Siobhan Pitcher: Good morning or good afternoon everyone, and a very warm welcome from us here at the Quorum EU team. We are super excited to have you all join us today for the next 45 minutes or so, where we’ll be holding our virtual keynote speech and Q&A session — and all of this to discuss what is next for public affairs in Brussels.
So as we all know, the last 18 months has been a time of great upheaval in many ways with the COVID-19 pandemic. The industry of public affairs and lobbying in Brussels has been by no means exempt from all of these challenges. And as we were previously a city that was very dependent on in-person face-to-face interactions to run, we suddenly saw ourselves shift entirely virtually last March and in the last 18 months or so. So now at this point in time, as we see some movement towards the office, again in Brussels, it’s a great time for us to pull up and think what are some of the learnings from the last 18 months of working virtually that we can carry forward with us now, as we start handling stakeholder engagement in this so-called hybrid way, which balances in-person and virtual interactions.
So with that in mind we will be discussing today some of our best practices for balancing virtual and in-person engagements now, as you begin to navigate this hybrid working world. And Quorum EU’s managing director Arnaud Sonnet will be joining us to share his top tips and tricks for making the most of this new context and in doing so, he’ll be giving you the tools to get the most out of your advocacy efforts moving forward.
So before we get started, I’d just like to add here as well that we will be providing a transcript of this session after the fact. And if you missed any of yesterday’s Wonk Week sessions, you can catch the transcripts for those which are already available.
So to introduce myself briefly, my name is Siobhan Pitcher and I am the content marketing associate for the EU at Quorum. I’ll be moderating today’s Q&A session so as we go through this session, please do take a look at the right-hand side of your screen, where you just see a Q&A box. Please feel free to post your questions in there and we’ll be glad to come back to those at the end. So without any further ado, I’ll now be handing over to my colleague Arnaud to introduce himself and to take you through what is next for digital public affairs in the EU.
Arnaud Sonnet: Great to see so many familiar names attending this event today and thank you for joining all of you. So good morning and good afternoon for the ones who are located in Europe. My name is Arnaud Sonnet and I’ve got the pleasure to lead the European team of Quorum, based here in Brussels, since May this year.
As you can hear from my accent, I am a European born in France, and I live in Brussels since 2008. For the last 25 years, I have built my experience in international companies providing online platforms and data, as well as media, including Euractiv and Thomson Reuters, during the last years. So during the next 45 minutes, we will see how to blend in-person and online interactions for the successful hybrid approach to public affairs followed by a Q&A session as mentioned by Siobhan. So do not hesitate to use the dedicated Q&A box on your right-hand side.
So what we have seen indeed is that COVID-19 clearly moved public affairs online for the last 18 months. And the question remains as Brussels begins to move towards a hybrid approach, meaning a blend of in-person and virtual interactions: how public affairs professionals continue to engage successfully with stakeholders in Brussels? So in this session, we will set out best practices and recommendations, namely what you can continue to do, start to do and stop to do in this hybrid working environment. So this will be followed then by an overview of how Quorum can support you best through 2022 and beyond.
First of all, let’s go with a first helicopter view on the situation here and in my 20 years plus experience in EU policy media and information platforms, I’ve noticed that the digital transformation progressively went through what information to use, to how to best use the information.
Indeed a few years ago, people were using — and when I say few years ago, it’s probably 15 to 20 years ago — people were using online tools to access quantitative information with specific databases (market data or financial information), as well as online media starting to clearly make the gap with paper versions.
Nowadays, the question is not what information you should get — although you need to make sure that you have the most relevant sources of information, and we all face the situation of fake news and we all understand the decision-making process impact. So this stays an important aspect to keep in mind, to know what source of information. But also now, the question is what to do with this information. What do you do with this information? How can you make better decision-making? How will this information help you in the future? And a whole series of questions, like: do you have enough background knowledge and how can you make smart interactions with different sources of information? And finally who in the company can add more details or who can provide a confirmation of the information that you have received? So as you can see we’ve jumped from information to intelligence needed. And I mean by this, making a smart use of information to support decision-making.
So information management solutions dedicated to public affairs, like Quorum, supports the entire decision making and allows us to concentrate on what matters most for you, meaning avoiding time-consuming tasks.
