Listening to be understood

// Christian Boergen

What is advocacy? Definitely a trend and far more than simple lobbying. The multifaceted dialogue functions of the digital media challenge the meeting industry.

The European Parliament is an advocacy hub. Photo: EU/EP/Arnaud Devillers

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The IMEX Policy Forum underlines the value of meetings.

Prof Stefan Luppold, DHBW Ravensburg

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ECM President Dieter Hardt-Stremayr

Puzzling but still a trend: Advocacy is a concept that is difficult to define. Representing interests, supporting others are the most apt descriptions, but the term means a lot more “Advocacy is essential to achieve our goals,” says Cyril Ritchie, President of the Union of International Associations, at the UIA Round Table Europe (see page 34). For him, that means “involving citizens, diversity and giving answers to social questions.”

Advocacy is much more than just lobbying politicians and authorities. It is often described as “public affairs” as in the title of Logos MCI Director Thomas Linget, who represents the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO). This is confirmed by Ilona Jarabek, President of the European Association of Event Venues (EVVC): “So far, I‘ve managed without the term advocacy. For me, it is just another term for public affairs, meaning systematic communication with the politically relevant public for the representation of interests.”

Expert Rosa Armesto, Deputy Director General of the Federation of European Securities Exchanges (FESE, see p. 18), points out the origin of the term: “Advocacy comes from the Latin ’advocare‘, which means ’calling out for support‘. This is about influencing public policy in a democratic manner, by putting an issue on the political agenda, providing a – mostly technical – solution to the issue and building support for both.“

Dieter Hardt-Stremayr, President of European Cities Marketing (ECM), underlines the relevance: “Advocacy is part of the ECM’s DNA. The entire founding idea is based on the fact that the interests of urban tourism should not lose out to beach-and-mountain leisure tourism. This concerns traditional culture and city tourism as well as the entire meeting sector and business travel.” In contrast, leading German convention bureaux are reluctant to take a stand, claiming either that this is the domain of higher-ranking marketing/tourism organisations, or simply that they have too much to do.

Online networks, as used for modern-day advocacy, result in lobbying 2.0 with a feedback channel. Messages are no longer addressed only to members of parliament. Many questions are posted on digital channels, not just from environmental and interest groups, but also from ordinary citizens. This was demonstrated by the well-attended Advocacy Workshop at the Visit Brussels European Association Summit (CIM 2/2018, p. 50) and confirmed by EVVC President Jarabek: “The rapid development of communication in the social media has a special impact, enabling a completely new form of interaction. Their use has – to some extent – become unavoidable due to their omnipresence. Ignoring this force would be a great mistake in our age.”

IMEX has meanwhile established itself as a platform for advocacy. Natasha Richards, Advocacy & Industry Relations Manager of the Group, explains: “At IMEX our mission is ‘to unite and advance the meetings and events industry doing everything we can to educate, innovate and help others make powerful connections with the right people’. We are passionate about driving change for our stakeholders and community by engaging policy makers and influencers to advocate for policies that will positively impact the meetings and events industry in all corners of the world. Instead of being ‘just’ an exhibition company that happens to operate in the meetings and events sector, we’re fully committed to the long-term health and growth of an industry we love and care about.“

Dieter Hardt-Stremayr praises the IMEX Policy Forum: “It‘s all about better highlighting the value of meetings. And this goes far beyond the traditional indicators such as participants, overnight stays and added value. It‘s about the legacy of meetings. What role do conferences play not only for science, but also for specific venues/host cities? Congresses provide a stage for scientists. Universities with certain institutes can be vital for entire industries at their locations. I am convinced that this is where we are heading in future.”

Many industry associations have a primarily inward focus on experience sharing, further education and training as well as their own events. Hence, advocacy is (still?) often neglected. This explains laments that the meeting industry is largely unrecognised by politicians and the public. Richards knows the right approach: “Listening, and clarity of thought. Whether it‘s at the family dinner table, in an office, in a sports team or within the heart of government, first we must each seek to listen and understand. Only THEN can we expect to be understood. It‘s simple, but not easy!”

Prof. Stefan Luppold of the Dual University of Baden-Württemberg (DHBW) Ravensburg warns against a wrong approach: “Advocacy must be authentic and not obviously connected with corporate or association communication.” The industry expert sees advocacy “as an approach to gain trust in an altruistic and selfless manner – but with a method.” Lobbying is part of that. But to reconcile this with representing interests, as is the case with advocates and lobbyists, you need expertise and a willingness to engage in dialogue. This is a challenge for the leading heads of the meetings industry. But they have already mastered other challenges.