Interview: Reversing traditional lobbying methods

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Trying to convince policymakers of your arguments can only be successful to a certain extent, says Wilfried Haensel of PlasticsEurope. Lobbyists must also engage with society as a whole if they are to positively influence policy outcomes, he argues in an interview with EURACTIV.

Persuading policymakers to ‘buy’ arguments put forward by specific industry groups has long been the Holy Grail of communications consultants, corporate lobbyists and trade associations. Every year, huge amounts of funding are poured into lobbying efforts aimed at influencing them. 

Yet all this patient work can sometimes be annihilated overnight by non-governmental groups – another type of lobbyists, usually with fiercely opposing views – which have become experts at catching the attention of journalists – and the general public – with their creative communication campaigns. 

Building alliances with NGOs has provided corporate lobbyists with one solution. However, some are seeking to widen this approach even further by trying to engage directly with the general public as well. This is the approach chosen by Wilfried Haensel, the executive director of PlasticsEurope, an association representing the European plastics manufacturing industry. 

“In traditional advocacy […] you want others to understand and accept your position, which I think is only successful to a certain extent,” says Haensel. “If you reverse it and you try to address the needs and requirements of society, policymakers and so on, then you have a greater chance of being successful and that is what we are going for.” 

For Haensel, this starts by engaging earlier with the target audience to understand the interests of society. This led PlasticsEurope to launch a number of programmes engaging citizens in debates around key societal issues where it believes plastics can make a difference: climate protection and energy efficiency, resource efficiency and consumer protection. 

In one of these programmes, young people are encouraged to take part in debates staged in the national parliaments of some EU capitals. “We have situations in which two different groups are discussing and disputing the pros and cons of certain activities, all related to the context of limited resources and energy efficiency.” 

The programme was started in 2007 in Berlin, Warsaw and London and is due to be extended to other major capitals this year. The process will culminate in the middle of 2008 with a debate in the European Parliament in Brussels gathering the “winners” of the national parliament debates. 

Together with other events launched in association with the European School Network, Haensel says PlasticsEurope has already been able to reach two million young people. 

“Throughout Europe, young people in particular are becoming aware of their contribution to saving energy and resources on this planet. So you can argue this is a very social initiative as we are contributing to their awareness and a behavioural change.” 

However lofty these initiatives may seem, Haensel does not try to hide the fact that PlasticsEurope ultimately has an interest in supporting them. “The implication for us is that as plastics are paying a very relevant role in energy savings and climate protection, this will help us.” 

And he defends himself against potential accusations that PlasticsEurope is using young people to meet its lobbying objectives. “We are not promoting plastics,” Haensel insists, “but it’s a natural outcome [of the debates]. At some point in time they will understand naturally that in their efforts to save energy, plastics will play a role”. 

So is behind-the-scenes advocacy a thing of the past? Not quite yet, it seems. 

“Of course we have to work on these levels,” says Haensel, “but only working on this means that you are leaving out the chance to influence certain developments that in the end lead to action by policymakers”. 

“In the past, of course we communicated as well, but to a very narrow audience, which was mainly policymakers via our advocacy activities. That is, so to speak, the traditional way of doing association work.” 

“We have changed this.” 

To read the interview in full, please click here

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