I often hear, and it’s probably the case for you all, that people are afraid of AI. They believe that technology will replace their job. And I definitely understand their concerns. However, in my view, there is no battle between human intelligence and artificial intelligence, at least in the public affairs arena. I see more synergy, where professionals can gain time and increase the value of their actions, delivering real support and service to their clients.
Now it is true that the digital transformation started a few years ago already, and Quorum was established back in 2014. On a more general basis, what we can see, and that’s not a secret for anybody here, Europe is usually following the trends and the technology, with a five-year, 10-year or 20-year delay.
And in Europe we’ve seen this inertia, starting in the public affairs arena, which in fact ended in early 2020 with this COVID-19 crisis. So indeed, the public affairs world started to hear, little by little, the new possibilities of how to work best with best practices. And very few early adopters in Europe started to use information management solutions. COVID-19 clearly created a disruption and I can definitely see now, not an evolution, but a disruption in March, 2020, where a solution, a “nice-to-have” solution like Quorum became a “must-have” due to the fact that everybody had to work remotely, and this is something that really created a new way of working.
So that was the short introduction to the market evolution. And we are going to see how you can continue to make good use of platforms while increasing the value of in-person interactions.
But first, give me a few seconds to tell you what Quorum is about. Quorum is a global — and most of you already probably know Quorum very well — but Quorum is a public affairs software which public affairs professionals can use on a daily basis to navigate through their policy landscape.
It’s centralised all in one place: all the necessary information to manage your stakeholder interactions, follow each step of your policy priorities, identify key officials on your dossiers and monitor the legislative evolutions on your priorities. And of course, to support you in organising your online events and onsite events.
So now we can jump into our first best practice, which is hit pause and move away from exclusive online networking.
Brussels is a network-based city in any case, and this is true that it’s much harder to forge relationships in an online-only setting. What we noticed is that people definitely took advantage of relaxations in restrictions and increased in-office presence to nurture existing and new relationships.
So now remember that face to face does not necessarily mean indoors. You can take advantage of numbers of parks, especially in Brussels — Parc du Cinquantenaire, Parc Royal, or even Square de Meeûs where we have our office — where you can definitely have a walk-and-talk outside and offer coffee and have your conversation with your colleague or your client. Although there are some subtleties that we will probably address in the Q&A session, if you have to talk about very serious projects, or policy dossiers, we definitely recommend to do those discussions online or in an office.
That said, health and safety is paramount, and we strongly advise to take note of local authorities. And we know the complexity in Belgium, where we have the Brussels authorities, the Flemish authorities and the Walloon authorities, so there could be some complexities here, but it’s important to follow the local authorities’ recommendations before in-person interactions. And of course, make sure that the person that you’re meeting feels safe to do. So be mindful that not everyone will want or be able to do a face to face meeting. Be respectful, of course, of others’ needs and comfort level.
Our tip for a successful hybrid approach is the following. After your coffee meeting with a contact, simply add their details in your Quorum stakeholder database. From there, you can cultivate a list of your stakeholders organised by their policy interests, like digital, trade and agriculture, energy, whatever. And this will definitely allow you to assign the most relevant colleague in your team to engage with them afterwards, making your networking efforts more impactful and meaningful.
I think we can jump to the second best practice, where we start embracing hybrid events. I can tell you that Brussels definitely started already a few weeks ago, slowly but surely with hybrid events and even purely networking events.
So our take away on this is to grasp the potential of hybrid events because when well-executed, a hybrid event gives you the best of both worlds. So on one side you have the opportunity to offer an exclusive and tailored in-person experience for your high-level contacts and you create therefore a VIP feeling for them. I’m thinking for example of EBS, European Business Summit, that will organise in mid-November a hybrid event in the Palais Egmont with high-level people — with Commissioners, MEPs, CEOs — whereas the rest of the audience will be joining separately, digitally.
So that’s one side and that’s where it creates a unique opportunity for all those people to meet and connect with each other. On the other end, you maximise the impact with digital access. So this enables you to broaden your reach and diversify your audience, regardless of their location or ability to attend in-person events.
So our recommendation is to definitely work smarter and move faster on your invitation and outreach strategy, thanks to the Quorum events management functionality. This will allow you to create a registration page, send invites to your contacts and collate their responses all in one place, which makes this situation unique and helpful for you.
The event platform is auto-updating and will sync with your invitees’ contact cards when they sign up directly online, so that will allow you to spend much less time on administration so you can focus on what matters most for you. And what does that mean? Simply, definitely delivering an insightful event.
