As a public affairs practitioner, independent consultant, and senior advisor, I have spent a significant part of my professional career working in the Brussels ‘EU bubble’. Over the years I have supported the work of multinational corporate clients as well as a leading trade association, engaging on a diverse range of issues at the EU level and in key markets across the member states. As a result, my expectation when I was first asked to represent a client at the municipal level in Amsterdam was that this would reflect a significant departure from the challenges that I had previously encountered. The reality, however, was a bit of a surprise.
The political and social culture within the bubble of the EU quarter is quite unique indeed, but in fact all political ‘bubbles’ have their own idiosyncrasies – not just country to country, but also region to region and city to city – due to the different milieu of local networks and thought leaders and/or the legislative mechanisms shaped by centuries of history and culture. This must be recognized and should be reflected in personal practices when reaching out to stakeholders or meeting policy makers face-to-face.
However, while initially the context may seem profoundly different, those differences are never insurmountable – the fundamental skills that define a good public affairs professional remain constant, and once you’re “on the ground” adequate experience, an open mind and a diligent attitude can facilitate navigating a new socio-political environment. Moreover, basic elements such as issue knowledge, understanding the political environment, having a good appreciation of the contacts’ interest and their position on the topics you want to discuss remain of paramount importance, and serve as a basis for successful outreach across markets and levels of policy making.
Having said that, being a Dutch national did offer the additional advantage of being able to combine my professional experience and skills with a more intuitive knowledge of the language my counterparts were speaking – literally and figuratively – and the extra edge of empathy and resonance that came from a shared culture helped me quickly gain access to networks and forums that might have otherwise taken years to successfully integrate into.
While every market is different, there are a handful of clear trends and observations that stand out. Based on first-hand knowledge of a number of distinct professional communities at both local and international levels, there is a clear divide between what is transposable, and what is exclusive or unique to a particular ‘bubble’ for which no amount of experience outside can quite compensate. In between these two also lays the question of technical knowledge. On the one hand, deep expertise and scientific evidence transcends borders and languages; on the other hand, however, different socio-political cultures have different approaches to problem solving, and this can be especially true when it comes to regulation. Both short term and long term priorities are fluid, and the factors which influence how they are set and by whom can vary widely and change quickly.
At the end of the day, professional expertise and attitude are key elements for a successful career in public affairs, but the criteria that make “a good lobbyist” are far from enough to authoritatively say whether any given public affairs professional is the right fit for the job, regardless of core competence in their field of expertise. A professional tennis player, for example, rarely plays with perfectly equal proficiency on grass as they do as on clay, and versatility is ultimately as much a function of discipline, practice, and experience as it is pure athleticism, if not more so. The same holds true for public affairs, and the importance of first-hand knowledge of local politics, language proficiency, and affinity with the culture are essential for consistently making the difference between a “good job” vs having delivered an “outstanding achievement”.
Cynthia Fürste is a Senior Advisor at Mavence and an independent consultant with over 20 years of public affairs experience.