Barbara Helfferich, spokesperson for EU Environment Commissioner Dimas, warned that an overly aggressive communications campaigns can be "counterproductive" for companies when dealing with the EU institutions.
"If a company puts an ad in the newspaper criticising the Commission, or brings up an issue that we didn't know about in the press, then that creates an atmosphere where cooperation becomes difficult," Helfferich said, calling for public affairs and communications efforts to be better integrated. She stressed that such an uncoordinated approach can often result in the two efforts cancelling each other out.
The Commission spokesperson admitted that this did not happen in "the majority of cases," but warned the assembled communications professionals that when it does, "it heightens the mistrust" felt by the EU executive.
Roberto Zangrandi of Italian utilities company Enel told the seminar that public affairs and corporate communications make for good bedfellows, with many professionals moving between the two fields during their careers.
Enel takes the integration of public affairs and public communications into a single PA sphere very seriously, according to Zangrandi. "We chose three years ago to merge public affairs with corporate communication," he revealed, noting that Enel public affairs professionals even coordinate with the firm's advertising department to see if a new advertisement can be used to advance a Brussels-to-Brussels message.
But, while Zangrandi would consider using media relations as a lobbying tool, he would "never go beyond the threshold, in terms of aggression, or attacking a commissioner," he said.
Ben Atfield, director of PA recruitment firm Ellwood and Atfield, suggested that there could be a conflict between the long-term orientation of public affairs and the short-term goals of corporate communications.
However, Enel's Zangrandi pointed out that it would be counterproductive to split public affairs and corporate communications departments, stressing that a director of communications cannot "renounce responsibility for public affairs".
Explaining that it is often a matter of making efficient use of resources, Fiona Wilkinson of Visa Europe argued that "public affairs and public relations work very well as a whole because we need as much firepower as possible".