So our tip is definitely to enlist professional support to support you in the organization of the on-site event, so they will help you to run this part smoothly. Whereas you can allocate your internal team to manage the digital platform like we are currently doing right now — thanks to Patrick and Siobhan, thank you, both of you, by the way. And with this, the objective is definitely to ensure a quality experience, both in-person and virtually, including networking opportunities. And I would like to remind you that you have also in this platform, the Hubilo platform we are using currently now, you have the possibility of course, to engage with our team and to meet virtually with other people attending this event.
I think, Siobhan, we can jump to the third best practice and to continue tracking meetings digitally. What is clear is that we are now used to having a digital trace to all our engagements. So how can you build on this and continue working smarter with your meetings? So with Quorum, you can log your meetings with officials and stakeholders. So why is it crucial to use an information system now? Well, simply because we have no longer access to our informal networks or very limited access to it.
And for example, in the past, you may have encountered directly your colleagues in the office, or to run in the European Parliament and you see an MEP, you just have a quick chat with this person and get some information or share some specific news throughout with this person. Well, it’s no longer the case and now even with some people in the office, you don’t have the same level of information flow.
So it’s about finding new ways to compensate for this. So one way you can do, is to take it further by adding relevant notes, or assigning meetings with a quality score. So like by putting, if you meet an MEP or an assistant, you can allocate a specific ranking score for that and tag colleagues who need to be kept in the loop.
So systematically doing this over time will build institutional knowledge for your organisation. You keep the memory of every interaction you have had in the past weeks, days, and months, which will definitely help you in the future to remember what occurred or who has done what in the past. So this helps to plug the knowledge gap by the depletion of informal networks and interactions when you return to the office. At the same time, it guards against knowledge loss in case one of your team members leaves. And when you have a new member, a new colleague joining who has to do his or her onboarding. So, no information is lost in that case. So that’s really important because you keep during time all the information that every member of your organisation is gathering and adding qualitative information on top of it.
So let’s see how Quorum can support you in this hybrid era. You have obviously noticed that it is just an overview of best practice for the hybrid public affairs world. And of course we would love to continue the conversation with you, with our reinforced team based in Square de Meeûs in Brussels and of course we would be either willing to meet virtually or in person, if you prefer. So I invite you to schedule a coffee with us through the platform, Hubilo, that you have currently, or connect with us on LinkedIn. The team would be definitely happy to connect. By the way, we have five people based here in Brussels. On my side, I would be delighted to engage with you directly, so feel free to reach me directly by email. And I guess as we have few minutes in front of us, I guess we can take a few questions.
So Siobhan, do you have a few questions already in your chat?
Siobhan: So I’d like to start off by saying thanks for your insights. I think there’s a really interesting moment in time now to pull up and consider ways that we’ve begun to work and whether those might work long-term for us and how best to apply those, to get the most out of our working methods in Brussels.
So for my first question, I’d like to just jump on your last point about logging all of your meetings with stakeholders within a platform like Quorum. Many people might say that it’s quite time-consuming to do this and would question the benefit. In your experience, what is the value of having this record of interactions with stakeholders?
Arnaud: I think there are two aspects here and I mentioned that a little bit earlier. It’s important to keep track of what you do, and it’s so easy to find that information once you have entered it already a few days, weeks, a month ago.
So there are two aspects: one is the individual benefit, so you don’t miss any information. You are always prepared for your upcoming meeting with an MEP or director of unit. And even you have lost a colleague who potentially left the company. So you still have the backbone of information, and especially if you have a large team, engaging with different stakeholders and policy makers, it is important to know who has done what in different departments or different units, or different DGs of the Commission. So you do not lose track of what has been done by whom and to have a consistent approach. So that can definitely help you to keep track on what actions you need to do or to be addressed. So that’s on the personal benefits.
On the company side, you definitely — and I mentioned that earlier — you build a new institutional memory where you keep for the company the entire knowledge and you make sure that in time, any change that you potentially face, well, this information is there and you keep it up to date and you keep interactions or information shared. What document have you been delivered? What have you gathered from the MEP you met? Or any intelligence, also gathered in the corridors of the European Parliament, for example.
So this is really important to keep in mind that whatever you do at the time now, you may not remember everything in the future. So you put all this information in a digital safe that you will be able to retrieve when you may need it in the coming months. So that’s where I see the benefit for keeping information on track to help you, but also to keep the institutional memory of the company.
