How to run a pan-European campaign
Please note that the text might differ from the actual interview for better readability.
The Dandelion Group: Welcome Jean-Baptiste! Thank you for taking part and sharing some insights from your campaigns.
We have chosen you because you were managing the European Bioenergy Days and won at the European Association Awards in 2018. The idea is to provide as many insights as possible so that anyone who works in communications or wants to change something in the community learns techniques that you can apply easily. We want to help others improve campaigns that matter.
For this reason today’s episode has two parts. The first one looks at the campaign itself. Interestingly, it not only took place in Brussels but also in other EU Member States. The second part is about you and what brought you into campaigning.
When I studied campaigning in London, one of my mentors was Stephen Bowen, the former campaign director of Amnesty International. He taught us two things: 1) Research is key. 2) Before launching a campaign, ask yourself whether you need a campaign. When did you realise that you needed a campaign?
JB: First of all, I totally agree with him. The aim of the European Bioenergy Days was to promote bioenergy because we noticed that the knowledge about the industry in the EU bubble was quite low. This made us realise that we won’t solve the issues with lobbying only, which is the usual role of a trade association. Communication had to prepare the ground.
We have a lot of figures from Eurostat and at European level: ktoe, MW, etc. It is hard to understand what they actually mean. Our campaign aimed to add meaning with metaphors, stories and emotions in order to create a link with policymakers. Bioenergy is the first renewable source in Europe and we had to explain what this means so that policymakers understand how policies impacts this key sector for the energy transition.
The campaign originated from a study conducted by a marketing company and feedback from our Communication Working Group. We noticed that there is a lack of understanding of what bioenergy truly represented in Europe. The campaign was not launched for the sake of doing a campaign but because it was key for the policy discussion back then: the Clean Energy Package.
You said something important that we want to highlight. A study found a gap between how bioenergy was performing in Europe and how the sector was perceived. A lot of people think bioenergy is the same as biofuels although biofuels only account for 11%. Can you give us more examples of figures, facts or incidents where people got an incomplete image of your sector?
It is really interesting what you pointed out on biofuels. There is some confusion due to differences in British English and American English. In the US, biofuels cover the entire sector. In Europe, biofuels solely refer to liquid biofuels. Explaining this to people is already a challenge.
The wording can get even more complex as we have three main types of bioenergy. Solid biofuels represent all technologies used to burn wood or biomass. It’s the biggest group of bioenergy but perhaps not the most prominent in the media. We had many conversations with journalists to flag these nuances and new technology.
I guess it helps that you have more than 90 corporate members in Bioenergy Europe. Some of them are big and have the means to innovate and launch new products, which you can present to policymakers at your conferences.
Yes. In the campaign, we did not want to be only digital. Today, I think, there is also an issue that we try to solve everything with digital communication. 360° communication is important but so are events and physical material. For instance, we displayed ads in the subway close to the European Commission. Targeting the EU bubble with specific advertisements is easy as they are concentrated. We also placed terrace heaters (fuelled by biomass) with key messages at Place de Londres, where many European professionals grab a coffee or a drink. To me, these activities have a big impact and make people feel not just understand.
You point to a common challenge. We communicate numbers despite the fact that neuroscience shows that decisions are emotional. If we want people to act, we need to put numbers into a certain context.
As a trade association, you had another goal than chaining the perception. You wanted to change policy, namely the Clean Energy Package. What did you want to achieve?
We wanted to have a communication campaign for communication purposes. We did not want to include policy messages in the campaign because they might have interfered with our goal of changing the perception. We wanted to explain the background. This is a common mistake in the Brussels bubble that we jump to the policy messages.
For example, here in the room are some visuals. Apologies to the listeners who cannot see them. One says that 95% of the bioenergy consumed come from Europe and is not imported. We had a lot of discussion at EU level and this was one of the key figures to remember. We wanted to explain what it means. We have this message in our policy brochures and shaped it.
If I recall correctly from my time in the clean energy sector. 95% of bioenergy consumed in Europe is sourced locally but when you look at nuclear power, more than 90% is imported.
Nuclear and other sources.
Of course. The EU is importing 52% of its energy, which is something a lot of people do not know. That’s why it is quite interesting for the clean energy sector to stress “we are a homegrown industry”.
Yes, it is important to say that this is energy is locally created and consumed.
But why did we chose this visuals? This is an interesting point for the listeners. In the press, we found a lot of articles claiming that Europe is importing wood pellets massively. This is a myth. Yes, there are imports but they only account for 5%.
