Survey: EU lobbyists wary of media, civil society

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Journalists are the least trusted when it comes to integrity and honesty, according to lobbyists surveyed for the European Centre for Public Affairs (ECPA). The poll also found Parliament to have “a strong civil society bias” while the Commission and Council are seen as more favourable to business arguments.

Lobbyists’ perceptions of their working environment were revealed with the presentation of The State of Public Affairs 2008 survey at ECPA’s annual conference in Brussels last Wednesday (5 March).

Measuring value in a tightening economic context

Presenting the survey, Andrew Hawkins of ComRes, a research and communications agency, said public affairs professionals were generally positive about future business prospects, despite the economic slowdown. “Economic times are tough but less tough for public affairs it seems than for other sectors,” Hawkins said.

However, he added the tightening economic context also means more value is expected from the profession. “It looks as though people are beginning to focus more on measurement” in order to find ways of “demonstrating the effectiveness of the money that [clients or colleagues] are spending on public affairs activities,” Hawkins remarked. However, he added this was a major challenge for lobbyists as measuring value is typically difficult in the field of communications and public affairs. Almost 60% of those surveyed said they had no measurement system in place to evaluate themselves.

Parliament seen as having a ‘strong civil society bias’

Most lobbyists rated the European Commission highly when it comes to impartiality in hearing the pleas of business and civil society groups, with close to 40% saying it is “entirely impartial”. The Commission and Council in particular are generally seen as “more likely to be persuaded by business” (nearly 30%) than Parliament (only 10%).

By contrast, the European Parliament is seen as “more likely to be persuaded by civil society,” according to 65% of respondents. “Parliament is still seen as being strongly biased towards civil society,” Hawkins said. But he added that the figures needed to be contrasted with another part of the survey, which revealed lobbyists rated Parliament as the most accessible of the three EU institutions “by far”.

The perception remains that the Council in particular is untransparent and inaccessible, according to more than 40% of lobbyists (the Commission is seen as “fairly accessible” to 70%, while Parliament is usually seen as “very accessible” to 40% of respondents).

Media a legitimate but ‘dangerous’ lobbying channel

Turning to the media, lobbyists’ perceptions are ambivalent. On the one hand, almost all (70%) agree that the media is used more widely as a legitimate lobbying channel than it was five years ago. But they were equally wary of the unintended drawbacks, with 70% saying that using the media as a lobbying tool “can be dangerous because you may lose control of the story”.

Journalists in particular are seen as untrustworthy, with 75% agreeing that they “often try to sensationalise an issue rather than simply reporting what’s happening”. And when asked to rate how much they would personally trust journalists for “integrity and honesty”, 25% said “not at all”. 

One explanation, Hawkins said, is that NGOs are often willing to use the media more than corporate organisations. However, “the danger for corporates is that they can be out-manoeuvred,” he warned.

Commission and think tanks highly trusted, lawyers not

In contrast, the most highly trusted groups were Commission officials (over 30% said they trust the EU executive “a great deal”) and think tanks (close to 30% as well).

But ironically, it was the group generally regarded as the most effective lobbyists – lawyers – who were the least trusted of all after journalists. While 25% said they would not trust journalists at all, 15% said they thought the same of lawyers, down from 25% the year before. 

More inclusive approach needed

However, lobbyists were almost unanimous (almost 90%) in saying that “effective lobbying requires a more integrated approach involving several stakeholders, including the media”. And they were an overwhelming majority (almost 60%) to say businesses “accept the need to build alliances and work in partnership with NGOs”.

But lobbyists are split down the middle when it comes to rating the merits of NGO input into the EU policymaking process, with more than 45% agreeing that they are “too powerful and their power should be reduced”. However, 40% said they disagree with that statement. But they almost all agreed to reject suggestions that “NGOs have too little influence over EU policymaking”.

Rise of social media

One of the big trends highlighted by the survey is the rise of new social media, such as blogs, Wikipedia and social networking sites such as Facebook, with nearly 40% of lobbyists saying they use these as public affairs tools.

“I am intrigued in particular by the use of Wikipedia and its authority,” Hawkins commented.

The State of Public Affairs Survey 2008 was conducted from a sample of 140 respondents active in public affairs. It was conducted by ComRes, a communications and research agency, in partnership with the European Public Affairs Directory (EPAD) and EURACTIV.

The sample was highly experienced, with most of the respondents (about 50%) saying they had been in public affairs for more than 10 years.

Most respondents were in corporations, industry trade associations or consultancies (about 25% each) with only a minority in NGOs (around 7%) or government bodies (about 5%).

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