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Big is Bad…?

This is how they are called: Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Sugar, Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol, the banking lobby, the automotive lobby, the nuclear energy lobby, the agricultural lobby, even the climate lobby. Their interests are upheld by what are known as “lobbying machines”, and when they knock on the door, political decision-makers shrink back into their seats and start sweating like nobody’s business. Why? Because their will is law. But is it truly the case that in Belgium the impact of public affairs campaigns is directly proportional to corporate financial power? And conversely, are key messages irrelevant as long as there is enough money behind them? Can a multinational get away with anything just because it is big and rich? As a consequence, are the interests of small businesses and NGOs, not-for-profit organisations, foundations and private persons pointless when they interfere with the big tickets?

This being said, it makes sense to start looking at the explicit motivations of political decision-makers. Essentially, there are three issues, in no particular order: employment, budget and political relevance. It goes without saying that decision-makers listen closely to the interests upheld by businesses representing several hundreds or thousands of jobs in our country. It is clear that political plans or proposals producing net benefits for the budget stimulate more enthusiasm among politicians than measures provoking cost increases. Finally, every cabinet minister, every MP is put forward by a political party, then elected by a constituency reflecting the general interest as a whole. The third issue on the list is therefore a social one.

The political agenda of anyone who can convincingly demonstrate that their cause has a positive impact on these three interdependent factors will be prioritised. Of course, for every cause, there will be a number of partisans and adversaries, working together or otherwise, who will probably not agree with each other. This is why, before coming to a decision, the political decision-makers involved must weigh  the different interests at stake in their quest for political legitimacy. Because it isn’t just a question of simply adding up points to arrive at a final score. If it was as simple as that, we could robotise the Parliament, and our artificially intelligent government could be hosted in the Cloud.

The extent to which a public affairs campaign successfully responds to issues such as employment, cost and society does not have much to do with the number of people and money deployed. The impact of a campaign is basically determined by the very nature of the issue and the skill with which its basics, challenges and impact are presented, the political and social characteristics of the stakeholders at play and, lastly, the expertise, fairness and political will of the decision-makers involved to come up with a sustainable solution to sufficiently take into account all the interests at stake. That is why the public affairs effort of the Flemish Youth Council, for example, is much harder to leverage than it is for a chemical company in the port of Antwerp. Means and money cannot fundamentally change the nature of this equation. But don’t worry. Chances are, if you paddle harder, longer and smarter, albeit with shorter oars, your boat will go much further than a galley with three rows of slaves piled on top of each other and its terrifying ram in front.

In any case, government policy is now more transparent than ever, and decision-makers are increasingly accessible to many. This guarantees that the lever that less well-positioned campaigns can use is powerful enough for them to be heard by a large group of politicians and by everyone surrounding them. And really, you don’t need a wolfpack of suits. As if the big boys would have them…