By Meredith Hayford
Between seeing Paris from the Eiffel Tower, exploring the Coliseum and eating every bit of goulash, crepe, waffle and margherita pizza I could fit inside my stomach, the Europe Tour crossed a lot of things off my bucket list in just two short weeks. But we learned a lot over there, too—we supplemented our understanding of journalism and advertising with lectures and discussions about European media, and we learned about what it means to experience cultures outside of our limited bubble of American comfort.
Here’s my take on Brussels, Belgium and what we learned about the relationship between PR and politics in the EU. Brussels was the shortest but perhaps most surprising leg of the journey (in my opinion).
One of my favorite media visits on our trip was our stop by Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a public relations and lobbying firm in Brussels. I hadn’t realized until then how closely related the two disciplines could be. But it was also interesting to hear about the similarities and differences between European and American lobbying.
I’m almost a little embarrassed at exactly how uninformed I was about the ins-and-outs of political lobbying—the idea that a large part of the industry is creating what are essentially ad campaigns for brands and issues was completely new to me. As a Strategic Communication student, I was pretty excited to hear a lot of the same buzzwords being thrown around about their work as I might hear in any of my advertising classes at Mizzou. The distinction of H+K’s work is that their concern is with a brand’s reputation and relevant policymaking in the European Union.
Living in a house with very politically interested and informed roommates this year, I’ve learned that if I want to be taken seriously as an adult I’ll need to increase my awareness and knowledge of the political world, both in the US and globally. I’ve been trying to watch the news more, and I took it upon myself to actually research candidates and vote for the first time in this past presidential election. But I had never seen my future or profession overlapping with the political world quite so much as was demonstrated by H+K in Brussels.
I think one of the most interesting things we heard about during our visit were the major differences between lobbying in the US and lobbying in the EU. I knew the field could get pretty bloody over here, with money flying under every table and charismatic schmoozers influencing questionable legislation—or wait, is that just on TV? Either way, there are apparently far stricter rules in Europe about lobbying for brands and causes than there are here in the US, where things tend to get fairly aggressive.
A major reason for this, according to EurActive.com, is that American politics have been stable for decades versus the EU’s constantly changing political structure and climate. Europe is only just now beginning to accept the practice of lobbying that is such an integral and long-standing part of our political system. It’s almost as if the US is a technology-native grandchild and has never known anything else, while the EU is a progressive but cautious senior citizen, slowly latching on to new ideas without buying into them completely.
Knowing about Europe’s late-adopter attitude toward lobbying, I wondered how quick H+K must (or must not) be to adapt to changes in the advertising and PR world compared to their offices on this side of the pond. They explained to us that they have been able to run successful social media campaigns in tandem with more traditional media placements, and although they would love to push their clients toward taking more risks with campaigns and reaching out through the digital space, there are often two main problems: the first, that many clients simply don’t see the value in non-traditional methods when “the old-fashioned way” seems to be working just fine.
The second problem? Some brands and issues just don’t lend themselves that much to newer tactics and digital campaigns—a similar dilemma faced by brands in the US more and more these days. Maybe H+K Brussels are, in some ways, smarter about it than agencies over here can sometimes be, since it often seems like social and digital campaigns are made just for the sake of making them and appearing “modern.” I feel like in this respect Europe’s conservative approach to lobbying has kept them somewhat ahead of the curve; where perhaps they need to pick up the pace, us Yankees might consider slowing down and being more careful.
For me, Brussels in general was a refreshing break from the other cities on our trip, even though we toured at a dizzying pace in comparison to Prague, Paris and Rome. We spent the least amount of time in Brussels, and our days were packed so completely with media visits and brewery tours that I didn’t even get a chance to see the city’s Grand Place in daylight.
But Brussels was also the place I felt most comfortable—we found ourselves surrounded by English speakers, other tourists and an international vibe that satisfied need for a more watered down, less intense cultural experience. That being said, the food, nightlife and many other aspects of Brussels culture pushed us just enough outside of our comfort zones (10% alcohol-by-volume beer, anyone?) to keep us aware that we were thousands of miles away from Columbia.
In Belgium, they eat their fries with mayonnaise, waffles for dinner, and one of their most famous attractions is a statue of a little boy peeing. The lobbyists in the EU follow strict and complex rules, and there are enough different ethnicities represented in one block of restaurants to rival some neighborhoods in New York City. My whirlwind exposure to the enriching global flavor of Brussels has convinced me that I need to visit the city again sometime in the future. I’d like to explore more of its culture, architecture and history than the bits and pieces I got to see this time.