This was a 6-month campaign. In how many countries did it take place and how did it work with the budget.
At the beginning we wanted to create the European Bioenergy Day with a meaningful narrative. We picked the day from which on the EU could solely rely on bioenergy. This date is moving. It happened earlier this year because bioenergy grew over the last year.
Over time, we saw our members getting more and more interested when we presented the campaign in our Working Group. They wanted to organise national bioenergy days. We did not want a pan-European campaign in the beginning. It ended up becoming one because we had around 30 national partners plus a dozen of partners at European level. In the end, 40 trade associations and organisations took part. This changes the scope. We started the campaign on 1 August 2017 with he first bioenergy day in Sweden, and it ended on 31 December. We had communication material on a daily basis and had to organise the process.
It is good to keep an eye on the basics. Every campaign should start with a teasing phase. Then you have a d-day, and then you also have to think about the phase afterwards. In Brussels, we often see strong teasing, a well-organised event and then we fail in the post-communication phase.
The teasing phase included all national days happening before the European one. We were lucky that the bioenergy day in Sweden fell on a moment in summer where there is not much news. The national press agency endorsed the messages and this led to good coverage. It was a perfect boost to start the campaign. Then we had almost every 5 to 6 days another day to promote until we had the European Bioenergy Day.
Also to save money, we merged it with our conference. Pan-European campaigns can cost millions of Euros. Most trade associations - including ours - do not have such a budget. We organised an evening event, pushed a quiz at the conference, had social media activities, send press releases, placed terrace heaters in Place de Londres and ads in metro stations.
After the conference, I was a bit skeptical because there is a risk that you have a lot of noise before but nothing afterwards. Europe relied on Bioenergy for 41 days, that we had to fill. To keep the momentum, our team proposed a booklet with 41 stories similar to a Christmas calendar. We started collecting these in January to have everything ready.
You rely a lot on your members and the strength of your network. We mainly prepared a concept, a structure and the visuals at European level. The team had graphic design skills etc. Members shared and provided feedback and support. For example, the terrace heater resulted from a partnership with an Austrian company. A big thanks also goes to the Copa alliance that sponsored the campaign.
At the end of the campaign, we collected the feedback from the members. They were truly happy. It was a concrete example of how strong a European trade association can be. We did not expect that the relationship with members’ communication staff in particular improved that much. The campaign required a lot of time and effort. We wondered whether we should really do it again but then our members asked when it would start again and how they can help. I was delighted to hear this.
How many people worked full-time on the campaign.
There was no external consultancy involved. All the work was managed internally by three people part-time (one from policy and two from communication). There was a lot of preparatory work. We had people who knew the content and modern communication software (Adobe Premiere and After Effects, infographics etc.). This required trainings and a vision to make us very reactive.
However, just the central office would not have sufficed. Our network comprised 40 communicators who collected stories, organised events, translated and reached out to their media contacts. We shared native files and statistics, and exchanged with people. It was truly a collective work.
Which is something that we often forget that we have to share the master file in vector format so that one can change the text.
Yes. Another advantage is the fact that if you edit the material yourself, you also have the copyright. Processes get smoother and faster.
Pan-European campaign is a key word in Brussels but we should be modest. We can create the concept, explain it to members and try to get them on board. However, some national trade associations do not have communication staff. Then it might be you who has to develop the material. If members lack resources or do not chip in, you cannot do anything. You have to provide enough time and flexibility to adjust when needed. Moreover, do not set too much in stone. It does not work because there are cultural differences and different national circumstances. We - including myself - often forget time for interaction.
You fostered the relationship with your members. You wanted to change the perception based on a study. You also wanted to improve the CEP. Were you successful?
This is always the key question. Who is your target audience and did we manage to convince them. Most communicators struggle here because it is hard to prove that we have achieved our goals.
We had key DGs, MEPs, journalists and other stakeholders. We know how many people visited our website and that most of them came from Belgium, presumably the Brussels Bubble. Digital communication gives you many tools.
Our social media platforms showed where people interacted on LinkedIn, FB and Twitter. We had MEPs, MEP assistants and DG Energy staff sharing, liking or discussing our posts. Concerning media coverage, we used Meltwater to count the articles on Bioenergy Days at European and national level. The numbers went up compared to periods where we had no Bioenergy Days.
What do you think about the sentiment analysis of these media monitoring platforms?