Siobhan: Thank you, Arnaud. I think it’s really interesting actually, to have this record now, because typically this industry was very much kind of knowledge-based and that means of course, that when people move on, as they naturally do, that the company will lose some information and this is a way to allow for that. But at the same time, as the person who is holding meetings, it gives you a great way to go and check what has been discussed maybe before you joined the company or a few months ago, so that you go to all your meetings prepared, you’re not just covering the same ground needlessly over again, when your colleague has had a similar discussion a few months ago.
So remaining with the meetings theme: how would you recommend making Zoom meetings work as well as in-person meetings? So can you get the same level of engagement and result from a Zoom meeting as you can with an in-person one in your experience?
Arnaud: I think you need to be comfortable to use face-to-face meetings, and there are the current regulations that the area where you are working in imposes on you. And we went through, I guess in Washington, but also in Brussels, under quarantine. So, there is this first aspect to respect.
Secondly, you need to also make sure that the person that you want to meet with definitely feels comfortable. We know some people are more sensitive about this health situation, and you cannot force anybody to have a face-to-face meeting. So in that situation, you can offer, of course, by default to have a face-to-face meeting, respecting social distancing, wearing a mask, cleaning your hands with gel. And if it goes well, that’s great. I think the message that you can send and also the information you can gather are definitely more qualitative than what you can get on Zoom. However, Zoom became a necessary way to connect with people, even if we are tired of it, that helps definitely to work and to convey some specific messages to the people that works on your dossiers or even your colleagues that potentially are completely spread across different regions.
Siobhan: Thank you Arnaud. So of course, Zoom gives us this wonderful possibility to connect with people no matter where we are. So, on that note, talking about geographical locations, do you think there’ll be less of an emphasis on Brussels as a location? If we can do things virtually, do you think that people may begin to work remotely for example, from their home countries and still be able to keep a foot in the Brussels Bubble?
Arnaud: I think for the ones who know the Brussels landscape and environment, this is very hard to do public affairs without being locally, physically based in Brussels. You can make some follow-up, of course you can work on some research aspects, but if you need to start engaging, making some influence on the evolution of some certain dossiers, this is really necessarily to be present in town and I wouldn’t speak on behalf of professionals working in Washington, but definitely Brussels is a town where public affairs is done with people, by people and for people. So, I do not imagine that it will fly well, if everything goes digitally only.
Siobhan: Interesting. Thank you. So I think despite this sort of revolution that we’re seeing in terms of adoption of digital tools, as you referenced during your speech, the core of how things work in Brussels remains quite traditional in the sense of people rely on being around the EU quarter to have those sort of natural interactions with people they come across as part of their networking circles. And I think I’d like to also tap into that aspect of adopting digital tools and changing the way we work. So based on that: you don’t see many changes in where we’d be geographically based, but do you see any further changes upcoming in terms of how public affairs professionals operate more generally in Brussels?
Arnaud: Well, I mean, before COVID-19 struck, most public affairs professionals are communicators and you need to share your profile. So one platform that is definitely used by most professionals is LinkedIn. So this is a platform that helps to engage, to keep contact and manage your network.
But you also have online platforms, like Hubilo, that we are currently running at the moment. That offers the possibility to engage with our online booth or interaction — chats, or polls. Those tools are becoming now a new way to work and to even increase in the future, but it doesn’t do everything.
However, the goals of such tools like this is definitely to engage with more people. And it’s true, what you can do in the Quorum Outbox, for example, is a great functionality where it can send specific messages to the people that you have met at events in the Parliament, for example, and send a message to each contact in a personalised way for all of them. The goal of tools is definitely to reduce the time-consuming tasks and focus on what matters most for you. And you want to have an output with the people that you meet. So all the aspects of all the admin, all the interactions, all the interconnection of information, can be done by your solution like Quorum, and help you to do your job better and faster.
Siobhan: Thanks, Arnaud. So I think that’s a really interesting callout that we see digital tools being used more and more, and specifically as a way to help you and to facilitate your life, rather than trying to replace anyone who may be active in this area. So talking of the digital world, do you have any insights on how we can leverage social media tools? For example, do you think social media could be used in terms of how you approach someone or is it better to stick to the personal approach?
