You never really understand that Europe is a completely different world until you experience it. You hear about how the plugs are different or how you have to actually pay for water, and think you are not going to notice it. Nothing can prepare you for the moment you ignore warnings and plug in a blow dryer into your adapter. In the blink of an eye your entire hotel floor is pitch black and there are Russians screaming in the hallway, probably talking about ‘stupid Americans’. Talking about it doesn’t really explain the ridiculous amount of excitement you feel when you come back to the States and someone puts ice in your drink. It is the little things that really show you just how different Europe is from America.
One of the major differences that really stuck with me through this trip was learned at public relations firm in Brussels. A man worked Hill+ Knowlton Strategies as a lobbyist. The man was explaining to a taxi driver how he was lobbyist and the taxi driver said, “Are your parents proud of you for that?”
This really stuck with me because lobbying tends to have a negative connotation all over the world. However, the practice of government lobbying in Brussels is extremely different then lobbying in America.
A lobbyist’s job is to persuade lawmakers certain ways to help benefit their client. The difference in American lobbying and the lobbying he performed astonished me. Lobbying in American politics is very corrupt. People are practically allowed to pay congressmen for their votes. It is believed that you can get a congressman to vote whichever way you want on a certain issue if you provide enough money. The man made it apparent that the rest of the world frowns upon this American system. In America lobbyist are very rarely jailed for their bribes. In fact, many people believe the system is so corrupt because lobbyist are able to easily get away with giving a Congressmen money because of how much freedom our country provides.
In Brussels, the act of paying someone to vote the way you want him or her to is illegal and punishable with jail. However, the same amount of spending goes into lobbying in Brussels as it does for America.
So my first question was ‘If they aren’t buying votes, Where is all the money going?’. He was involved in outside lobbying instead of direct lobbying. This means his public relation firm has to find out unique ways to persuade and capture the attention of lawmakers through events and advertising. Direct lobbying involves lobbyist directly talking to lawmakers. Hill + Knowlton Strategies also does direct lobbying, but they do not use money to persuade lawmakers. Lobbyist must also act as lawyers as a way to argue ways voting certain laws can benefit not only the firm’s client but the congressmen as well. This can cause a lot of internal problems because sometimes Hill + Knowlton’s clients favor different laws being passed. When this happens the firm puts up an ‘iron wall’ and the publicist working on the projects are not allowed to talk to each other. This is very similar to how lawyers in America deal with conflicting cases in the same firm. Hill + Knowlton had very ethical ways of dealing with conflict.
Lobbying in Brussels uses a lot more creative, unusual tactics than lobbying in the United States. When milk prices fell drastically in Europe, the farmers became client of the Hill + Knowlton Strategies, instead of paying money or directly talking to lawmakers, the firm helped organize a strike. They had farm tractors and even cows blocking the streets of Belgium. The farmers were dumping milk on everything, including policeman! The amount of money, time and planning that goes into an event like that is crazy to think about! However, lobbying this way seems much less corrupt then paying lawmakers to raise the price of milk. It requires creativity and involves a lot more people in organizing the events. It is much more challenging then just handing a lawmaker an envelope of money, but can be very effective.
Photo Credit: Telegraph UK.
Another challenge Hill +Knowlton faced was getting clients to trust their innovative ideas. They have an older demographic of clients and it is hard to persuade them that these new more interactive ideas are going to have a more significant impact then a well written persuasive article.
After listening to all the challenges the public relation firm face, I still don’t understand why there are negative connotations associated with lobbyist in Belgium. Lobbying seems like an extremely difficult, exciting job in Brussels. You must not only be an expert in politics but also in public relations. The man said that connections are the most important part of the job. You need to know things that are going to happen before they happen. Missing small clues that something big is about to happen in the government is enough to get you fired.
Hill + Knowlton Strategies believes in “looking beyond traditional sources of insight and advice.” Their employees must have expert knowledge of the area and people around them. This is extremely challenging because they have over 90 offices in 52 countries.
If there is anything I learned on this European tour, it is that differences in culture is extremely important in not only politics but advertising and public relations as well. Even small differences, such as people’s politeness and the hardness of the bread, greatly affected how I viewed each country. I believe having knowledge of different cultures is the best way to significantly reach a specific target audience. You can read about culture in a book but unless you’ve traveled to the area, you will not be able to understand what it is like. Traveling to Prague, Belgium, France and Italy dipped our toes in European culture. Traveling taught me so much that even the best journalism school in the country could not teach at home. It was an amazing experience that I got to share with amazing people. I wish I could do it all over again.