To be honest, I do not find them accurate and I would not make this my KPI. You have to be particularly careful with pan-European campaigns due to translations. On social media, the numbers on the reach can be misleading. I am more interested in the interaction and click rate than pure visibility. We also had a mass-mailing campaign. We see that the open rate increased with the duration of the campaign.
There was one aspect hard to monitor for trade associations: the impact on national level. We asked our members for feedback and the main indicator was the media coverage. In sum, I was able to see how many people interacted on social media, reacted to the mass mailing, attended our events, wrote an article and took our booklet.
We presented these figures to our members and the association awards. Monitoring key figures has to be there from the beginning because it illustrates the impact and efforts. Already having Google analytics can really help and it does not cost anything.
To sum up, your goal was to change the perception. You did not do a second study afterwards but you saw more clicks, coverage and time spent on the website, which indicates that users found the content interesting and probably learned more about the sector.
We now go to the second part with you, Jean-Baptiste. What a lot of people do not know about you is that you do not come from the press world but have a policy background. Also, farming is closer to your heart than what people might think. What brought you into communication?
An accident. I studied political science at Sciences Po in Bordeaux and European law in Germany. As many, I wanted to pursue a career that makes sense. I chose a field that I know very well: farming and food. Bioenergy is quite close.
I joined the French farmer trade union where I had to develop a digital advocacy project. This was eight years ago and fairly new to trade associations. Already back then, social media required knowing the policy to react quickly. At national level, there are fewer filters. People react faster and are pushier because there is no language barrier. Two years later, I went to Brussels working for the think tank Premier Cercle, focussing on new technology and big data in agriculture. Then I joined Bioenergy Europe, where I worked for four years. I began in the project management and market analysis department but was always keen to communicate my file properly. Eventually, I got the opportunity to manage a communication department of five people.
How have you been sharpening your communication skills over the years?
In addition to experience, knowledge and technical skills are key. On the one hand, you need to understand your sector and how the press works in Brussels. On the other hand, communicators have to be artisanal like a baker. You should be able to master the Adobe suit, monitor media, and know the basics of programming and web design.
Just a quick promotion. Programmes do not have cost a fortune. If you are an NGO or trade association, check out socialware.be where you get massive discounts.
We have to adapt and look at new platforms. The ones who started early on Twitter 20 years ago have most of the visibility today.
I just want to point out that you bring up social media only now. It always depends on your target as there are national differences. Of the more than 7bn people, half of them are online. In Spain and France, many people use Snapchat whereas Facebook dominates Germany.
Germany is also an interesting case if you intend to use LinkedIn.
Correct, because most are on Xing. When you look back at the time when you moved to Brussels in 2012, what would you tell a comms professionals in order to flourish in Brussels?
Master the relationship with the policy team. At national level, communicators are more independent. In Brussels, we serve the policy team. This means knowing the policy dossier and providing advice. We can influence the mood and prepare the ground for policy messages. If you understand this, you can find a job in many communications departments in Brussels.
So, we are paving the way for the lobbyists.
We should not have a greater role. Sometimes we do and I would not recommend it.
Did you do that with the Bioenergy Days?
No, I do not think so. We deemed a communication action important around the Clean Energy Package.
Last year, the European Bioenergy Day happened on 21 November. This year, it took place on 19 November. Congratulations to the entire sector on the progress. How is it to look back now? What was the main takeaway?
I heard so many times in Brussels that a pan-European campaign is the holy grail. Before running one, I did not know how much work it takes - and this is rarely mentioned at conference. You have to prepare it long in advance and provide flexibility to your members and others. A pan-European campaign is not something you decide after a Working Group or meeting with the Secretariat. It is interesting to do but we should not do a pan-European campaign for the sake of doing a pan-European campaign. You should have a structure, logic, goals and KPIs.
Pan-European campaigns are the holy grail to many in the Brussels bubble. I worked on a couple and can confirm it is exciting. But we should not forget that a good campaign has to be well-prepared. Or as Benjamin Franklin said, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Lobbyists when you face a rocky road, remember that awareness campaigns can pave the way. The lessons from Jean-Baptiste were that we have to plan early, stay flexible and engage our supporters even after - what he called - the D-Day.
We hope that the insights from this podcast make you grow, standout and transform. We need more active citizens in Europe. Be bold and plan a campaign that matters. And when you do so, let us know. Send us feedback, subscribe and share the podcast with three friends.