Arnaud: I think you have different circles of people that you want to engage with. You have the ones that really work on the dossiers and on the project that matters most for you. So those people, you need to put them in a priority circle, and you should definitely have in-person connections with them and not necessarily online or digitally. Of course, emails, Zoom calls, whatever could be follow-up, but this is something that you need to make a distinction of your priorities. Who is important is to be in contact with, who is not, and how often should you meet with these people and what are the different possibilities for you to engage with this person?
Sometimes, MEPs are not necessarily available to meet you five times per month. So there are some ways to avoid to have five physical meetings in a month, and phone calls is one option. Definitely continuing to work on platforms is also another solution.
So again, make some priorities on your cycles of people you want to engage on a regular basis in physical interactions. Because again, we all know the importance of being present in a single room and share what is important to get your dossier going in the right direction.
Siobhan: Thanks, Arnaud. So I think it’s clear that it remains key to have some sort of personal touch points with your more high-impact stakeholders and maintaining that relation is still very important.
But with that said, we do recognize of course that not everyone who’s engaging in the EU is necessarily based in Brussels. So here’s a really interesting question to call out: have you got any particular advice for someone who’s based in the US that wants to begin engaging in the EU? In your experience, is it possible to crack into the Brussels Bubble from the other side of the Atlantic?
Arnaud: I like the question, it’s a very good question. As I said earlier, it’s very hard to crack the bubble from the outside. And by the way, this is the reason why organisations do have their office — and this is the case for Quorum, but this is the case for thousands of organisations — they do have an office in what I call the Golden Triangle. So it’s between the European Commission, Schuman, Arts-Loi and Trône. So you have this Golden Triangle where most public affairs entities, lawyers, associations, organisations do have their office.
You can start to engage or to connect with some, I would say what we call in French “têtes de pont”, those people who do have a great network because they will help you to engage with the right people. So you can start to engage with those people at the very high level who have a helicopter view, but if you want to start to have an active role in public affairs, I definitely recommend to travel to Brussels and to have a physical presence in town.
Siobhan: Thanks Arnaud. So clearly here treating virtual meetings in the same way, really that you would treat an in-person meeting is a key takeaway, but also it’s important to note that you can still break into the Brussels Bubble from abroad. It’s about knowing the right people and making those connections virtually. But then of course, if you have the possibility to follow up with a physical presence, then that will never hurt.
So we do have time for just one more question as we’re coming up to quarter-two. Linked to that question about, how do you break into this Brussels Bubble: if you’re abroad, for example in the US, and you want to start following up with your contacts after you have meetings, is there a particular way that you would say is most successful to do so?
Arnaud: There are so many sources of information that can take hours and hours to look after. So I’m going to briefly describe what I said earlier: Quorum is definitely centralised.
Once you place all the necessary information, you need to know about any policy dossiers or any policy areas that matter for you. So if you are abroad you can already find the right information, find the right stakeholders, find the right officials, and start to map where your organisation and how your organisation will be able to interact. So definitely you can start working with a solution that helps you to navigate through the different sources of information from Commission, Parliament and Council, and also getting all the stakeholders’ feedback.
So this is where I mentioned earlier — this is not only about getting the right source of information, it’s also going a step further with an intelligence system. And this intelligence system helps you to get a smart approach of your landscape. So yes, you can work with a centralised system like Quorum to prepare your work. And of course you can use various tools like the Outbox functionality or the support for doing your events online and onsite. This is something that you can do, but again, at a certain point, you will have to face the policymakers that will play an important role in the policymaking. So you will have to come and travel and meet them, but definitely the work can be prepared and we all know preparation is key. Quorum can definitely help you to prepare correctly for working on your dossiers.
Siobhan: Thanks Arnaud. So I think the key takeaway there is that good organisation is key. Make sure you organise your insights so that you have a thorough overview of your landscape.
It is now quarter to the hour, so that brings us together to a close. So many thanks again, Arnaud, for sharing your insights, and thanks to all of you for being with us today. It’s been really great to interact with you via the Q&A. So, we would love to continue the conversation with you as we’ve said, and you can do that by reaching out to us via the Hubilo networking platform or LinkedIn, or Arnaud’s email. And otherwise stay tuned for the next Wonk Week session, which is due at midday EST, or 6:00 PM Brussels time. It’s international trivia, so that sure to be a lot of fun and otherwise many thanks again for your time and have a wonderful rest of your day.