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Unlikely Alliances: The Whys, Whens and Hows of Issue-Led Coalition Building

20th September – The ECPA Masterclass

A Case Study based Masterclass led by Fritz Schroeder-Senker of Mars With Sir Graham Watson, MEP and President of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party

Synopsis of Debate

Whilst traditional Trade Associations continue to thrive and to play a pivotal role in the public affairs process, there is an increasing trend for issue-led coalitions to form which draw from a broader field of participants and often bring together some surprising bedfellows.

Why do such coalitions form, and what are the necessary parameters of their alliances to ensure successful outcomes?

The context for debate is an unprecedented surge in issue led coalitions both in Brussels and beyond.  These often comprise groupings and companies who historically were competitors, rivals, or perceived to be, at face value at least, ideologically opposed. Such coalitions fall broadly into two categories: vertical coalitions gathering around one industry specific point, and horizontal coalitions grouped around a cross industry theme such as sustainability.  Both are characterised by an increasing use of digital opportunities which greatly enhance the external reach of coalitions and –crucially – the speed at which they can effect change.

The basic criteria for the success of a coalition were suggested as: starting with a modest number of players, who jointly agree a clear set of objectives, lobbying targets, a realistic budget and a focused yet realistic timeframe.  It is also key to establish a powerful, neutral and proactive Secretariat which can then foster simple and straightforward governance and decision making.  Ongoing impact and progress must be monitored closely.

From the Institutional viewpoint such coalitions can be highly effective if they have clearly defined objectives and arguments, presenting a compelling case which supersedes the vested interests of a narrower sector or a purely commercially driven lobby.  Coalitions are perceived to have the ability to attract stakeholders into a debate in which they may not otherwise engage, and to marginalise the more extreme or minority viewpoints.  They are, as such, an effective way of “taking the temperature” of the potential effect of political or legislative change, and can thus be a powerful influencing factor for decision makers.

All sides of the debate agreed upon the importance of a written agreement between all players from the outset.  This ensures that the unexpected can be dealt with within the agreed parameters and can hold together a coalition as circumstances change.  Yet despite such well laid foundations, issue-led coalitions still carry a degree of risk and uncertainty which does not characterise the operations of a traditional Trade Association.  Risk was a significant factor, with those who had been at the forefront of highly successful coalition campaigning observing that they had at the very least stepped out of their comfort zone, and in some cases risked their professional positions by taking radical action before the machinery of corporate governance had caught up.

Perhaps the key question which must be posed internally before building or joining a coalition is whether the ultimate objective is one of campaigning or of making a real and specific change.  In this context, it was agreed that coalitions which seek publicity mileage from their actions are unlikely to succeed because personality driven issues quickly undermine the agreed objectives.

As one participant observed “the secret is that the issue has to be bigger than you”, otherwise a standalone position or the actions of the trade body would suffice.  This perhaps explains why there has been such a marked rise in unlikely temporary collaborations executing highly effective public affairs; whilst the legislators are concerned largely with revising existing frameworks, much larger issues are emerging on the economic, social and political landscape.  If an issue goes beyond that which can be defined by one organisation or sector, then so must our response to it.

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