need to make contact with everyone involved in the decision making process and deliver to them argument that mean something in their world. Statistics, charts and other mind-numbing tools are ideal with the economist in charge of the impact assessment of a legislation at draft stage, whilst an MEP will in most cases be more concerned about jobs (especially amongst the constituency that elects him or her) and growth of the European economy.
It also implies that you should not believe the European Commission when it tells you it just proposes legislation and that you should then lobby Parliament and Council. Each of the three institutions, especially within a co-decision procedure, matters at every step.
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HOW – Second Rule: talk with two words, just like your mum taught you, and build at least one if not multiple strategies!
Manners, manners, manners…
Remember how your mum told you to say please to the lady and thank you to the gentleman…well things are the same in the metal and glass constr uctions that host the numerous decision makers of the European institutions. As obvious as it seems, politeness is not a value that disappears once you decide to lobby people!
So a few obvious tips:
- Don’t interrupt an MEPs obviously going down a corridor in a hurry because the voting bell for plenary just rang.
- Don’t follow someone in lavatories (I actually saw that happen…kind of scary, frankly).
- Don’t poke them on Facebook (I must admit, I have been tempted)
- Don’t consider they owe you anything: there is nothing in the Rules of Procedure of Parliament that oblige an MEP to respond positively to a meeting request, nor do the internal rules of the Commission or the Better Regulation principles say anything about the need to physically meet each and every lobbyist that knocks at their door.
- Make an appointment instead of barging into someone’s office, send them your position beforehand so that they can be properly prepared or briefed if they wish to, check out if there is anything specific they want to talk about, and even if you just spend the worst time of your life, thank them for taking the time to meet you and try to part in a friendly manner.
In terms of picking a single or multiple strategies, it can be useful to take a walk on the wild side (that one is definitely not from me). In the wild, every animal has its characteristics and a certain behavioural reputation which, as an advocate of Lino the Rhino, has led me to identify the following strategies:
- The “Boa” strategy: don’t bite but smother them to the point of status quo…and death. Basically do not oppose legislation but delay it, weaken it and squeeze out any air it had in it, with no true hostilities but a nice strangling motion. It’s the approach whereby you advocate for the need to establish a Task Force with a Steering Committee that aims at achieving international standardization and the voluntary adoption of a Code of Conduct by industry…sounds familiar?
The “Ducks-fly-in-formation” approach: The reason ducks fly together in a “V” shape is twofold: first, because the shape of the formation reduces the drag force that each bird experiences compared to if it were flying alone; secondly, because it allows the birds to communicate more easily and keep the flock together. It’s pretty much the same thing in lobbying: using trade associations or ad hoc coalitions can often be more effective to get your point across as it creates a broader representativity for your issue and allows you to spread the message through multiple sources.
- The “Camouflage” trick: That trick has multiple facets, as there are various ways nature and animals use camouflage (and yes, lobbyists are animals too):
- Cryptic camouflage: blend in to the point of disappearing, just like a good old polar bear or a chameleon. Some lobbyists are so close to the people they lobby, that it is not easy to guess who is who doing what. Having strong ties in the circles you lobby can definitively be a strong advantage, especially if you developed those ties even before you needed them. In lobbying, “cold calling” is just not effective in most cases.
- Disruptive camouflage: good illustrations are smoke screens or the ink clouds from octopuses: it is about drawing their attention to something so eye-catching that they do not notice the real issues at stake.
- Mimicry: it’s about appearing to be something you are not, like some flowers that mimic the smell and feel of female insects to attract male insects. In lobbying, associations can be used to camouflage your issue as something it is not, a practice which has led to some controversy in the past.
- The “Chimpanzee” strategy: chimps show empathy to other species, going so far as to feed turtles. Under this strategy, a lobbyist tries to act as a deal maker, by being the one that offers compromises that are acceptable to all involved.
- The “Mad Rhino” strategy: when they feel under attack, rhinos can become very threatening. Some companies tend to do the same, going from threats of relocation to
lawsuits and other niceties. And you know what: if you’re big enough and they care enough, it sometimes works!
The “tick bird” method:for those unfamiliar with “tick birds” (also referred to as “Oxpeckers”) they are the small birds you can spot on a rhino or other large mammals in the African savannahs and Asia, which removes ticks from them and warns them of approaching danger. Under this method, you focus first on removing the main issues out of a piece of legislation, and then only allow yourself to address the more minor issues.
WHEN – Third Rule: on time and all the time
I was once told by an assistant that he received an entire position paper including amendments on a working document that was internal to the European Commission and was not likely to translate into legislation before 12 to 18 months…Aside from the fact that the lobbyist that sent it had done work for nothing, it certainly did nothing to enhance his credibility.
When it comes to influencing a legislative process, the earlier you get in, the more chance you have of having a significant impact, especially when it comes to removing some damaging results from a draft by informing the people in charge of the likely outcome of their legislation in practice.
All the time does not mean however that you can just corner a decision-maker at a cocktail and starting hammering your arguments at him or her. What can however work is asking them at a social occasion if you can meet them in their office to discuss a certain issue, an approach which more often than not actually ends up initiating a discussion on substance.
Also make sure that in the positions you draft and advocate, the texts you refer to are (1) the latest version that is circulating and not one that was discussed two working groups ago (2) a version that is “leaked” enough for you to be allowed to refer to it. If it’s a leak you have much in advance of others, talk about rumours about certain expressions being considered but don’t quote the document.
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ABOUT WHAT – Fourth Rule: too much is rarely a good thing
If you cannot summarise your issues on one-page and in 15 minutes, you’re in deep trouble. Teenagers are not the only ones with a concentration span that lasts the time of a video clip: politicians and many non technical decision makers share that timing.
So, whatever the medium you use: keep it short, mention the reference and title of the piece of legislation you want to talk about in your papers, tell a story rather than sharing a thesis, and stay on message!
Moreover, when talking to decision makers, don’t talk to them without taking into consideration the specificities of the country they come from and of their personal background (in other words, don’t lobby a Romanian Engineer from a region suffering from rural exodus the same way you do a British Lawyer representing the City in London). If they are politicians, frame your issues in such a manner that they can see the benefit to their constituency (yes, politicians often need to get elected so pleasing those that vote for them tends to be central), or to the greater good. Don’t just sell your position TO them, sell it FOR them!
Also see what you can do for the person you are trying to influence. As they often are not necessarily experts in your area, they could consider you a valuable source of information for the future. So offer your assistance!
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WHERE – Fifth Rule: never forget that in the jungle, animals meet by the drinking points
Brussels and Strasbourg are key cities. But MEPs also tend to go back to their constituency on a regular basis, whilst members of the Permanent Representations often travel back to their home capitals.
If you can, get your access badge to the European Parliament as, when the piece of legislation you are interested gets discussed there, you are likely to meet not only the MEPs of the relevant Committees but also the European Commission staffers following the dossier, as well as representatives of the ongoing Council Presidency and even some representatives from Member States. But be prepared: getting a badge at the European Parliament as a lobbyist can be somewhat of an ordeal!
Another fact that cannot be ignored is that statistics demonstrate that Brussels has the highest number of restaurants per head in Europe: this has everything to do with the lunch-meeting culture.
Moreover, both in Strasbourg and in Brussels, EU officials have their hanging out places and hunting them is therefore not too dissimilar to traditional hunting: if you hang around the drinking points, it is very likely that they will turn up!